The Future of Remembrance Day: Hold the Torch High

As today is 11 November, we want to explore the current and perhaps future of Canadian commemoration. Today, Remembrance Day has taken on a far different meaning than it's original intention. As we discussed last week, Remembrance Day originally sought to remember the end of the Great War – but after the outbreak of the Second World War it transformed into a broader act of remembrance about the tragedy of all wars. It was less about the First World War and became entrenched in the concerns of the present, and continues to be to this day.  Yet, the language used to describe a different type of commemoration before the Second World War—Judeo-Christian rhetoric—is still applied to speak about events in later generations. The way we talk about war has changed very little over the last 100 years.

While living in Ottawa in the early 2000s I made every effort to attend Canada’s most elaborate and extensive Remembrance Day services held on Elgin Street, just south of Parliament Hill. As I attended these ceremonies over the next few years, however, the demographic began to change. The image of what a veteran was—an aged, white man decorated with accolades and wearing a Legion uniform—began to give way to a newer type. As Canada sent more and more troops to Afghanistan for NATO’s coalition force, some of whom were my friends, the images of an aged veteran began to give way to something closer to my own generation.

Like so many Canadians, we grew up surrounded by war and the memory left in its wake. Whether you play hockey at a memorial arena, walk through parks named after soldiers, or encounter innumerable monuments dedicated to men who fought in far off places, we are frequently exposed to war and memory. As Noah Richler cautions, “war enters the unconscious early.”

In the 1990s, Canada and other Western nations experienced a “memory boom.” According to Jay Winter, these are periods during which governments and organizations celebrate the anniversaries of significant events. In 1995, Canadian veterans of the Second World War made trips back to Juno Beach in Normandy and elsewhere throughout northwest Europe to commemorate their experience in liberating that continent. More recently, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, historians from the west had an opportunity to scour the archives of previous uncertainties about the Second World War. The “totality” of total war became increasingly apparent as more details about the extent of mass murder and death on the Eastern Front came to light.  These revelations, among others, increased our awareness about Nazi atrocities and the scale of the Holocaust. Additionally, the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem during the 1960s marked the beginning of wide-spread public discussion on the Holocaust. As a result, in recent years commentators have emphasized how fighting the Second World War and defeating Nazism helped to end the Holocaust and stop the horror of the Nazi regime. The Soviet and Allied victory over Germany and subsequent liberation of the death camps stopped the genocide, but to claim that this is the reason the Second World War was fought is a construction of the imagination created after 1945.

In this context, the ways in which we remembered war on 11 November became disconnected from its original interwar intentions. The experiences of those who fought from 1939 to 1945 began to eclipse those of the Great War. Perhaps because many had—and continue to have—more tangible experiences with this war, but perhaps also because the causes and reasons for fighting fascism and Hitler were clearer.

Since its inception, Remembrance Day has been a day of remembering the past that is rooted in the present. Its evolution from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day in the 1930s reveals what Canadians were remembering about the Great War between the wars. The words of Matthew Halton in 1944 show how the Canadian perspective on remembrance was understandably shifting during the Second World War. Today is no different. Every year in late October and early November newspapers begin publishing articles about the value of Remembrance Day, or of the Red or White Poppy, or of war in general.  Every year then, the meaning of Remembrance Day is moulded by these conversations.

The difficulty with Remembrance Day, and what often causes so much controversy between Canadians, is that it appeals to higher truths that were solidified in 1919 but have remained present – and probably relevant – since then.  These higher truths are pure and uncomplicated. They can take the form of remembering Canada's military past where our wars conveniently fit into a national mythology about the creation of our country. Our soldiers become sacrificed heroes, distorted legends and exaggerated shadows of the men and women they actually were. As Doug Saunders suggests in a recent article, most military personnel—past and present—are immensely uncomfortable with the word “hero.” It can also be higher truths rooted in present day ideas, like patriotism (loyalty to the state), nationalism (the primacy of the nation), or militarism (the primacy of the military). Noah Richler has written about these higher truths and myths. He writes “myths, at their most basic, explain how prevailing circumstances have come to be and do so in a manner that promotes human beings’ deference to circumstance rather than useless objection to a situation that likely cannot be challenged.” Where history becomes difficult, Richer suggests, myths step in. We sometimes get lost in the rhetoric of national mythology and often forget that many veterans from the Great War believed war was something to be ashamed of.

These ideas aren't intrinsically wrong by any means, but when they are presented as higher truths that supersede basic or individual truths, they become at best contentious and, at worst, discriminatory. The discussion becomes black and white: you either support them or you oppose them.  There is no middle ground or space for Canadians to discuss their personal understanding of 11 November.

Remembrance Day should be informed by these individual truths not higher ones.

Individual truths like the 11 November of Joseph Chaballe, veteran of the 22nd Battalion in the First World War and survivor of the carnage at Courcelette in the final days of the Somme offensive in 1916.  In one of the final memoirs written by a veteran of the 22nd Battalion (now the 22nd Regiment), he remembered standing before a cenotaph 25 years after his experience on the European battlefields. As the two minutes of silence began, he desperately tried to remember each of the friends he had lost in the war. The moment stretched on as names, faces, stories, and places flashed through his mind. Then it ended – too soon for Chaballe – who could not remember all of them in time. It is a poignant reflection. Even the memory of a man who had been there could not do justice to his comrades.

Each of these moments, though separated by a half century, reflect the continuity of Remembrance Day. For veterans, it is a day when they can remember the loss of comrades in service.  Regardless of what colour poppy you are wearing, or whether you attend a ceremony, Remembrance Day is always a time for veterans – those who have lost friends and experienced the reality of war, not just its abstraction. The human element of 11 November will always be worth remembering. If you hear in Flanders Field today, remember that the torch that is held high is always held by a human hand.