Patriots get sentimental about old wars. It makes it easier to perpetuate new ones.
In the same month the government sank deeper in Afghanistan, red-blooded Canadians marked a November-long, flag-hoisting remembrance with mandatory attendance and trench games for the kids. In Tillsonburg, Ont., a group of Grade 10 students jogged through a ditch maze in a farmer’s field; CTV News Channel called it “a realistic experience about war.” At the Royal B.C. Museum, they gave helmets to seven-year-olds and had them sit in a Jeep. “I’m hoping it helps them put themselves in that position and gives them a better understanding,” a mother told The Victoria Times-Colonist.
Canadians once remembered old wars with a minute of silence. Now it requires a federal holiday and, soon perhaps, a provincial holiday, too. “One day,” wrote an Ottawa Citizen reader, “is the least we could ask for.” Another complained to The Winnipeg Free Press how “really disappointing” it was that any business opened on Nov. 11: “Let’s see our government legislate some major fines for such actions.”
The country even saw roving media patrols to shame non-conformists.
Calgary Sun reporter Michael Platt took to the streets and discovered 9 in 10 passers-by failed to wear a Legion poppy. Platt frowned over “the many excuses why there are so few poppies on Calgary streets.” Ottawa Sun columnist Ron Corbett visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and lamented that, in one hour, only a single person stopped to look. “How soon we forget,” the daily tut-tutted. Toronto Sun writer Joe Warmington expressed outrage that a McDonald’s in Brantford, Ont., asked an employee to remove a poppy, in compliance with dress policy. “Shocking,” the Sun said.
What would the Sun say if they held a war ceremony and two people showed up?
It happened, at the Vimy Memorial in France, in 1956. The attendees numbered exactly two—a caretaker and Alfred Brooks, MP from Gagetown who’d been an officer with the New Brunswick Rangers and was passing through town.
Were the veterans of 1956 lesser patriots than the non-combatants of 2010?
In the new sentimentalism even bravery is redefined.
CBC-TV in Edmonton reported people “braved chilly temperatures at a Remembrance Day ceremony.” It was four degrees. In Winnipeg they “braved a biting wind,” reported The Free Press. In Fort Saint John they “braved the cold.” The Vancouver Province spoiled the mood with its headline, “Harry Potter Fans Brave Wind And Rain For Premiere”.
Why has remembrance grown to a public spectacle as the numbers of combat veterans dwindle?
The reason is simple: Because remembrance once belonged to veterans, and now can be safely expropriated by anyone—crusading journalists, citizen patriots, politicians. An example: The government in multiple news releases this month eulogized John Babcock, the last Canadian veteran of WWI, a snowy-haired grandpa who moved to the States and never saw combat. No mention was made of the 20,000 Canadians who fought in Vietnam and came back home. They are still alive, and presumably in a position to set the record straight.
Of 36 military-saluting members of Cabinet only one, government whip Gordon O’Connor, served in the military. Of media pundits who mark remembrance with awesome fervor, you cannot name one who’s quit to enlist.
A U.K. daily, The Guardian, once described the phenomenon. “The Disneyfication of war,” they called it in 2006. “It allows us to ignore its real savagery.”
Disneyfication requires that war stories be uniformly wholesome. Eulogies of Vimy are mandatory. “Holy,” the Citizen called it. No mention was made that at Vimy, Canadians splattered enemy trenches with liquid fire shells to roast Germans alive—”a new form of terror,” they called it at the time (see Toronto Globe, “Burning Oil Terrifies Foe,” June 12, 1917, p. 2).
Disneyfication censors gruesome tales and commentaries. No newspaper dared mark remembrance by reprinting the poetry of Raymond Souster, a WWII veteran:
“THE FOOLISH YOUNG MEN
should all be made to walkthrough
a military hospital
before they are allowed
to put on dog tags
and go off to fight our wars
for a soldier’s pay,”
(see Down To Earth by Raymond Souster, batteredbox.com).
No newspaper recounted gritty war stories like the 1942 fall of Rangoon to the Japanese. Reporter Leland Stowe described it in his memoirs They Shall Not Sleep: “On the outskirts of the city there was a jail, crowded with several hundreds of Burma’s most hardened criminals— mostly murderers. There was also an insane asylum and a detention camp filled with lepers. An Englishman was in charge of these institutions….He ordered the cells of the jail and the doors of the asylum unlocked. Out rushed more than seven hundred murderers, lunatics and lepers, mad with joy at their incredible freedom. From that moment Rangoon was a nightmare surpassing anything that war has unleashed from Barcelona or Warsaw to Hong Kong. Between its burning buildings and down smoke-filled streets, regardless of the occasional crack of policemen’s rifles, murderers joined forced with the looters. Lunatics ran leaping and laughing incoherently. Lepers wandered about aimlessly. The official whose curious action released this additional terror finally found a revolver and committed suicide.”
There is no interest in atrocities now. War stirs the blood.
Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn this month issued a statement commemorating the pointless 1917 Battle of Passchendaele as a “monumental victory.” Total casualties were more than 300,000. Allied historians rate it with the Somme as one of the twin disasters of the war. “Monumental victory”? I asked the department for an explanation. “We’ll get back to you,” a spokeswoman said. They sent me a news release naming nine Canadians who won the Victoria Cross at Passchendaele, but failed to mention the Germans took it all back four months later.
It is evident why politicians Disneyfy war, when they are bent on war.
Why the rest of us fall for it is beyond me.
The Hill Times
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