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How we talk about war and remembrance

“War is what happens when language fails.” —Margaret Atwood

Bill Black of the Korean War Veterans Association of Canada (left) and James Sookbirsingh of the Submariners Association of Canada place a wreath at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day 2020.
Stephen J. Thorne/LM
The language of war and remembrance is couched in euphemism, hyperbole and a healthy dose of gilded lilies. In short, a lot of overused words and hackneyed phrases that tend to glorify and obfuscate, comfort and satisfy.

In war, politicians and military mucky-mucks use alternative language to soften the reality of, or maintain support for, humankind’s greatest failure—phrases or words such as “collateral damage” for civilian casualties, “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture, “ethnic cleansing” for genocide, and “conflict” for war.

The remembrance period is rife with such well-worn words as “sacrifice,” “bravery,” “noble,” “heroes” and that most-misunderstood of phrases, “lest we forget”—old-reliables delivered with great solemnity, earnestness and gravitas; take-homes that make people feel good about their societal debts for another year.

Most of these terms and phrases emanate from 1914-18, the first industrialized war, when combatants and non-combatants were killed in unprecedented numbers. And that was in a time when better medicine saved more lives.

The scale of death and destruction, the sight of disfigured survivors in the streets of London, Paris, Toronto, Melbourne and New York—indeed, in small towns and villages all over—awakened the general public to the horrors of war.

The “war to end all wars” also transformed war art and literature, far less of which glorified the subject in the aftermath of 20 million wartime deaths, the Erich Maria Remarque book All Quiet on the Western Front a prime example.

But the Great War didn’t alter the language surrounding it.

“It is forbidden to kill,” said Voltaire, “therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Wreaths surround the National War Memorial prior to the ceremony on Nov. 11, 2020.
Stephen J. Thorne/LM

Of course, silence wasn’t enough.

The first Armistice Day was observed in 1919 after King George V circulated a Nov. 9, 1919, letter throughout the Empire calling on its dominions and territories to mark “the victory of right and freedom” and for “the brief space of two minutes, [make] a complete suspension of all our normal activities.”

This was to happen at the precise moment the Armistice ended the fighting—the 11th hour of the 11th day on the 11th month.

“During that time, except in rare cases where this may be impractical, all work, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

And so, a tradition was born.

Of course, silence wasn’t enough. People had to talk—and not usually the people who were there but, most often, the people who sent them, and their ilk. There were politicians and preachers, poseurs and potentates.

The language was still laced with Old World ideas and phrases—the oratorical equivalent of a 19th century painting dripping with shredded battle flags and glory, rooted in a time when Britannia ruled the waves and half the world with an iron fist and navy rum.

Even the phrase “lest we forget” has its roots in ancient Biblical tradition.

“Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently,” says the King James Bible version of Deuteronomy, “lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy son’s sons.”

In 1897, Rudyard Kipling borrowed the concept in his poem Recessional, written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee:

God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle line,

Beneath whose awful hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

“Lest we forget” soon became the rallying cry for, not just Nov. 11, but what became the annual period of remembrance leading up to it. Somebody forgot, however, because in 1939 they did it all over again—a world war, that is—and this time some 53 million people died.

Those speeches didn’t change, however, and neither did the escalating cycle of war. The weapons became more efficient, the causes more obscure, the atrocities almost mundane to a largely uncaring world.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,” said Albert Einstein, “but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

And, still, the language remains the same.

The going down of the sun at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2020.
Stephen J. Thorne/LM

The speech makers would have you believe they died gloriously for king and country, freedom and democracy.

As writers of history, it is our job to show, not tell.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of calling every Allied combatant a “hero,” to laud their “exploits,” their “bravery” and their “sacrifice.” Yet, would it not be more credible and informative to delve into their stories and circumstances and allow readers to reach their own conclusions about their histories?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “courage” as “the ability to disregard fear,” while it says to be brave is to “be able or ready to face and endure danger.”

“Bravery” is more commonly used than “courage,” though courage is undoubtedly the more descriptive and accurate term when it comes to war.

Fred Dibnah, a British Cold War veteran, steeplejack and television personality, is credited with the pearl of wisdom “a man who says he feels no fear is either a fool or a liar.” He was speaking generally, adding “you gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

But the concept came to apply especially to war and its combatants who—in the First World War, at least—went “over the top” at gunpoint, thus leaving them to either die fighting or die a coward.

Those serving in a First World War infantry regiment were 6.8 times more likely to be killed in action as those who were not—14 per cent died, or 6,000 a day for four years. The vast majority, probably in the neighbourhood of 99.8 per cent, died fighting.

The speech makers would have you believe they died gloriously for king and country, freedom and democracy. The fact is, many signed up not knowing what they were getting themselves into and, in the end, most fought for a more personal, indeed intimate, reason: They couldn’t, in their heart of hearts, let down the men on either side of them. That commitment, and those bonds, are deep and everlasting—a connection that only they can know.

As time passed and societal mores evolved, veterans became more candid, forthright and unvarnished in their recollections of war and their attitudes toward it.

Literacy, once the domain of the more-educated officer corps, had become common, and the rank-and-file wrote more explicit letters, memoirs and histories.

Media coverage of the Vietnam War brought the public to the front lines, in all their ugliness and brutality. Public perceptions of war evolved but, still, the language of remembrance did not.

“After a year I felt so plugged in to all the stories and the images and the fear that even the dead started telling me stories,” former Vietnam correspondent Michael Herr wrote in his book Dispatches, “you’d hear them out of a remote but accessible space where there were no ideas, no emotions, no facts, no proper language, only clean information.”

The deficit in historical awareness isn’t unique to this country.

It has been shown that a large proportion of present-day Canadians know relatively little of the country’s military history or the events that perpetuated it.

In a 2020 survey for the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, Leger Marketing found that just 32 per cent of respondents aged 35-44 knew that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Canadians older than 75 were most informed, at 55 per cent, while just 40 per cent of the youngest cohort, ages 18-24, knew the right answer.

Similarly, more than half of Canadians polled in a 2019 survey conducted by Ipsos for Global News/Historica Canada failed a six-question quiz on the D-Day invasion.

A 2018 poll found only 16 per cent of respondents could correctly identify the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which appears on the $20 bill. And a 2014 survey suggested 18 per cent of Canadians didn’t know the significance of Vimy Ridge, where in 1917 Canadian troops carved out Canada’s place in the world.

The deficit in historical awareness isn’t unique to this country, either.

In another 2020 survey, commissioned by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in Britain, 44 per cent of respondents had no idea what the Battle of Britain was.

Twelve per cent of those aged 18-24 thought the 1940 air battle that saved the islands from Nazi occupation was a First World War fight for supremacy over the English Channel; nine per cent said it was the 1646 civil war fought between England and Scotland; six per cent called it a Viking invasion; and three per cent said it was the 2019 general election.

The question is, how does a society remember something for which it has no knowledge?

The answer, it seems, lies in those same ancient texts: “Teach them thy sons, and thy son’s sons.” And daughters.


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