Remembrance Day is this week. I usually mark the occassion by spending a few solemn moments thinking of my grandfather, Cecil Rutherford. Cecil was a grade-school dropout who fought in World War II long enough to lose a leg and a finger.

He came back from the war, got married, held a job and supported four kids. I hope I’m not trivializing his memory when I say that he pretty much embodied the “Greatest Generation” values that network TV gets so nostalgiac about, the kind of duty-bound, honourable, strong, silent man that I’ll probably never be.

My grandfather rarely talked about the war. I got the impression that he experienced it kind of like an assault survivor: he lived through hell; it was always with him but he preferred not to think about it.

So my grandfather is, in my estimation, worthy of memorializing and, come Remembrance Day, I’m usually appropriately proud-happy-sad-thankful for the sacrifices he made during the war and after it.

But I’m beginning to think it’s a little weird that most of us spend this national day of memory fetishizing the virtue of our grandparents. It seems Remembrance Day was intended to mean something more. Perhaps it’s time we collectively adjusted its significance. Maybe the way to do it is to stop using Remembrance Day to memorialize brave and virtuous soldiers and instead begin focusing on civilian casualties.

A day commemorating civilian deaths during war — the 12.5 million who died in the Holocaust, the 20 million who died in the Soviet Gulag, the 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, the 300,000 Germans that died in the firebombing of Dresden, the 140,000 killed at Hiroshima, the uncounted Iraqis who’ve given their lives to “Iraqi liberation” — surely the memory of these people can teach us about the meaning and the effect of war.

We may actually return to something closer to the day’s original subtext.

At 11am on Nov. 11, 1918, the guns fell silent after four year of continuous warfare in Europe. In subsequent years, the hour and day was set aside to commemorate the war dead of the Allied nations.

World War I visited untold devastation on Western civilization: 70 million people fought, 10 million died (one in four Canadian men under 35 fought, a quarter of them lost their lives).

So Armistice Day celebrations in the period between the wars had a heavy significance. Besides remembering those who died, people actually believed that the Great War had taught us a lesson that would stay learned: war is stupid and horrifying and pointless and we should never fight one again.

After World War II, with all of its justifications (stopping the spread of fascism, halting a genocide), our memorials changed subtly; we were now remembering those who sacrificed their lives to end the slaughter of a whole race of people and ensure our freedom.

The particular virtues of those men and women aside, this adds a whole new (and troubling) spin to our observance of Remembrance Day: war is glorious and justified, and we should be as brave and principled as our grandparents in bringing freedom to the world. They were a generation of heroes, we remember, and we can only aspire to live up to their legacy.

Since then, other wars have been fought, usually justified by borrowing the diction of Winston Churchill and invoking the memory of the Greatest Generation. None of them — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq — seems worthy of commemorating on Remembrance Day. They don’t fit the honour-and-valour script.

And yet each of these wars produced thousands of casualties, many — often most — of them civilian. Certainly all of these wars have something to teach us, something similar to the lessons we thought we’d learned after World War I. Wars are stupid and horrifying and we should avoid fighting them at almost all costs.

Remembrance of civilian casualties may not completely preclude future wars, but it will maybe produce in our imaginations an emphasis on the price that will be paid rather than the honour that could be won, should we decide to fight.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 6, 2003.

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