Remembrance Day always seems to uncover the same predictable public disagreements.
Should stores be allowed to play holiday music between Halloween and November 12? Is it insensitive that businesses showcase Christmas trees instead of poppies in their window displays during this time? And, conversely, if they do, is it right that they appropriate the emotions and images of Remembrance Day for their own commercial benefit?
For me, Remembrance Day has always been the source of a much more personal conflict involving what it means for us to “remember” and “celebrate” our military past.
I grew up in a small town outside of Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario, and attended a Mennonite church until I moved up here to Peterborough for university. Philosophically, I still identify with the Mennonite belief in pacifism and I oppose any aspect of war and military conflict. I continue to believe that war creates more problems than it can ever solve. But these views have left me with conflicted feelings about taking part in the ceremonies and traditions that occur each year on November 11.
On one hand, as a student of history, I understand the cultural and community value of commemorating significant events of the past. I think Santayana was correct when he remarked that people ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
On the other hand, however, as a student of politics, I realize that everything is political and each year I worry about the extent to which Remembrance Day naturalizes the narratives of militarism and armed combat within our collective conscience.
Put more plainly, while I believe that it is ethically correct, even necessary, for us to commemorate and pay tribute to the many millions of people who have been killed, displaced, and otherwise impacted by the war and conflict, I question whether the political subtext of Remembrance Day reinforces the all-too-common view that war is simply a necessary and justifiable fact of life.
Thus, I have been left with these conundrums: is it ethical for someone who believes in peace and actively opposes war to take part in Remembrance Day celebrations? Is it possible to separate the commemoration of human life, lost in tragic circumstance, from the glorification of nationalism, militarism, and global imperialism? If I wear a poppy on my coat am I legitimizing a political agenda I fundamentally disagree with?
To date I am unable to answer any of these questions with certainty.
However, beyond these ethical landmines, I feel that there is something fundamentally human about gathering to remember those who gave their lives in the belief that they were defending the best ideals of human society. After all, I do agree that the ideals at the root of our society: freedom, justice, community, and equality are indeed worth defending. I am just of the belief this can be done without the use of nuclear weapons, political assassinations, or occupations.
And so each year I struggle over whether or not I should pin the poppy to my coat and walk down to the cenotaph at 11:00 on November 11. I usually do both of these things, all the while questioning whether or not I am actually being true to my beliefs.
I guess it feels right to reflect on the fact that the unconscionable horrors of war have always happened, and continue to happen, to people like myself.