“Remembrance” and the Forgetfulness of War
As we remember those lost, there is so much we still forget
by hammad ali, Contributor
“The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” – George R. R. Martin
Just this past week, Canada and several other countries observed Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember those who have fallen in the many wars our nations have had to fight. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I love that we do this. I cannot presume to know the reasons those soldiers had in their hearts for signing up for duty, but the end result remains undeniable – they made the ultimate sacrifice, and at least beginning to acknowledge them can only be a good thing.
At least, it can be the beginning of a good thing. To truly honour the memory of those soldiers, a lot more still needs to be done. For one, maybe we can avoid adding to — or at least we can slow down the rate at which we add to — the list of people who lay down their lives in service to the ideals of their nations. More often than not, these individuals step up, fight, and die in wars they have little to no agency in starting. Every time powerful people in immense buildings decide there is just cause for a war, the death sentence for more ordinary people is written. As the African proverb goes, “when the elephants fight, it is always the grass that suffers.”
I am aware that many have already pegged me down for some hopeless pacifist. To which I object right away; I am a hopeful pacifist. I am not claiming putting a stop to armed conflict will be easy, but nothing worth doing is easy to do. If we truly mourn those who have fallen in the many wars nations have chosen to fight, maybe we need to also temper the trend of powerful men in capitals around the world sending off more such youth to wars they have decided are worth fighting.
As a person of colour, and someone whose country was colonized for nearly two hundred years, I feel like there is another perspective I bring to the tradition of Remembrance Day. During both the first and the second World War, the Indian subcontinent was a colony of the British Empire, and our young men were commandeered to fight battles for the very entity that was depriving them of rights and opportunities, in their own homeland! As one Indian writer has often commented, it is a bit rich to enlist someone in your battle for democracy when their own country is being deprived of democracy by your government for its business interests.
The problems do not stop there, either. Ask anyone in the subcontinent, and they know tales of the brave Sikh, Gurkha, and Pathan soldiers that fought bravely in both the World Wars. Yet in the four years I have been in Canada, there is hardly ever any mention of these tales, except from my Sikh friends. It’s almost like I know a different history, one where my brethren were asked to fight a war defending their own oppressor, and now I am even denied the respectful remembrance that many others are getting. Again, I am not begrudging that we choose to remember those who fell in the line of duty. I just wish we chose to remember all who did so, and that we didn’t ignore the ones who make us realize the inherent unfairness of the whole thing.
Even in this part of world, we need to consider Indigenous veterans in Canada, or African-American veterans in the US. Imagine knowing all your life that you are not equal to the other citizens of this land, that you will never have the same opportunities they do – unless, somehow, that equality is in opportunity to die in battle for the glory of the state. During their service, these people were not given the same treatment, and even in death they are not remembered the same way. I remember reading once that during the Second World War, an African-American citizen in the USA was not allowed to vote, but he was allowed to die in battle for his great nation. If we want to truly honour the memory of those fallen, how can we do so without acknowledging the unique sacrifices our Black and Indigenous friends had to make?
I know my list of criticisms grows long, but I have not even mentioned the biggest one yet. When nations go to war – when kings, presidents, and Fuhrers want to “make their nation great again,” their soldiers suffer. But long before the soldiers begin to suffer, the civilians do. I remember reading somewhere how few people remember that the first country the Nazis occupied and ravished was Germany itself. Next year, when we remember the casualties of war, maybe we can choose to remember the refugees, the unemployed, the marginalized, and the collateral damage of great nations playing at great wars. They may not have died on the battlefield, but they are no less martyrs of the war our soldiers perished in.
Once again, the last thing I am implying is that we should not observe Remembrance Day. If anything, I am saying we have observed countless half-baked ones. Next year, let us really observe it. Let us honour those who put on the uniform of a country that barely considered them full citizens. Let us honour those who had little if any say on whether there should be a war, had nothing to gain from it either way, and nevertheless lost their lives. Let us pledge to make a world where every year, we will observe Remembrance Day with the odd realization that there was once a time on this earth when nations did not used to raise weapons against nations. May that day come again in our lifetimes.