On ‘Remembrance Day’ we should not forget that the majority of war’s casualties are actually non-combatant civilians. We should also remember that the original day was a day of great joy, as warring came to an end. Peace is the ‘default position’; war an aberration. However, current commemorations still focus on the ‘warrior hero’.
We should call it ‘Armistice Day’.
By calling Armistice Day ‘Remembrance Day’, we rather miss the point. In particular we miss the fact that the original Armistice Day in 1918, was a day of joy. As one newspaper of the time proclaimed “Whole country goes wild with joy at news of peace”.
Traditionally it has become a day on which the community remembers and grieves together for those who lost their lives in war. Conventionally and overwhelmingly, the emphasis of the day is on those who died in military service. Uniforms, medals and solemn military display are the order of the day.
After four years of pointless slaughter the so-called ‘Great War’had come to an end. It had been “The war to end wars”; the first thoroughly industrialised war, unlike any previous war in the scale of its destruction. When the guns fell silent, all involved in the grisly work of warfare must have heaved a great, collective sigh of relief. At last the business of killing one another had come to a halt.
Peace is the ‘default position’, from which war is an aberration. With this in mind, commemoration of the return of peace should be a major feature of Armistice Day. Sadly, that is not the case. Instead, this notion has been turned on its head. We are expected to accept ‘perpetual war’as the modern reality, suggesting that peace is weird and aberrant.
This was exemplified last year at the Cenotaph. A small group of peace-activists unfurled a banner with the slogan “Honour the war dead, by ending war!”. Those wearing medals sensed that this action besmirched their solemn event in some way. The activists were accused of being traitors, for having the temerity of drawing attention to the idea of peace.
Over time, the need to remember and commemorate war, as opposed to peace, has become the dominant message of the day. Armistice Day has become one more day upon which to glorify the noble ‘warrior hero’, presumably in the hope that other heros will step forward and give their lives in future wars.
The possibility that future wars may be unnecessary, avoidable, or too terrible to contemplate, has not yet entered the consciousness of those in or close to the military community. William Owen’s ‘old lie’prevails – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”).
The persistent myth of the warrior hero overlooks one very salient fact. In all the wars since WW1, the overwhelming majority of the casualties of war have been non-combatant civilians.
We have reached a point where 90% of the victims of war are not military personnel. However, on Armistice Day we are invited to remember those who suffered through military service, exclusively. Society’s memory has yet to catch up with the reality of modern warfare, especially the fact that so much of it is now conducted by means of bombing.
Bombing is and always has been an imprecise practice in which indiscriminate, (‘collateral’) damage is routine. What is more, since WW2, civilians have even been deliberately targetted in bombing campaigns. There is little that is noble in this form of warfare; it has no connection with the mythical hero.
As things stand, Armistice Day is another opportunity for us to be told that making war has been the most essential part of our history, and one that will remain with us indefinitely. Peace activists now suggest that Remembrance Day be ‘re-jigged’.
For sure, it is a day on which to remember those who have fallen in war, civilian as well as military. It is also one on which to commemorate the return to peace and proclaim the need for a peaceful future.
Nick is convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group (MPG) and a member of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN)
Members of MPG will attend the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Hyde Park War Memorial in Sydney on November 11th.