Remembrance Day

What's a pacifist to do with Remembrance Day?

I'm not sure.

First, I acknowledge with appreciation the fact that Canada celebrates Remembrance Day (not Veterans Day): putting emphasis on remembering conflict, leaving room for all kinds of remembrance; not only of fallen soldiers, but also of civilian lives affected, even lost in the course of armed conflict. So I deem it important to attend a service each year. It's an unfamiliar world to me, the military is, and one whose raison d'etre is contrary to my beliefs, but because of those two factors, it's necessary that I go to a service to dip a toe in the waters of that world.

From the far corner of the enormous room where I was standing, the crowd was reasonably ethnically diverse and contained a healthy number of children, given that a long serious service is generally not the most fun activity for a child. From the stage, however, as well as the closing march past, one would think Canada were still the solidly Ango-Saxon, British Empire world of the 1940s. If the military has guaranteed the freedoms we hold so dear -- held also very dearly, possibly moreso, by the immigrants who chose to leave often violent and repressive countries to come to Canada -- why, then, we must ask, do so few choose to join the military? Are they too busy getting established in their new country? Do they prefer more lucrative occupations? Or do they, perhaps, not only wish to live in a country without conflict, but also believe from personal experience that armed conflict isn't terribly effective at "guaranteeing freedom" or "stopping oppression" -- certainly not without first causing a great deal of destruction -- and thus not want to take part in that violent institution?

It was fascinating how much religion was embedded in the City of Winnipeg's Remembrance Day event at the convention centre this year -- and last, for that matter. And by "religion," I mean "Christianity." Two hymns (to which no one seemed to sing along, though they didn't sing along to "O Canada" or "God Save the Queen" either -- I guess public singing has gone the way of, I don't know, maybe church attendance?), two Scripture readings (James 4! and something from the Apocryphal book Sirach), prayers, the formal meditation of the program given by a chaplain, and even all of those songs the military band played during the laying of the wreaths were hymns (e.g. The Church's One Foundation; Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus). While part of me was cheered to see these vestiges of faith go unchallenged in public, secular society, part of me is always uncomfortable with invoking God for the killing of other people, however purportedly noble "our" cause may be.

Having participated in the remembrance of war, I then went to the Forks to participate in a demonstration for peace. Frankly, I'm as unconvinced about the merit of our little flashmob singing "Freedom is coming" as I am about the whole Christian war memorial service, but it seemed appropriate to participate in both.

I rounded out the day by viewing a documentary (at Cinematheque) that received acclaimed at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival. I'm not sure if the director of To Hell and Back wanted to do more than show how difficult life at home can be for a war vet of the Afghanistan conflict, but the movie was effective at reinforcing my pacifist beliefs. Those American troops in Afghanistan didn't seem to have clue how negative was their impact on the local Afghans; the soldiers were convinced they had the Afghans best interests in mind, convinced they were helping. Neither the Afghan locals, nor I, was so certain. In one revealing interaction, the soldiers allow local men to return briefly to the village the soldiers are now occupying, using as a base to snipe at the Taliban forces who periodically show up to snipe at them. At one house, they used the owner's sacks of grain to create their sandbag wall. "It's ruined!" The man exclaims. "I already had to buy grain to feed my children yesterday. They having nothing to eat and have diarrhea from camping down by the river." "Yeah, sorry, we'll replace it [eventually]," the soldiers respond, glibly reassuring. "We needed it to shield us from the field" is their justification. "We shot some goats; they were threatening the soldiers. I guess they won't be happy about that," another soldier tells the camera. Hello!? You big strong soldiers are threatened by a couple of goats?!

The hero? or was he merely the "subject" of the documentary? is a foul-mouthed, narrow-minded, uneducated man who proudly declares that he joined the marines with only one desire: to kill people. (And they, according to him, were delighted to have him.) He's obsessed with his pistol, showing his wife how to shoot it so that she can take down any possible intruders. "You can shoot them if they're threatening you," he reassures her. "It's your right. You can even shoot them through the door. Just not in the back." To her credit, the very young wife turns away and refuses to touch the gun. I can accept the military as a group of very in-shape, widely trained men and women who can respond to national disasters, perform search and rescue operations, possibly even do some crowd control and peacekeeping missions (provided they are actually taught how "keep" peace -- to de-escalate violence and mediate between different parties -- not merely given blue berets and given a new name). But this emphasis on killing? It chills me to my bones.

Nonviolence certainly doesn't always work, but to dismiss it on those grounds is to ignore the many, many, many times violent solutions fail. If we didn't assume war were an option, might we not try harder to prevent the situations which now result in war? If we didn't have war in our toolkit of problem solving, might we not expand our creativity and thinking to many very different options?

"What about Hitler -- how would you have stopped him without war?!" pacifists are often challenged. But Hitler didn't appear out of nowhere in 1939. He took over the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, violated treaties in 1936, took power in 1933; the warnings were there, and the opportunities existed to exert powers other than military might. What if things had been done different, starting in 1914?

I'll continue to observe Remembrance Day with MCC's slogan in mind: to remember is to work for peace. Yes, many young men and women have died doing what they believed was sacrificial noble work to protect freedom, and I would not wish to discount those deaths as anything other than tragic. But with more and more civilians dying in the crossfire of more and more conflicts around the world, and more soldiers returning home from conflicts severely scarred not only physically, but mentally and emotionally, I wonder, isn't it time we start working harder at alternatives to war?


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