Sunday, November 12, 2006

Thinking About Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day brings up a host of associations for me. Let's see if I can put this into words.

As a child I sat through the yearly Remembrance Day "assemblies," which always involved sitting on a cold gymnasium floor and watching boy scouts fold a flag or something. I tended to blank out during assemblies. In grade 6 I think I had to read part of "In Flanders Fields" to the assembly, but not because I understood it or sympathized with it, but because I was literate. The World Wars were indefinite and cloudy to me. To really get a grip on "war" I had to understand the geographic, political, historic, and human elements, four things I've always had trouble learning and retaining.

The turning point for me came in first year university when I read "Gravity's Rainbow" as part of my newfound discovery of All Things Postmodern. Not knowing anything about World War Two probably enhanced the effect of the book, making it even more mystical and magical than it would be otherwise. The vast, anarchic freedom of The Zone, the double-crossing paranoia of special operations overseen by "Them," and -- most importantly -- the fetish for the rockets, new and terrible weapons that somehow inverted cause and effect, designed by cinema-obsessed and distracted engineers with doppelganger children, built by the walking dead in concentration camps, tested by captive scientists on a bleak penninsula, commanded by the witch and his team of Hansels and Gretels, and arriving with an explosion right above your head, followed AFTERWARD by the sound of its arrival.

So I started reading about the Blitz, in particular the stories of everyday people who became war workers, firemen, blackout wardens. I learned about the fashions and the music of the time, when crooners and female singers began edging away from the hegemony of bandleaders and started their own solo careers. Black soldiers from the American south suddenly tasting equality and interracial love in London. Mass evacuations of children. Henry Moore's sketches of people sleeping in the subways. The cold, sickly, lopsided drama of the Atlantic convoys as written about in "The Cruel Sea," where soldiers and civilians lay covered with oil and floating on the mountains and troughs of a gale-swept ocean.

Then, on the homefront, the work of Canadian cannon fodder, most of them volunteers but many of them "Zombies" who were forcibly conscripted. D-Day, V-Day, my grandfather shuttled endlessly between Vancouver and Halifax, repairing airplane engines but never going overseas.

I know less about World War One, but enough to appreciate its enormity, complexity, sacrifice, and importance.

So now, when Rememberance Day arrives, I wear my plastic poppy with all these complicated associations attached. Mainly, I wear the poppy because I believe that if *I* had fought in one of the wars, living in a country where war is viewed more as a human failing instead of a noble calling, I'd be happy to see at least this acknowledgement of the significant part I'd played.

I'll respect the individual soldiers -- and the Canadian military -- on any given day, but at the same time I worry about the fetishization and simplification of war. Also, I understand the need for structure and command in the military -- it's the only way you can convince people to kill other people -- but it makes me uncomfortable to actually SEE it. So I don't go out of my way to attend the massive ceremonies at the graveyards and cenotaphs...I understand that they're drawing strength from their organization, but to me it looks dehumanized and simplified.

My other thought is that there must always be a distinction between "remembering" and "wallowing." It's like any human trauma: if you had a bad relationship, you need to REMEMBER you had it -- so you don't make the same mistakes again -- but WALLOWING in it just makes you feel angry, vengeful, and hurt. We don't have many of these "remembering" ceremonies in Canada -- we haven't codified the remembrance of The Alamo or Pearl Harbour or 9-11 -- but when we DO have them I hope it's about learning and reflection, not about grudges and fiery rhetoric.


eric said...


Anonymous said...

Have a listen to the Remembrance podcast on iTunes or on the Royal British Legion blog. It's a good way to remember.