November 12, 2003


This year's R-Day I was in Whitby, Ontario, doing the army public affairs schtick for the military delegation to the Remembrance service on the site of the old Camp X, the WW2 HQ for British intelligence in the Americas, and a founding place of sorts for Canada's civilian and military intelligence services. It was one of the nicer Remembrance Day services I've ever attended, despite the driving rain off the lake. They've got a website, if you're curious.

UPDATE: I quite liked Colby's take on R-Day... although I personally wouldn't hold it against anyone if they couldn't name THREE Canadian Boer War actions. So long as you've internalized a little about Paardeberg and Liliefontein, that should be sufficient.

I wonder if his restated belief that Canadian nationalism is a product of Flanders fields is on the mark, though. The French-Canadian and English-Canadian experiences of the war were profoundly different... it's true that the Conscription Crisis of 1917 presaged much that would follow, but I don't think it's categorizable as a "common national feeling." I'd even say the "questionable... decision making," particularly with regard to Quebec sovereignty, is also part of that "lingering heritage."

Cosh questions whether today's Canada has any connection to the Canada that was once fought for. If it was, it's a cross-cultural connection, between the recent immigrants who largely populate our major cities now, and the successive waves of recent immigrants who preceded them, into a land that in many cases didn't have running water or all-weather roads, let alone an Anglo heritage. The simple fact is that a plurality of Canadian soldiers who died in South Africa or Flanders were first-generation Canadians. That they were first-generation from Aberdeen or Stockholm, instead of Kazakhstan or Jamaica, shouldn't be the difference that we've made it out to be. They crossed an ocean, they made good, and then they recrossed the ocean again to fight and die. That would seem sufficient common purpose enough, were it to be phrased that way, instead of making one the "founding culture" and the others "multiculturals."

I agree the Remembrance Day Colby and I were taught has little to do with the one I've come to know working with soldiers in my adult life. If meaning had anything to do with it, "In Flanders Fields," a profoundly pro-war poem, would never be read in church or school in today's society. But it is a Canadian poem, and it was read once, so it is read again now.

Teaching kids about some undefinable debt, as Colby puts it, is more akin to the misguided historian's notion that we are "a nation forged in fire," with a heritage rooted in D-Day and Vimy, than I think he realizes. In Canadian history, wars have always been fearful tests of resolve, corrosive to the nation tested. Both world wars nearly broke us. They should not be looked to as positive experiences.

Were we a wholly rational nation, the "key message" of Remembrance Day would be this: another global cataclysm like those first two is the greatest threat Canada faces. They have a profound tendency to fracture this fragile country, on every line imaginable. It is not to be hoped on the evidence that the idea of Canada as a country could survive the next world war, whether it be nuclear or no, whether we are attacked or largely immune again. If we believe in Canada as an ideal in any way, we must therefore strive to prevent another such cataclysm.

Now, from that basis, you can go a number of different ways. Me, I've concluded that it is therefore in our best interest to conduct a policy to keep all future foreign wars, by everybody, small and short. It also behooves us to support the institutions and alliances that prevent global war, whether through deterrence or peacekeeping or what have you. But the central focus should always be forestalling the next "clash of civilizations," by any means necessary. Because even if our civilization were to emerge triumphant, Canada would likely fission in the process of getting there. And I don't believe that's a victory worth winning.

There is an alternate universe no doubt, where an assassin's bullet in 1914 led to Conscription Riots in Montreal, followed by bloody repression, followed by the creation of a Quebec Free State in the 1920s. (Happened in Ireland, after all.) There is another timeline where the second war in Europe lasted another season, more unwilling French Canadian draftees died, and the not-so-Quiet Revolution of 1960 led to bloody secession in 1970. The best that should ever be said of our major foreign adventures was not that they "forged our nation," but that Canada barely survived melting in the furnace.

In 1919, on the first Remembrance Day, surely no veteran was ever so deluded that they thought all wars of all kinds in the world could ever end. (Even if "the world" to them meant Europe, and little else.) They were not that naive any longer. Nor did they want us to quietly thank them for our "freedoms," or feel they had somehow bestowed them on us through their efforts. What they wanted was for their society to dedicate itself to avoiding future cataclysms and future losses of entire generations of youth and talent in mass bloodbaths, so that no one else had to do what they did. If we are to really remember them, that is what Remembrance Day should really be about. It is by nature a rebuke of what thoughtless patriotism can lead to. So if you start assigning some misbegotten nobility to a country's "performance" in those wars, rather than those individuals who fought in them, you're entirely missing the point.

No, Remembrance Day only makes sense if you start with the assumption that those two world wars were the most self-destructive mankind has ever gotten, and such a thing cannot be allowed to ever happen to us again. It is not, or should not be, a condemnation of all wars, or all soldiers. It is a staring out at the spectre of our civilization's and nation's destruction, and rededicating ourselves to ever letting things get so far that it again through our own selfish disinterest. To constant re-engagement with the world around us, and re-evaluation of our own motives. To staring little evil men down, before they become big evil men. And, in my mind, to sometimes realizing that small, short wars can serve the interests of global peace.

Is that a complex lesson to teach in the schools? Damn straight. But it's the only lesson worth drawing. And I'd rather the kids half-got it, and thought it through themselves later, then to never get it at all.

Posted by BruceR at 01:18 PM