Remembrance Day and historical memory

In countries across Europe and North America, it’s traditional to pause on November 11 and remember the sacrifices made by veterans on behalf of our respective countries during wartime. As an historian who focused on twentieth-century Europe, and as the grandson of two air force veterans, I’m acutely aware of what it is we’re supposed to be remembering; hell, I’ve taught it. But, because of my historical training, I’ve been paying attention to how we remember those sacrifices. I’ve been fascinated by the subject of historical memory since I was first exposed to it in Henry Rousso’s Vichy Syndrome (if there’s a Canadian equivalent, I’d love to know about it).

In the same way that Rousso noted that books and films about France’s wartime experience were few until some decades have passed, I think I’ve noticed a greater emphasis on Remembrance Day in recent years. Maybe, the older and fewer the veterans from the World Wars get, the more we want to honour them before they’re all gone. (Quantifying this would make an excellent research project.) Meanwhile, I’ve noticed two things that I’d like to talk about here: the attempts by veterans’ groups to control the historical narrative and suppress portrayals they find offensive; and the role November 11 plays in small communities — something I saw first-hand as a reporter two years ago, and that I’ve been mulling ever since.

My thoughts on this subject are still half-formed, and I’m not going to mince words. If you think I’m being harsh or disrespectful, please have a look at this article, which I wrote two years ago. This post isn’t so much about veterans and their sacrifices back then, about which little more can be said that has not already been said, and said better; it’s about what we’re doing and saying about them today.

Veterans’ Groups

Veterans’ groups have bugged me for a long time. First it was legions barring turbaned Sikh (and, by implication or less visibly, orthodox Jewish) veterans from their premises because they insisted — bizarrely, I thought — on maintaining officer’s club rules about headgear. As a civil libertarian, the idea that such rules were more important than religious freedom made me quite angry.

Then came the battle over the controversial CBC docudrama, The Valour and the Horror, led, if memory serves, by Cliff Chadderton and his National Council of Veterans Associations. Whatever you thought about that program, their response was appalling: thanks to a sympathetic senator, they forced public hearings that had a vague whiff of McCarthyism. Jack Granatstein, no fan of the series, had this to say about the response:

The first thing that must be said is that the films and especially the book were dreadful. The second is that the Senate should butt out and set to its real work — the elimination of the upper chamber of Parliament. The Senate has no business whatsoever investigating this issue, any more than it did with its earlier inquiry into the NFB’s film on Billy Bishop. This is still a democracy and even the CBC/NFB have rights to freedom of speech. The accuracy of The Valour and the Horror may be doubtful, the point of view slanted, but the way to deal with that is in the arena of public debate. It is sad to see veterans, who fought to keep the world free, trying to ban a TV series and book.

For the longest time after that incident, I refused to wear a poppy; now I was offended both as a civil libertarian and as an historian. It’s important to stress that I made — and make — a distinction between veterans, who are, as a class, both beyond reproach and diverse, and veterans’ groups, whose positions and behaviour quite frankly pissed me off at times. By the mid-1990s, I had read enough about veterans’ groups in interwar Europe that were militant, even proto-Fascist — the Croix de Feu in France, the Stahlhelm in Germany, for example — so I was by no means inclined to accept a veterans’ organization’s assertions on blind faith.

I’ve mellowed since; the poppy has gone back on my lapel. But it seems that veterans’ groups have not, if the silliness that has gone on this year is any indication.

Earlier this year, Chadderton and the NCVA raised a stink about paintings in the new Canadian War Museum that Chadderton called “a trashy, insulting tribute” — the paintings were of atrocities committed by Canadian soldiers in Somalia. While Chadderton’s response was predictable, other veterans’ groups disagreed with him, saying that it was important to portray war in all its harsh realities.

As was the case with the Valour and the Horror affair, Chadderton’s view is apparently that veterans — or at least veterans’ groups — have veto power over the historical record. Apart from the assertion of collective rights that freak out an old Trudeaucrat like me, the idea that a group can control its own history has implications far beyond the historical profession.

But it’s not just Chadderton. This week, the Legion invoked trademark on the poppy and demanded that Pierre Bourque remove its image from his web site. According to the Legion’s communications director, Bob Butt, “The poppy is a trademark of the legion and anyone who wants to use it has to apply. Otherwise it would be all over the place.”

How exactly is that a problem? You can imagine some of the online reaction. Poppies are sprouting everywhere. Colby Cosh’s reaction is the strongest:

The Legion’s legal pestering of Bourque enrages me, in the same way and for the same reasons as it would if some private organization tried to trademark the image of the Christ child. I never thought I was helping to remove a piece of our cultural heritage from the public domain by buying Remembrance Day poppies. And I am certainly surprised to learn that “Remembrance” itself has become anyone’s formal property. I won’t pay for or wear one ever again. And neither should you.

Other responses are more restrained. Kelly Nestruck will continue to wear a poppy but calls the Legion’s action “silly.” And here’s Chris Selley:

I won’t take off my poppy, nor will I post one here in protest, simply because Mr Butt obviously doesn’t represent the views of the majority of veterans. Mr Butt is just a jerk, and no one should pay him any mind. If the Legion actually wants to sue someone for displaying the poppy, which is precisely what they ask of Canadians every year, it’ll be a fine opportunity to wrest control of one of our proudest symbols back from a few complete lunatics. Somehow, though, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.

Kathy simply says, “The Canadian Legion can bite my lumpy butt.”

Me, I just look at it as another piece of a much larger puzzle, where, as we’ve seen before, veterans’ organizations are trying to own not only the history, but the terms by which it is remembered.

Small Communities

Two years ago, during my brief and turbulent career as a reporter, I was assigned to cover Remembrance Day services in the region. I was sent to cover a total of four services in person — in Otter Lake, Quyon, Shawville and Portage du Fort — and followed up by phone with the others (Calumet Island, Chapeau, Fort Coulonge and Ladysmith). As a result, I got a reasonable impression of how Remembrance Day services work around here — but only an impression.

First of all, Remembrance Day is an extremely significant event for small towns. It’s more than just a parade and ceremony at the local cenotaph or memorial; there is invariably a get-together at the legion hall or community centre beforehand or afterward. Wreaths laid usually numbered in the dozens. Its role in community identity and social cohesion merits further study.

In places it can also be profoundly religious: Otter Lake’s was held directly after, and was a continuation of, Sunday Mass, and Shawville’s had sermons from five Protestant pastors (which made it extremely long, more on which in a moment).

Participation by townspeople seemed quite high — five to eight per cent of the total population, in some cases. Elected officials were quite busy as they attended as many of these services as they could. But attendance by soldiers was more problematic: obviously in high demand during this season, they were in significant force at Chapeau and Portage du Fort, for example, but Shawville only got a handful. Demand for soldiers was probably one of the reasons why some towns held it on days other than the 11th — most did it the weekend before in 2003, on the 8th or 9th. (Shawville stubbornly held out for the 11th and lost out to Portage du Fort as a result, I think.) Another reason given for doing it on the weekend: to allow people who commute into Ottawa to attend. Another point emphasizing the event’s community role: it’s not enough to attend a service; it’s important to attend ours. The net effect is to stretch out a single day to a week’s worth of ceremonies.

Few veterans — half a dozen, at most — were in attendance, to be expected in small communities where the casualty lists from all wars could be read aloud within a minute or two. My editor, with whom I disagreed on most things, argued that dragging these old men out in the cold — it was snowing during Shawville’s extremely long service — was hard on and unfair to them. Was it truly necessary to put them through a very long service in cold weather? I saw his point.

Honouring veterans in this manner is a function of ceremony and ritual. Not every veteran puts on his medals every time this year, or wants to relive his experiences. It’s far more important, I think, to make sure that veterans of all theatres and conflicts are looked after properly than to make them the living centrepieces of ceremonies whose form has remained unchanged for decades.

There’s a thesis or a book in this subject, if it hasn’t already been done.