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November 10, 2014

Commemoration serves a political agenda

TNQ131 Cover Front_1“Commemoration serves a political agenda, where nations adopt a single story that comes to represent past wars, constructed to uphold a version of the story that allows a nation to maintain a positive perception of its past. In the absence of multiple voices all speaking their own stories, nuance and contradiction are subsumed under an authoritative narrative.” –Carol Acton, “Lest We Forget: War and Memory in the 21st Century” , TNQ 131

I renewed my subscription to The New Quarterly in July, but something went amiss (in particular: my ability to follow up on things) and so only just today did I receive my copy of TNQ 131 whose theme is “War: An Uphill Battle.” But I’m glad about that, because I think I’ve been looking for this exact read as we head into another Remembrance Day, a day that overwhelms me because I think about it oh so much. Though you mightn’t think so—I don’t wear a poppy. But not for thoughtlessness, no. Rather, I am so uncomfortable with the authoritative narrative, which seems to have become even more heightened since a mentally-ill man with a gun charged through Ottawa last month and murdered another man who was a soldier. Some might explain this as the soldier having given his life for us, which doesn’t make any sense. I am also so troubled by how war devastates soldiers’ mental and physical health—it’s as bad for them as it is for anyone. I learned about war from my grandfathers, who were both quite adamant that there should never be another one, that no human being should have to go through that. And they knew what they were talking about.

I’ve only just started reading TNQ, but am already finding it enthralling—in particular Ayelet Tsabari’s essays about her experiences in the Israeli army and growing up under the threat of war, how those experiences formed the person she’d become. A piece by journalist May Jeong about her experiences reporting from Afghanistan. (She writes, “If we are serious about bringing women’s rights to the this country, we have to end the war first.”) Stories and reflections on war and conflict, by writers including Kevin Hardcastle and Tamas Dobozy. The essay, “Mud” by the brilliant Rachel Leibowitz. “Look, Don’t Look” by Diana Fitzgerald-Bryden, on what violent and graphic images do to those of us who watch them. And Karen Connelly’s “#ItEndsHere” on the war(s) on women, along with poems from her latest book, Come Cold River. So many voices, so much nuance and contradiction. It’s a really stunning issue. I’m glad to have finally received it.

So what to do then when you’re a person who won’t wear a poppy, but who wants your daughters to remember the brutal, thankless war their great-grandfathers fought, and one before it in which their great-great-grandfather died. When you’re allergic to sentiment and glorification, you think that death doesn’t make one a hero and also that all this death and injury is such a waste, and you understand the ramifications of Canada having abandoned its role as a peacekeeper. Well, instead of a moment of silence, we talk and talk, and ask questions, and point out contradictions, and reflect, and we read, and we learn.

bunny-the-brave-war-horseI am very pleased with the new picture book, Bunny the Brave War Horse, by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie Lafrance, which doesn’t glorify war at all or mask its ugliness, but won’t terrify young readers either. When a soldier dies in the book, no one suggests it was worth it. But the story keeps the memory of WW1 alive, and we can strengthen the connection by pointing out that that it was really not so long ago. There is nuance here, the soldier thinking to himself that the battlefield (with its poppies) must have been a beautiful place before it was wracked and scarred by war.

in-flanders-fieldsI also appreciate the book In Flanders Fields by Linda Granfield, which was first published in 1995 and has just been reissued. Harriet is too young for all the biographical details about John McRae and his poem, but we read the poem itself last night, accompanied by the stirring illustrations, and it made me cry. (It is possible that I so allergic to sentiment because I am particularly susceptible to it.) Yes, it’s definitely part of that authoritative narrative, which would suggest that I have indeed broken faith with those who died, but I haven’t, and neither do I wish current Canadian forces troops anything but “support”, whatever that means. Except what it means has been hijacked, and it’s all very hard, and awful and (really) unnecessary. It is.

An uphill battle, indeed.

However one remembers, though, the point is just not to forget, and I haven’t. I won’t.

3 thoughts on “Commemoration serves a political agenda”

  1. theresa says:

    A thoughtful post, Kerry. I have similar misgivings about wearing poppies. Some argue that they’re meant as symbols of remembrance, not war; but the subleties are often lost in the clamour around November 11, particularly this year it seems. I don’t need to wear a poppy to remember and what I think is important to remember is the slaughter in the Great War, the huge and unnecessary loss of life — on all sides. I’ve read so many books about the Great War and looked at so many photographs, read letters (via the Canadian Letters project, for a book I was writing), and mourned for the loss of so many vibrant and promising lives cut short. The legacy of that slaughter is with us still — every family, it seems, has a story; one at least, if not more. Every year a well-meaning representative of our local Legion sort of pushes the tray in front of me and because I know him or her, I forgo the kind of “discussion” I’d really like to have and I put some money in the tin for the poppy. But thank you for your own refusal to wear one.

  2. Maia says:

    I hear you about the poppy. I didn’t wear one for years for basically the reasons you describe, though I did wear one this year (until my one-year-old puked pastry cake on it — but that’s another story!), precisely because the recent events on Parliament Hill were weighing heavily on my mind. Maybe next year I’ll just put stones in my pocket and think of Woolf the pacifist who couldn’t bear to live through another war.

  3. Laura says:

    Great post, great links, and great books. Thanks.

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