Four principles for remembering the war dead

A submission to Memorial University in response to its request for feedback on remembrance activities, October 31, 2009

"If people really knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know." --British World War I Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in a private conversation with Guardian editor C.P. Scott.

The world is very different from what it was in 1914 or 1939 or 1960. We no longer reckon Germans, Austrians, Italians, Japanese, Russians or Chinese as our mortal enemies, and rather than dying under their guns and bombs and levelling their cities and killing their civilians by the hundreds of thousands, or being prepared to do so, we now want them to come to study at our university.

Accordingly, the university's practices to remember the war dead urgently need to be modernized and brought into line with the realities of today's globalized world. It makes no sense today to be fixated on King and Empire, on the imperial order of a century ago or of seven decades ago and its triumphalist ideology.

War dead
Despite the growing malignancy of a war-based economy, and of the attendant invasion and resistance to invasion in some of the world's most destitute societies, around the world people of all nations and creeds, if not their governments, are rejecting war as an appropriate means of solving social problems and disputes among nations. Over ten million people on every continent of the planet demonstrated in the streets on February 15th 2003 against the impending invasion of Iraq. Here in Canada a majority of the population has for years been consistently opposed to Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan, and a majority of Americans now also want the involvement of their country in that war to end. Because of the democratization of information in modern communications media, war propaganda no longer has the same power as it once did to deceive the populations of whole nations and whip them up into a frenzy of hatred.

Here then are four principles that the university should adopt to modernize its remembrance activities:

1. The most important way of honouring the war dead from Newfoundland and Labrador is to do everything possible to spare present and future generations the fate of these victims. Any authentic memorial for the victims of war must include an engagement never again to collaborate with forces of the old order that would once more make young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians unquestioning killers and victims of killers. Inflammatory, bellicose poetry of the type "Take up our quarrel with the foe (Germans)" should have no place in memorial activities.

2. In the university's memorial activities, the death of all victims of war, whatever their national origin, and especially civilian victims, who in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have far outnumbered military victims, should be remembered and deplored.

Hiroshima celebration
3. In these activities, it should never be assumed or implied that the human life of Newfoundlanders and Canadians is more valuable than the human life of Germans, Japanese or Pashtuns. This means refusing simplistic, narcissistic platitudes implying that these wars were a simple struggle of right (us) against wrong (them); it means recognizing that "our side" also carried out unspeakable and unpardonable atrocities, such as the obliteration of entire cities like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg, along with their civilian populations. Similarly, it means refusing historically counterfactual catchphrases, like the spurious claim that First World War soldiers killed and died "so that we can be free."

Remembrance services should include an act of collective repentance for atrocities committed in war by "our side".

4. No compromise should be made with the concept of the normalcy of war. Only by overcoming this type of defeatism have civilized societies been able to put behind them such age-old institutions and practices as slavery and the disenfranchisement of women. A modern university should no more appear to condone the normalcy of war than it would the normalcy of slavery, which, like war, was for millennia considered normal and inevitable. Concretely this means denying a presence in remembrance activities to the symbolic sublimation and normalization of the filth and blood of war in martial music, uniforms, rhetoric, poetry and the like.

James MacLean.

Other essays by James MacLean

Observations and analyses in these essays are those of the author, and are not to be attributed to the service provider or to any institution.