Come Remembrance Day this week, Canadians will, as always, solemnly recite the verses of Canadian World War I soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” including its stirring final stanza: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Written on the battlefield, McCrae’s words are powerful and beautiful, and they have been held up as a proud symbol of Canada (look, there they are on the $10 bill). But, in that it could easily serve as the text of a recruiting poster or, as it does for the Montreal Canadiens, the slogan of a sports team, that final stanza is not typical of the poetry of World War I soldiers.

Most soldiers shouted home a different message. English soldier Seigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” concludes in a manner closer to the general mood: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Wilfred Owen, the English soldier many consider the leading poet of the war, wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as a retelling of the familiar biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel appears to spare his son: “A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. // But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

This Remembrance Day, Canadian soldiers are in combat in Afghanistan, and may be for decades to come, we’re told. War rages in Iraq and may soon in Iran and Pakistan. There is much to reflect on. We might well consider the lessons of those brave soldiers from what was to have been The War to End All Wars — this way lies madness, they say, a self-fuelling fireball that engulfs the bodies and souls of all who wage it or who have it waged on them. That has been the lesson of warfare since the beginning of humanity. It was understood by the Vikings, whose greatest saga, according to Lee Sandlin in his essay “Losing the War,” was about a pointless, unproductive battle that engulfs generations and destroys the innocent and guilty alike. “For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart.”

Even wars generally agreed to be humanity’s finest moments teach the same message: in the service of ending fascism and stopping genocide in World War II, more than 60 million died on all sides, many after surviving years of insane agony on the battlefield, many more as huge swaths of millennia-old civilizations were reduced to rubble. A great part of an entire generation on five continents lived in a waking nightmare of fear that the bombs and guns and death camps would return.

From the American Civil War through Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, history tells the same story, one nearly identical to that of the soldiers returning from Iraq: if war produces just ends, it is only by happenstance, for the logic of war leads inevitably towards carnage; towards the reduction of humanity to its most horrifying state of barbarism and of the world to an unendurable hell.

Yet we have become again a society in which the military is seen as a source of solutions — through the eyes of leaders who have never served in combat, war is a just hammer. To them, every terrorist attack, foreign-policy threat and humanitarian crisis begins to look like a nail. They point to those who warn that war must be a last resort and accuse them of failing to “support the troops.” But the troops are citizen servants of the highest order who go off and learn what soldiers past have tried to teach; they sacrifice their sanity, their lives and their humanity — and inflict untold terror on others —?on our instruction.

In an age when being “strong on terror” has been reduced to tying a yellow ribbon and solemnly swearing to send others to kill and die before sitting down to watch Dancing With the Stars, we might reflect on what our history of violence has been trying to tell us all along:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly November 7, 2007.

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.