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Lest We Forget

“And the band played waltzing Matilda”

Remembrance Day

I grew up on military history.

As a little boy I loved war; I had toy soldiers and I read every book my father had and got my parents to by me ever more books about wars, battles, even uniforms. I had many war movies on VHS. 

My Master’s is in “Political Theory”, aka normative political philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of the best governments and societies for people. I never took a course in “Just War Philosophy” in undergrad or grad school, but I became exposed to the idea. It’s the philosophy of when is violence just, if ever.

But even before that, just by virtue of growing up, I came to learn how little I had understood about what actually happens in battles, the battles I found so exciting as a child. I learned that the things that used to thrill me as a child were actually some of the worst things that could happen to people.

Because it’s 2020, a lot of us seem to think that Remembrance Day is about “Just Wars”.

You can argue about it, but most of us would probably regard Canada’s participation in WWII as “just”, whether it was defending Hong Kong from the Japanese, or helping to liberate Italy, France and the Netherlands.

The same thing can be said for Canada’s participation in the Korean War, a US-led UN defence of South Korea from North Korea (and, later, China).

And that’s true of most of Canada’s involvement in wars since, especially in Canada’s role as Peace Keepers in numerous conflicts. You can argue about whether or not we should have been involved in Afghanistan, but Afghan-based terrorists did indeed attack the United States.

So it’s easy to understand why we think that Remembrance Day is an acknowledgement of the veterans of “Just Wars”.

But it’s the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month because it acknowledges the end of WWI. And WWI…well, it was not a just war. It was something else entirely: perhaps the worst thing humans have ever done to themselves.

Through a series of really stupid alliances, the European powers figured out a way to just about guarantee a continent-wide war (that quickly spread to Africa,Asia and Oceania). Literal cousins (the monarchs of Germany, Russia and the UK) decided their citizens had to fight each other just because.

And because of the massive leaps in technology, military and otherwise, between the end of the Napoleonic Wars a century later, nobody could have truly predicted the carnage.

Whether or not it was the first “modern war”, it was the worst war anyone had ever seen. It was so bad it was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars”.

Of course, the peace that we’re remembering today merely created the conditions that allowed WWII, but that’s another story.

WWI was stupid. It was possibly the stupidest thing in human history.

Along with the War of 1812 and the Crimean War (and numerous other wars I’m forgetting) WWI was a war in which people died for no discernible purpose and no discernible gain. It was just a waste of life. But a waste of life on a scale that nobody had ever seen before.

(It’s interesting that, because of my American father, WWI was one of the wars I didn’t learn about as a child. Perhaps had I encountered a war without a clear villain, maybe I would have felt differently about it.)

This is what I think about on Remembrance Day. (And a lot more frequently than that, actually.)

I don’t think about “Just causes”; I think about violence and death for no reason. I think about humans hurtling metal at each other at incredible speeds to no end.

That’s why I’ve included Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, performed by The Pogues, at the top of this post. It’s a song I listen to on this day every year. And it’s harrowing.

Eric Bogle is Australian. The Pogues are Anglo-Irish. This is a Canadian holiday.

But I have never encountered another song that captures, for me, the futility of WWI.

And, though you could argue Australia’s experience of WWI was worse than Canada’s, it does a good job of capturing what it must have been like for soldiers from the colonies to go fight a war for the mother country, a war that didn’t need to happen, and had nothing to do with any of them.

It is my hope that we can all learn that stuff like this never makes things better. And we should all work towards a war like this never happening again.

Hope you’re well. Thanks for reading.

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