I wrote an op-ed with my friend Rob Tarzwell, a veteran of the Canadian Forces and currently a professor (and practitioner) of psychiatric and nuclear medicine at the University of British Columbia. We couldn’t get it placed anywhere in time for this year’s Remembrance Day, so I am carrying it here for now.
Remembrance Day and its main symbol, the poppy, sometimes get a bad rap. Critics, sensitive to how its imagery and ritual can be used to glorify war, reject both. However, in their discomfort with our government’s militaristic turn over the past few years, these critics miss something crucial. Whether or not one thinks war is justified, we enrich public discourse on foreign policy and the ethics of armed conflict by recognising and respecting veterans, and others affected by war, on November 11th.
Generations of Canadians have been to war, as members of our military and as civilians, often immigrants, caught up in hostilities. By honouring them, living or dead, we can also make space for thinking critically about foreign policy. As we stand to attention this November 11th , Canadians fight in Iraq, stand ready in eastern Europe, and maintain peace with the UN around the world, dispatched by our country to be ready to kill and, perhaps, to die. We need an honest national conversation about our military operations, but we should also show respect for those who serve. And as a matter of fact, these two things well complement each-other.
Listen to what soldiers have to say. They are sworn to become instruments of policy, and they willingly do so at great personal cost. Their choice to serve may arise from complex and personal motivations; one shouldn’t assume they know why they put on the uniform and why they fight. As a result of the pressures of this special role, they have often engaged in considerable reflection. Hearing their perspectives and their stories offers a glimpse into a world that thankfully few Canadians have experienced.
Don’t dismiss the imagery and rituals of remembrance, even if one is uncomfortable with how they are sometimes invoked in political rhetoric. One might choose not to attend the cenotaph ceremony or wear a poppy, but one can still appreciate that these are deeply cherished symbols to those who have served, to their families, and to large segments of the public.
Remembrance is for all, regardless of religion or political affiliation, and thus has the power to unify and focus our public conscience on the ethics of war. One need not join in any national rituals to recognize that for many Canadians, participation is a communal link to all who have served and died, and a meditation on the nature of force, of courage, of wounds, and of sacrifice.
If it is policy we dislike, we should not take our frustrations out on members of the military, some of whom profoundly dislike the orders they willingly follow (within the boundaries of the law) and who are bound, while in uniform, not to comment on matters of national concern. Voluntary surrender of the right to protest is absolutely central to the military ethos of liberal democracy, and we are wise to reflect on how difficult that is, even if for the greater good.
As Canada marches forward in a complex world of shifting threats, new allies, and old fears, Canadians should not forget to have a critical conversation about the military, about militarism, and about where and when we deploy lethal violence. We have a moral commitment to humanitarianism and to democracy, but it is often unclear how we should best honour these values. And although sometimes war is necessary, countries (and politicians) frequently have been too quick to resort to the ‘war’ option.
War carries costs. By keeping a tradition of remembrance, we bear those costs with maturity and compassion. By recognising veterans on November 11th, we learn from our past and orient ourselves towards a more thoughtful future.
For this reason, we wear our poppies and place wreathes at the cenotaph