A Personal Reflection: Veterans, White Poppies, and Remembering
By Paul Chislett
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
As soon as he turned 18 in 1942 my father enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery in his hometown of Port Hope, Ontario. He served as a Gunner on a self-propelled Sexton in North-West Europe as part of the 23rd Field regiment (SP) in the 4th Canadian Armoured Divison.
He survived the war, came home in 1946, and seemed to drift around looking for what to do before graduating as an OPP constable in 1949. He married, divorced, and remarried in Sudbury, Ontario where I and my brothers came to be in this world. He was dead from the effects of alcoholism before his 47th birthday in 1972. His life collapsed from under him; he never seemed able to find his footing. He died alone and broke.
Such is the story of many who survived war but came home invisibly wounded. I think of him often even though I didn’t get to know him, and I think of him especially on Remembrance Day. I don’t dwell on thoughts of him out of pity, nor do I succumb to mawkish sentimentality. His life was what it was and, I presume from much reading, the war had a huge impact on him. War shapes the women and men who survive – civilian and soldier alike – and their experiences ripple through the generations shaping their children, grandchildren, and so on.
For years I’ve wanted to write something about Remembrance Day. I really don’t know what it means today. I know I am generally angry that the day has been co-opted by a government that is busy marching another generation off to war. I’m angry at the propagandizing on and in the days leading up to Remembrance Day by the media, part of the state/corporate nexus. We have been corralled into remembering in the way the state wants us to: that is to only focus on the deaths of soldiers alone while the media play the role of the conductor of our emotions over the loss of soldiers while we perhaps mislay the loss of millions of civilians during the mechanized slaughter we call World War I and World War II. We are certainly not encouraged to search deeper, to search for the causes of war making and for ways to make meaningful all war deaths in our modern lives. Now, more perhaps than ever in this country, is the time to question authority and refuse easy answers for problems – easy answers like austerity and bombing people in other countries in order, they say, to make peace.
What is waging peace if not working for the common good to ensure no one goes without basic needs: decent, meaningful work, affordable housing, affordable and accessible health care and education? The post war boom years certainly were a time to meet those needs, however much a struggle it was. But those days are over and anyone who cares to can easily read the research on growing inequality, greed and environmental destruction, all hallmarks of a new global economic and political order.
I have no idea what my father’s politics were, and we are sternly told that we must not politicize Remembrance Day – as if war and the resulting carnage launched by politicians are not political. Perhaps what we’re asked is that we must not politicize the deaths of the soldiers and that doesn’t seem reasonable either. For a brief time on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11AM we observe a moment of silence with our poppies on and then go off and continue our lives. In light of the Post 9/11 world however, and this country’s war in Afghanistan, the murders of Canadian soldiers by social misfits, and our attacks on ISIL/ISIS in Iraq, I really can’t conform and stay silent. Not if I want to truly pay homage to those who died in war. Because no government has so shamelessly politicized Remembrance Day as has the Harper regime. Duncan Cameron is dead on: “The Harper government wants the tribute at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month to be a celebration of the Canadian Forces participating in a war on terrorism.”
On the day Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was killed in Ottawa and the lone gunman stormed into Parliament, I and many others around the country, could see coming the appropriation of Cirillo’s life and image for the political purposes of the Prime Minister. Having followed and resisted the doings of the Harper regime over the years, and given the ongoing incrementalism towards a national security state I could not be silent knowing how the Harper regime would use the tragedy at the war memorial in particular, and to a lesser degree the attack on soldiers in Quebec, to further cement the government’s desire to curtail civil liberties all in the name of national security in the fight against terrorism.
The Prime Minister attended and spoke at Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s funeral. Contrast that with the repatriation to Canada of the war dead from Afghanistan. In his 2008 paper, The Unavoidable Shadow of Past Wars: Obsequies for Casualties of the Afghanistan War in Australia and Canada, Kim Richard Nossal Director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, reminds us that “…in early 2006, just as the Conservative government of Stephen Harper was taking office … the number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan increased dramatically: 36 deaths in 2006, 30 in 2007, and nine between January and May 2008. The majority of the deaths between 2006 and 2009 were caused by hostile fire, many the results of IEDs.” Nossal continues:
… after the tempo of casualties increased following the deployment of the battle group to the Kandahar region in February 2006, the practice of limiting the involvement of federal dignitaries to the repatriation ceremony alone evolved.” “…[P]ublic opinion polls taken in early April  showed that 46 per cent of Canadians were opposed to the Afghanistan mission. Thus, when four soldiers were killed in a single IED blast later that month, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper decided to try to “manage” the potential domestic political impact of this sudden dramatic increase in casualties. On 24 April, the day before the remains of the four soldiers were to be repatriated, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) ordered Gordon O’Connor, the minister of national defence, to adopt new guidelines banning the media from CFB Trenton. Although the ban was justified on the grounds that the families needed privacy to grieve, it was widely interpreted as having been imposed so that Canadians would not be exposed to the sight of flag-covered coffins returning to Canada.
Tellingly, Nossal described how “[t]he move backfired badly. Ordinary soldiers at CFB Trenton purposely undermined the efforts of the PMO by moving equipment on the apron out of the way so that the media gathered along the fence of the base had an unobstructed, if long-range, view of the ceremony; likewise, the Ontario Provincial Police decided to help by taking the unusual step of closing Highway 2 outside the base in order to allow the media to gather safely along the fence. More importantly, the soldiers‟ families themselves were critical of the media ban.”
In his conclusion Nossal writes that the “… Canadian state—personified in the form of the Governor General, the minister of national defence, and the CAF brass—meets the remains of the fallen as they are returned to Canada in a semi-public ceremony, but then passes the body to the family for obsequies that are essentially private, even if they involve full military honours. Neither the prime minister nor the leaders of the opposition are involved in any of the commemorations; indeed, if the prime minister or an opposition leader showed up to funerals, they would surely be accused of inappropriately politicizing the event.”
The Prime Minister, always it seems able to count on the overloaded memories of media saturated Canadians, played up as much as he could only weeks before Remembrance Day the funeral of Cpl Cirillo. Given the Prime Minister’s shameful efforts to sweep the Afghan war dead under the carpet and his prorogation of Parliament in order to escape scrutiny of the Afghan detainee torture scandal, how can any Canadian stand the hypocrisy? In March of this year CBC reported that the detainee issue “…remains a sensitive, lightning-rod issue in the back rooms, especially for those concerned about the judgment of history.” The judgement of history one hopes will be harsh, but where is our outrage on Remembrance Day? And now our air force is embarked on what should be declared an illegal assault on a sovereign nation (Iraq), a country that needs massive economic reparations that would block recruitment by ISIL of disaffected and mostly young men, not more bombs.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
The Harper regime has embarked on a campaign to reshape the Canadian psyche from one of Canada the reluctant warrior nation/peacekeeper to a military player in a renewed US/NATO global military alliance. This global alliance is enforcing a world order composed of free trade agreements ( TPP; CETA) that will further hobble elected governments of their ability to act for the good of citizens, except for the minority of super wealthy people. The global order we’re moving to is characterized by inequality and a new “great game” of geopolitical manoeuvring for oil, gas and minerals, characterized by the concept of citizen as ‘consumer’ or ‘taxpayer’ thus depriving us of political agency, an order dependent on low wage work and migrant workers, and all under the rubric of an Austerity agenda.
The global order we are moving to is authoritarian – the very antithesis of a peaceable world. This is happening because we have given too much power to the state/corporate apparatus while falling in line at cenotaphs to remember the dead who are surely turning in their graves. The concrete results are evident in Canada now: the vilification of Muslim people which brings to mind the suffering of Canadian citizens of Japanese and German descent during both world wars, coming increases in surveillance and new laws, and a general climate of distrust and fear of the ‘other’. Already, people I know who have spoken out against the environmental destruction of the Tar Sands and fracking wonder if their names are on a list – such people, and especially including First Nations people have been described as “adversaries” of the Harper regime simply for exercising peaceful dissent.
The state/corporate nexus/apparatus represented by the Harper regime is gating off the decision making process for all crucial life issues of society to a small minority of political and economic elites. Increasingly excluded are organizations like unions, civil liberties organizations, freedom of information advocates, think tanks which critique the government of the day, First Nations, and so on. Add in the lack of a national manufacturing policy, inadequate funding for affordable housing, mental health care, the creeping privatization of health care in general and it’s easy to see that we are not building peace; rather we are drifting, and drifting to what? Drifting to another global conflagration which would be the ultimate denial of the sacrifice of the millions who died in two world wars.
David Masciotra wrote recently and it applies to Canada:
No American freedom is currently at stake in Afghanistan. It is impossible to imagine an argument to the contrary, just as the war in Iraq was clearly fought for the interests of empire, the profits of defense contractors, and the edification of neoconservative theorists. It had nothing to do with the safety or freedom of the American people. The last time the U.S. military deployed to fight for the protection of American life was in World War II – an inconvenient fact that reduces clichés about “thanking a soldier” for free speech to rubble. If a soldier deserves gratitude, so does the litigator who argued key First Amendment cases in court, the legislators who voted for the protection of free speech, and thousands of external agitators who rallied for more speech rights, less censorship and broader access to media.
The post 9/11 wars are not wars to bring democracy to anyone. They are wars to subjugate, for example, the Arab Spring spontaneously launched in 2011 by mostly young people who were churning against totalitarian rule across the area. That movement terrified the Middle East royal families who sit on so much oil wealth they can’t be anything but allies of our ruling class. The chaos that is now the Middle East is the result of a counter revolution against the movement for political freedom and is being happily waged by the West including Canada to maintain an emerging global order I have described. Out of any such chaos must emerge the most angry and violent radicals who are now killing anyone who isn’t with them. Our response is more of the same.
As Canada and allies turn to violence to solve problems why are we surprised that individuals will pick up a weapon to solve problems? On top of the trauma of excluded and marginalized individuals there is the spectre of video games like the new Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, featuring Kevin Spacey, with his own private army, saying that politicians don’t have the answers but he does.
In Nossal’s paper I referred to earlier, he states that “[i]n Canada … war has historically been divisive, exposing the contradictions in a political community that has never been able to create a singular nationalism. The attitudes of Canadians towards the armed forces have been supportive, but Canadians do not celebrate the contribution of the armed forces to the nation as Australians do.” Our Prime Minister is at odds with his own country. We still celebrate the fact of the Canadian Mosaic, yet it is being smashed apart by a petulant and authoritarian Prime Minister with a personal agenda, not a national vision.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
I wear a white poppy this year. In 1934 the first campaign to distribute white poppies for peace was launched. Eighty years later, the world has seen over 300 wars, and the killing of over 200 million people. The white poppy commemorates ALL victims of war, marks the environmental devastation war causes, signifies the rejection of war as a tool for social change and a call for dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution, and shows the wearer’s commitment to building a better future.
Some ways of carrying these tasks out are to join a union or a worker centre, work for justice for migrant workers and refugees, join a peace group, an environmental group, or Idle No More. Give to organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives which “is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social, economic and environmental justice.” Or the similar Broadbent Institute. Support and read alternative media such as rabble.ca, Canadian Dimension, Monthly Review, The Dominion – there are many.
Getting involved in municipal politics is the key I believe in creating a participatory model of governance. One doesn’t have to run for office, but there is no level of government so close to where we live and we can form neighbourhood assemblies that can go to council and present on issues important to the neighbourhood. We can learn to come together in a spirit of mutual aid and cooperativism in our neighbourhoods and communities so that we can forestall racism, sexism, and so on that fear drives. We learn from each other and learn to trust our own instincts rather than leave things to specialized elites who no longer have our interests at heart. We can create the ripples of peace through to future generations rather than the ravages of war.
In Windsor on Sunday, Nov.5 it was reported snipers were on rooftops during a ceremony at the cenotaph. Windsor school children were exempted from attending Remembrance Day ceremonies because parents were afraid there could be violence. Also reported by attendees that they were stopped multiple times and their bags searched on their way to the cenotaph.
The way that Remembrance Day is celebrated strongly suggests that the answer to all these questions is no. In our moment of silence, we can do better.
Today is a day to reflect on hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, thousands of Libyans, thousands of Haitians, tens of thousands of Afghans who died in wars funded and staffed by Canada. It’s a day to reflect on 160 Canadian veterans who committed suicide in the last ten years. It’s a good time to reflect on all the ways in which this killing for the worst reasons is held up as the best we have to offer the world.”
Listen to Paul Chislett on CJAM’s The ShakeUp Fridays at 4PM 99.1FM Selected Podcasts HERE