100 years of Remembrance Days: what we remember and what we forget

November 11, 2018. One hundred years since the signing of the. Armistice that ended World War I.  One hundred years of remembering the many, many sacrifices made by millions upon millions of people. Horrific sacrifices. Heartbreaking sacrifices. For far too many, the ultimate sacrifice. Sacrifices made by countless young people – on both “sides” – who had little or nothing to do with the decisions that led to the war in the first place.

What we remember

Every year in most towns and cities in Canada, and I assume most places in the western world, people of all generations come together to honour those who have served and those who have laid down their lives in past wars, especially WWI. Our town happens to be located in close proximity to Base Gagetown, the largest military training base in Canada, and as a result we have an extremely impressive and moving parade of service men and women marching in our Remembrance Day ceremony each year. It’s a sight that stays with you. The few remaining WWII veterans leading the way, with fewer and fewer each year. Then of course there are a few vets from the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and many who have served in Afghanistan, sometimes several times. Not to mention many dangerous peace-keeping missions. To watch all those soldiers, probably spanning three generations or even four, marching proudly in uniform, is to be reminded in a profoundly moving way of just what our service men and women sacrifice in taking on the role of protecting our country and our freedoms. The applause for the men and women in uniform as they march past all the spectators is loud and heartfelt.

It’s not warm in these parts this time of year – we even have some early mushy snow on the ground today – but I’m proud to say that there’s always a large crowd at our Remembrance Day ceremony. I love the mix of families who bring small children, people my age whose fathers served in WWII, and those in between. When I see the young families there each year I’m heartened by the family tradition they’re establishing. By attending, despite the cold and sometimes the cold rain or worse, and by explaining to their small children why they’ve come, who the soldiers are who are marching, and how they are serving their country on our behalf, they are fulfilling the mandate of Remembrance Day. They are helping make sure that we don’t forget.

It is so important that we remember and honour our military service men and women. (As it is that we honour those who serve in any first responder capacity.) These people put their lives on the line so that we may be safe and live in peace.

Remembrance Day ceremony 2014, my home town

What we forget

But surely, Remembrance Day should be about both honouring those who’ve sacrificed for us and to learn from the lessons of that brutal and ultimately futile war. November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the “war to end all wars”. That doesn’t seem to have worked out so well; wars aren’t ended. Aren’t we supposed to remember that part, too? Aren’t we supposed to stop and think about why we have all these wars anyway and try to put a stop to them? It appears that there were virtually no lessons learned from the “war to end all wars”, which took something in the order of 16 million lives (possibly up to 37 million when deaths from disease and infection in both military and civilians are included). One of the deadliest conflicts in all of history. In fact, knowing that, one might question why it’s called the Great War. There was nothing great about it.

Battlefield of Passchendaele WWI, Credit: Time-Life

Following WWI and a decade of recovery, the world plunged into depression, followed by another catastrophic war, World War II. Clearly no lessons that one might have learned from the “war to end all wars” had held any sway whatsoever. Nationalism, tribalism, high levels of income inequality, sowing seeds of hate and fear … these were aspects of what had allowed WWI to start, and even more so WWII. People hear what they want to hear, believe what they want to believe, and the next thing you know all the young people are being sent to kill each other again. This time, a mere 21 years – 21 short years – after WWI ended, 60,000,000 people were killed. Sixty million, let that sink in. It didn’t take long for the “war to end all wars” to be overtaken in terms of death toll. In spades.

Were any lessons learned this time? Well, to a degree. The U.S., European allies, Canada and others started working together. Importantly, the United Nations was formed. Despite of course working to protect self-interest, there was some recognition of the need and desirability of trying to work out problems together; to listen to each other, and to collaborate and compromise rather than go to war. There was even an understanding that helping the disadvantaged in the world could be a win-win, doing good and making the world safer for your own country at the same time.

That, of course, didn’t stop the wars. There have been more recent wars in Europe, a lingering effect of republics having been brought together within one border without addressing ethnic and cultural differences. Then there have been wars fought on foreign soil, killing not only young (mostly American) soldiers but also millions of Vietnamese, Iraqi, Afghani, and other soldiers and civilians. For what purpose? Self-interest.

What happened to lessons learned? Why aren’t we remembering any of these lessons on Remembrance Day? Why are we honouring the sacrifices of all these young people through generations, and yet not even having the discussion about how to prevent further sacrifices?

This is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice the ended the fighting of World War I. Remembrance Day. And yet, the 70 years of the “post-war” seems to be unraveling.  Nationalism is returning. Highly-charged public rhetoric about “them” versus “us” is ramping up. Militarization of countries is ramping up. Incitement of fear and hatred is ramping up. Cooperation and collaboration seems to be weakening. Trust between countries is sadly declining.

Western countries sell military supplies to Saudi Arabia, which they then use to suppress opposition at home and kill, maim and otherwise destroy the lives of millions of Yemeni. This is justified as protecting jobs at home (and staying on the good side of the Saudis). Are these really the jobs we want for our citizens? Is this really the kind of foreign policy we want? Is this what we learned from the “war to end all wars”? I weep.

Saudi strike in Yemen, Credit: economist.com

 

We must not forget the lessons of the horror and futility of war, so poorly learned. Lest we forget.

 

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13 Responses to 100 years of Remembrance Days: what we remember and what we forget

  1. Dr. John Persico Jr. says:

    Wonderful blog Jane, I keep thinking of Santayana’s famous quote that “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” We seem to have very short term memories and too many leaders who have forgotten the past. Thanks for reposting.

  2. Jane Fritz says:

    Reblogged this on Robby Robin's Journey and commented:

    Last year, 100 years after the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, I posted this piece about the soldiers and sacrifices we remember and the lessons we seem to have forgotten. I am reposting it because it seems even more relevant a year on. The one thing at least some countries and their leaders had learned – sort of, kind of – in the unbelievable aftermath of two World Wars within a few decades, is that working together to solve problems and learning to compromise for the greater good has the capacity to engender peace and prosperity. Any expectation of government leaders working together on behalf of a greater good now seems to have run its course, at least with the current leadership of the world’s most powerful (and power hungry) countries.

    As most of us pause this Remembrance Day weekend to remember those who sacrificed everything so that we could have freedom and peace, keep in mind how badly that dream of a peaceful and mutual understanding world has been lost in the past few years. Sad beyond belief.

    This year, as always, I remember all of my patents’ Generation who fought in WWII, those soldiers who have served bravely in wars and similar extreme situations, none of which were of their making nor the innocent “enemy” citizens, and of my high school friend, George Cressy, who served so bravely in Vietnam.

  3. barryh says:

    Thanks for that, Jane. Sadly, much politics and media trivialise things and do not seek to understand why. Social media seems to have taken us a step backwards. eg Trump and Brexit. And we know what happens when the lessons of history are forgotten. It is difficult sometimes to be positive about the future, yet we know we must. Nothing is predictable and circumstances may lead in directions we never anticipated, maybe even good ones!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Exactly, well said. It is so difficult to stay positive when there seems to be so much self-interest, ignorance, and lack of compassion in play. But I will try. I’ll hope your last sentence comes true… soon!

  4. Thank God for the male gender: there are some things they have done well over the history of humankind. But I yearn for the time when women get their chance to run the majority of the world’s nations. We might talk a problem to death sometimes, but I hope that women would be far less willing to engage in warfare, and far more eager to find non-violent solutions. The way I see it: men have had centuries at the helm; it’s time to see what women will do. That’s one thing that encouraged me about the US midterms — more women elected.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Now there’s a dream worth holding onto. But, although increases in numbers of women in govt is increasing in many places (although definitely not in NB), we have a long way to go to make parity in most of the so-called western world. To date, female leaders haven’t been as different in their approach as one might have expected, e.g. Maggie Thatcher. However, it’s worth living with that hope!

      • The first women in try hard to act like men. It’s not till women occupy 35 to 45 per cent that they feel empowered to bring feminine qualities to work. The lone woman will always be judged by male standards and be challenged to prove that they can be stronger than the men, while still possessing feminine beauty or other such attributes.

  5. smilecalm says:

    beautiful
    remembrance 🙂

  6. Thank you Jane for reminding us so eloquently why we should never forget and why we should be ever vigilant!

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