Because Remembrance Day is one of the most sacred days in our civic calendar, there are those who seek to raise their standing by attacking the value of the event. I feel the need to stand up for the institution.
If the basest definition of statecraft is organized violence, then we ought to consider those who perform violence on our behalf. Orwell wrote that he could sleep well at night because there are rough men ready to do violence against those who would try to hurt him. We are all in the same situation. We should not make a habit of belittling those who will be asked to defend us and others. We can debate on the ends of collective violence, but Remembrance Day in thought and practice has been about the means – the solider, civilian, the families of the lost. There will be arguments about whether you can have any recognition without glorification. These are serious questions worth consideration and we do not want to be in the business of glorification. Some have told me their ceremonies in their communities glorify wars, but I have never been to such a ceremony, and would never condone it. At the least, we ought to recognize you do not condemn a whole building over a few leaky pipes.
On the historical side, there is a lot of renown to be gained by being the loudest and the most vocal critic of tradition. Good history is important, but “good” history is not always the history most critical of our past. A prime example is popular historical opinion of the Great War. It is seen as an imperial venture to support arms companies, or a senseless calamity with no purpose where everyone was a victim of their own arrogance. There is probably truth in those narratives and others. However, I imagine those in occupied Belgium and France appreciated every effort to liberate them, even if it was measured in inches. Historian Hew Strachen wrote on the Great War that our “[h]indsight bred arrogance, and – worse – misconception. Many of the ideologies which had given the war meaning became loaded, larded with later connotations.” Many of our attitudes concerning past conflicts not only do injustice to the dead, but are tangled up in contemporary views that act as blinders, making us unable to see the things that mattered, things which otherwise would transcend historical gaps.
Something which ought to transcend any historical gap is the immediacy of the day. We had veterans and those who suffered then, and we have more today. Peace is a great goal, but we all know the world of politics is flawed. To hold out hope that prejudices could be removed and we will all know eternal peace may leave us in an emaciated state, unprepared to do what may be necessary. There will be those rare few who do not share our hopes. There will be times where our contradictions in ethics will show themselves and we may actually have to commit violence to end violence. It is a terrible contradiction, yet we live with it, and others have lived with it too. Many have died because of it. We ought to recognize those who were caught up in those contradictory times, and not fool ourselves into thinking we are above those imperfections.
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