IT’S IM­POR­TANT TO RE­MEM­BER MORE THAN JUST THE FALLEN

Many sol­diers strug­gled with doubt or PTSD, Trevor W. Har­ri­son writes.

Edmonton Journal - - LETTERS - Trevor W. Har­ri­son is a po­lit­i­cal so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge and di­rec­tor of Park­land In­sti­tute.

We are asked not to re­mem­ber the num­ber of civil­ians killed in war.

As we near the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War, we might take time to ask: What is it that we re­mem­ber on Re­mem­brance Day?

The typ­i­cal Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­mony takes place around a ceno­taph and in­cludes state of­fi­cials (politi­cians and mil­i­tary of­fi­cers), ec­u­meni­cal re­li­gious fig­ures, and of­ten the mother, fa­ther, or spouse of a lost sol­dier; some­times, too, a sol­dier scarred in con­flict, though the in­jury must be ob­vi­ous: hid­den in­juries are in­suf­fi­ciently il­lus­tra­tive for the oc­ca­sion. Be­yond them are peo­ple — reg­u­lar folk, re­ally — who come with their own per­sonal mem­o­ries.

There are speeches. Words like “free­dom” and “democ­racy” float un­teth­ered above the throng. Young cadets, in full dress, march past car­ry­ing the na­tion’s flag. The Cana­dian na­tional an­them is sung, hats doffed; a bu­gle plays the Last Post.

Can­nons, too, are fired, an apt sym­bol; for, side by side with the tone of solemn re­mem­brance lies of­ten a sub­tle cel­e­bra­tion of war. We are re­peat­edly en­joined to re­mem­ber that the sol­diers died bravely for our coun­try, some­what less to­day for king, queen, or God.

But a care­ful pars­ing of the sym­bol­ism tells us sol­diers ev­ery­where die in the name of the mod­ern state. For, as the late his­to­rian Charles Tilly in­formed us, the mod­ern state arose out of war; hence the state’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives: the flag, the mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, and, of course, the politi­cians.

What we are not asked to re­mem­ber are how many sol­diers prior to death came to ques­tion the pur­pose of what­ever war they were fight­ing. As the First World War wore on, many sol­diers came to view the war as a costly sham, a lie, from which their only es­cape was in a body bag or through an in­jury — some­times self-in­flicted — so as to be saved from the front.

What we are not asked to re­mem­ber is the post-trau­matic stress disor­der (PTSD) ex­pe­ri­enced by sol­diers — or vi­car­i­ously ex­pe­ri­enced by loved ones upon their re­turn. In the First World War, sol­diers were said to be merely shell-shocked and, if re­fus­ing to go back into the fray, were ac­cused of be­ing shirk­ers and cow­ards. They were some­times ex­e­cuted for dis­obey­ing or­ders. While we un­der­stand the long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pacts of war some­what bet­ter to­day, we haven’t taken the only cer­tain step to end wartime PTSD: to stop send­ing young men and women into sense­less wars.

What we are not asked to re­mem­ber, or even think about, are the real causes of that — or, in­deed, any — war. The First World War, in par­tic­u­lar, was a pro­foundly stupid war fought be­tween im­pe­rial states, ar­gu­ing over the ac­qui­si­tion of colonies, and be­tween blood-re­lated roy­als of ques­tion­able in­tel­lect and morals sprin­kled across Europe; a war that set in mo­tion events that would see its se­quel 21 years later.

In Canada, we are not asked to re­mem­ber that our lead­ers in 1914, acted as servile colo­nials of Bri­tain, ea­ger for war, while fran­co­phone Que­be­cers, farm­ers, and union­ists ar­gued against par­tic­i­pat­ing in the mad­ness. The lat­ter’s at­tempts failed, nearly set­ting off a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis.

We are not asked to re­mem­ber ei­ther, though we should, the enor­mous num­ber of civil­ians — men, women, and chil­dren — killed in war. Nearly 10 mil­lion mil­i­tary per­son­nel and the same num­ber of civil­ians died in the First World War, an­other 21 mil­lion wounded in to­tal; roughly 26 mil­lion mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 31 mil­lion civil­ians died in the Sec­ond World War, with per­haps an­other 28 mil­lion wounded in to­tal. An­other 1.4 mil­lion died in Viet­nam and per­haps 600,000 dur­ing the re­cent Iraq War and its af­ter­math. In both cases, roughly half of those who died were civil­ians.

Fi­nally, we are not asked to re­mem­ber the enor­mous prof­its made by the man­u­fac­tur­ers of mil­i­tary weapons and their fi­nanciers — or, to our shame, our own cosy in­vest­ments in pen­sion funds; all of whose re­turns rely on the use of said weaponry, for un­less it is used — some­where — the un­vir­tu­ous cy­cle of sup­ply and de­mand would dry up, and prof­its end.

If we gen­uinely wish to see an end to war, this Re­mem­brance Day would be a good oc­ca­sion to re­mem­ber those things that tra­di­tional cer­e­monies col­lude in mak­ing us forget.

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