Lest We Forget

Caitlin McLaren - Editor-in-Chief
Posted on: November 6, 2016

It’s the time of year where we all go around with red flowers pinned onto our coats. These are supposed to be in memory of our veterans, but many people just get them because everybody else does or because “it’s the right thing to do,” without fully appreciating the significance. This November, don’t wear your poppy without thinking about its meaning and don’t merely parrot a history lesson or platitudes about respecting veterans; think about the implications our history of war has for our lives today, and what it should teach us for the future.

Most people in Canada today have never experienced war and don’t have a full understanding of the sacrifices soldiers made for their country. That’s a good thing. That’s the reason we wear the poppy: not to perpetuate terrible memories and experiences, but to remember that war is indeed terrible, and that we owe our avoidance of it to the sacrifices our grandparents and great-grandparents made to achieve peace.

War is never as black and white as its propaganda paints it, and history is written, if not always by the winners, by people in the aftermath under the eyes of the winners in a world where it is impossible to find the absolute truth under layers of destruction, deliberate lies, and politicization of history. There is a fine line to walk between recognizing a need for military action and romanticizing war, between respecting courage and glorifying violence. These things are not identical. It is possible to praise the men and women who put their lives in danger in the service of their country without glossing over the implications of war. Indeed, these things complement each other; knowing the grave consequences of military occupation should inspire greater respect for those who fought to prevent it from happening to their home country. While the horrors of war should not be ignored, they should not be blamed on the individual soldiers fighting for their nation.

I would say that in Canada, there is fairly wide recognition of this fact. Our chief memory of the World Wars is not some patriotic jingle or piece of propaganda, but In Flanders Fields—a poem which makes no mention of politics, or the myriad justified and unjustified reasons for war, but merely speaks of the dead and urges us to keep faith with them. That is why we pin poppies on our chests and call it patriotic; not because we look back fondly on the World Wars or wish to bring Canada into future wars, but because we recognize that these are causes that our ancestors and their contemporaries died for, and that their deaths are partially responsible for the better lives we have today.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that war veterans are largely remembered in order to be politicized. Whether it’s bringing veterans into some political disagreement that they didn’t ask to be a part of and probably would fall on all sides of, using them as a prop in order to appear patriotic, or just giving their courage lip service while performing actions that go against the ideals that they fought for, the public treatment of veterans—both living and dead—is far from what they deserve. Instead of acknowledging that the causes of freedom and humanity, which were at least nominally the main motivations for the World Wars, are ones to unite us all, the achievements of “the glorious dead” are all too often used for political gain.

There is another poem that is associated with remembrance this month, little more than a children’s rhyme:

Remember, remember

The fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason, and plot.

I see no reason

That gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

While we remember our veterans on November 11th, November the 5th is dedicated to the memory of a foiled terrorist attack. While Guy Fawkes Day is not really celebrated outside of Britain, and not taken very seriously there either, perhaps it should be. Most people are familiar with the Guy Fawkes masks that are today seen as a symbol of anarchy, as popularized by V, the anti-hero protagonist of V for Vendetta. However, that has little in common with the historical Guy Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot.

The political turmoil in England that caused Fawkes and his co-conspirators to blow up the House of Lords had its roots in the reign of Henry VI, and erupted again after the death of his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. While much more complicated than a simple religious quarrel, the successional disputes were very much split along religious lines. The Protestant faction had the support of the majority in England, while the Catholic dissidents had a great deal of overseas support. At the time, James I of England (VI of Scotland) was the Protestant king of England. Guy Fawkes was far from an anarchist; he was a Catholic who supported the claim to the throne of James’ Catholic sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia.While such a religious quarrel seems foolish to us today, at the time it was seen as affecting the legitimacy and neutrality of the crown, and no one questioned the importance of the issue. In fact, the law prohibiting an English monarch from even marrying a Catholic was only changed in 2011; to this day, a monarch, as the head of the Church of England, is not permitted to be Catholic by definition.

What is the point of that little history lesson?  This was not a random, lone-wolf attack by a madman; it was the action of an extreme holder of an at-the-time legitimate political position. Guy Fawkes was not trying to destroy his country; in his mind, he was trying to save it. He was a traitor all the same, because murdering heads of state is a traitorous action regardless of intention. Not liking one’s political leader is not an excuse to overturn the order of a country. The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot promoted unity in Britain at a time when the monarch and parliament had a rocky relationship. If it had been successful, the Gunpowder Plot would not have brought about Guy Fawkes’ political goal; it would, in fact, have created anarchy and/or opened a door for another tyrannical leader such as Oliver Cromwell.

At the time of writing, the results of one of the ugliest elections in history is unknown; you, who are reading, will know the result. No matter what that result is, there will be bitter feelings on both sides for years to come. In Canada, we have no say in the election but the results will affect us, and most of us have strong feelings on the candidates. These feelings are informed by facts, but they are fed by an attention-seeking media and rabidly partisan opinions being touted as objective. This is not to say that concerns are not legitimate, but that dialogue between different sides of many political issues has devolved into accusations of malice and bad faith.

Can we have two minutes of silence, please? Not only in memory of the dead, but in general. Can we stop arguing, mudslinging, demonizing, and generally acting as if we aren’t all on the same team? Can we stop listening to hyperbolic bad news and hysterical punditry? Those are entirely contrary to the historical lessons this November.

Remembrance Day should remind us all that we have a shared history and a shared debt to those who created this world for us. We should remember that, although our grandparents disagreed over partisan issues, just as we do now, they were able to unite in defense of our country against a common threat. We should remember the people who fought for our freedom to state our political positions openly.

Guy Fawkes Day should remind us that, regardless of the strength of our political beliefs, we are not angels and our opponents are not devils. If we believe that the rightness of our cause puts us above the law, the majority, and the legitimate political leader, we are the villains. Politics are important and affect not only ourselves, but also future generations. Be politically active, but don’t be an extremist.

This November, when political uproar is coming to a climax, and some people are forgetting civility and respect, pin a poppy on your jacket and remember our better nature. Remember how thousands and thousands of men and women cared so much about our country, including those they disagreed with politically, that they risked and often lost their lives defending it. Remember that this country was shaped by their sacrifice and that it should not be damaged by petty quarrels. And remember that the reason we keep these memories alive is because, if we forget the lessons of history, we could easily bring ourselves into war and destruction again.