The forgetfulness of Remembrance Day
// Dexter Fergie

According to Karl Marx, “History repeats itself … first as tragedy, then as farce.” Marx is wrong; some things are tragic during their second time around.

On Nov. 11, the Globe and Mail ran the silhouette of a lone soldier solemnly looking to the ground, with the word “remember” in block letters superimposed on the soldier, on their cover. The image and accompanying caption communicated the meaning of Remembrance Day appropriately: it is a day of reflecting on those who served in those terrible world wars of the 20th century. But after flipping through the pages, it becomes apparent that the lessons of those tragic times have fallen on deaf ears. This is an ignorance we can hardly afford.

Only a few pages in from the cover, we are informed of America’s announcement of their plans for a massive bomb sale to the Gulf states. The Pentagon’s sale of 5000 “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions to the United Arab Emirates are a part of a larger effort by the Obama administration to counter Iran’s influence in the region. Last year, the administration signed off on the largest bilateral weapons sale in history when $67 billion worth of fighter jets and helicopters was sold to their ally, Saudi Arabia. The total weapons sales to the entire region in the previous year of 2009 amounted to an estimated $123 billion.

Along with weapons exports, the US has invested heavily into building up the regional coalition, the Gulf Cooperation Council. The coalition, predominantly comprised of illiberal absolute monarchies, functions as a unified counterweight to Iran. The US will leave 40,000 troops stationed in the Gulf as the war in Iraq comes to a close.

A few days later, and in another faraway place, Barack Obama introduced similar plans for the Asia-Pacific region. Speaking to the Australian parliament, Obama declared the mobilization of US marines and material to the Australian military base in Darwin.

Under the arrangement with Australia, the US will have greater access to the military base, particularly the airfields, drawing the US military closer to the Indian Ocean. This is an expansion of America’s military capacities in the region, adding to the concentration of US troops in Japan, South Korea, and Guam. Not unlike their dealings in the Gulf, the US is projecting power, this time on China.

Even more bullish, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a press conference that, as there are challenges in Asia that demand “America’s leadership,” the 21st century will be “America's Pacific century.” The Chinese press has repeatedly called for the need for a partnership in the region, not for a self-described leader.

It is difficult to read about such aggression and militarization on the very day we “remember”. It is particularly difficult when the belligerent behaviour echoes the origins of the First World War.

Consider: Contrary to popular wisdom, the First World War did not occur because of the political assassination of the Archduke of Austria. Rather, its origins lie in the many years leading up to 1914 when governments were setting the conditions for war. And once the conditions were set (arms races, troop mobilizations, etc.), it was too late to turn back. Gabriel Kolko, a preeminent historian on 20th century conflict, describes it as “a combination of devotion to their allies and a widespread need to take assertive positions to retain their image of their readiness to defend national interests … caused the major European countries to embark on the first massive bloodletting of this century.”

Lest we forget, indeed.

Perhaps this ignorance – our ignorance - is to be found in Remembrance Day’s very injunction: “remember”. If we were to truly honour those who died in the First World War, we would not merely celebrate them as heroes and dedicate two minutes to their sacrifices. No, if we, the living, were to ensure that they, the fallen, did not die in vain, we would – and we should – move beyond remembrance, and begin to question.

Out of respect we should question their deaths and the war that killed them. We should investigate and emphasize its origins and the number of passed opportunities we had to prevent it, shorten it, lessen it, and end it. Only with this can we dispel the myths that security means militarization, and peace means divisive alliances.

Across the country, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem is read during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. In the third stanza, McCrae, speaking from the perspective of the fallen soldier, advises us to,

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

Our foe is no longer a foreign enemy. The true foe was, and still is, war itself. And if the torch is to be held high, we must take action to prevent it from recurring.

Let us honour those fallen soldiers by promising to never send our youths to kill each other again.

//Dexter Fergie, columnist
//Illustration by Sarah Taylor

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