Every year around 11 November, everyone knows the importance of remembering, but what does that even mean?
For me, in high school, it was memorizing names and dates just before an exam and then quickly forgetting them until the next test. When I went to university, I learned that asking questions like “how?” and “why” were much more important than rattling off “where” and “when.”
So I think, in order to truly remember, every 11 November, people should ask a question to place the sacrifice of so many in a wider context. It doesn’t have to be a big one – you could google “why did generals order the construction of trenches?” or “how did so many recruits sign up for war?”
Of course, thanks to the internet, you can just as easily tackle larger questions such as “how did the drive of nation-building impact the involvement of British colonies and dominions during WWI?” or “how did the leaders of countries participating in WWI remain in power and sustain the war effort with so many disasters and staggering losses?”
Then, if you’re really putting in an effort to remember, you could question the narratives pushed in our traditional education system, media, and government rhetoric.
You could look at questions like “why did the Allies target civilian areas of German cities rather than industrial centers during bombing campaigns in WWII?” or “how and why was the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII carried out in Canada?” It’s one thing knowing these things happened, but looking deeper into the issues and engaging with their consequences should be part of remembering too.
My grandfather, on the right: JONES. Evan, V-35210, A/L/Stk, RCNVR, MID~[5.1.46] “This rating has at all times displayed outstanding initiative, resourcefulness and efficiency in carrying out his duties. By his continual cheerfulness and exemplary character he has been an example to all with who he has served.”
In order to understand the past you need to confront the grey area, instead of just assuming everything was in black and white, good and bad. This helps you gain a better sense of what people went through, and why they did what they did.
In my case, it puts the heroism, sacrifices, and humanity of all my family members who went overseas to fight in a larger story and helps me connect to it in a deeper way. The same goes for those at home who had loved ones come home fine, injured, with PTSD…or not at all.
This also helps makes issues of the present more clear, when asking questions like “why are soldiers and war mythologized in Canada but not in Japan? How could this be used for political ends in each country?” or “How can Canada’s role in past wars be compared to contemporary conflicts?”
This hopefully allows for a better understanding of what happened in Canada’s history, and frames events occurring now in a more nuanced way.
Here’s an example of engaging with a grey area, from an article in the Guardian from November 1999.
“We shall not remember them. We shall not remember Herbert Morrison, who was the youngest soldier in the West India Regiment when he was led in front of the firing squad and gunned down for desertion. A ‘coward’ at just 17.”
“Lest we forget: the 306 ‘cowards’ we executed in the first world war”
The “cowards” were finally pardoned in 2006. Another example deals with the racism and poverty First Nations soldiers faced at home when they returned to Canada after fighting valiantly for the country. Francis Pegahmagabow was a sniper credited with almost 400 kills, 300 captures, and dispatched messaged and resupplied positions under enemy fire.
“When he was in uniform he was considered an equal…by what he could do. When he came back, he just went back to being an Indian. Indians at that time were not even Canadian citizens. They were treated like children and the Indian agents wanted him to basically sit back and shut up and not say anything.”
“Legendary Ojibwa sniper unsung hero of WW I”
Pegahmagabow will finally be recognized with a statue in Parry Sound, Ontario, in 2016.
These examples highlight why we need to critically engage with these grey areas and their lasting impact. We can not forget so these things do not happen again.
If we do not engage critically, we get complicit in knee-jerk simplicity. And that’s no way to remember anything at all.