Another Remembrance Day has come and gone, and we’ve dutifully watched the news clips of important people laying commercially-churned-out wreaths at the bases of cenotaphs around the country. For something like 95% plus of the population, that’s been our nod to the need to remember the death of young men and women who apparently swallowed “that old lie,” Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. (Poem by Wilfred Owen. Translation: It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.)
As it has done for centuries, “that old lie” pervades our culture like swamp algae, and those who recognize its perfidy are cowed into silence by the enormity of the alternative. Imagine elbowing through a phalanx of ramrod-stiff soldiers at the Ottawa Remembrance Day service, pushing your way to the base of the cenotaph and announcing through a bull horn that what is being done here is paying homage to a lie. It would be similar to “sharing” at a fundamentalist church funeral that heaven and hell are parts of an insidious myth.
Since Wilfred Owen wrote his poem as a reflection of an experience in WWI, there’s been a gradual shift away from the patriotic to a more esoteric object of affection worthy of death. It’s hard to convince the Canadian population that their sons and daughters are being put in harm’s way to defend their country, per se. Neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda was threatening Canada when our government decided to engage in the Afghanistan conflict. So our current crop of soldiers are said to be dying for things like “freedom,” or “democracy,” principles that reach beyond our borders to include all like-minded allies. This trend is probably traceable to the Korean War, where the lie was altered to make us believe that our soldiers were dying to defend democracy against the canker of communism.
If the lie were the truth, our soldiers should be coming back with stories of glory exuberantly told, stories about their accomplishments in support of the ideals under which they enlisted. Why do so many come back disillusioned and sick? I’m told that for every death in Afghanistan, there are numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in its various manifestations, not to mention amputations and other permanent physical harms. By and large, the media steer clear of the mothers who wail, “for what??” as they visit their children’s graves on Remembrance Day, but once in a while you hear from those with the courage to voice their deepest agonies, and they are of the “why?” and “for what?” variety, reflections of Owen’s torment over the sheer horror of the military solution viewed with eyes wide open.
Owen’s soldiers leave for the battle field “ardent for some desperate glory.” What vision of “desperate glory” entices our soldiers into uniform? One young soldier interviewed in a magazine some time ago said he was itching to “get over there to blow stuff up.” Others craved the camaraderie, the union with others in common purpose, the adventure, the newness offered in the military, and, oh yes, the defense of . . . what was it again? . . . democracy.
What I wished for this Remembrance Day was for more people with the courage to say what they know to be true: it is a lie and a folly. “To remember is to work for peace” read the button on the jacket of a friend in the Station before Remembrance Day. It was red, like the poppy, but in its small way it announced to the world that Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori is a tired, old lie.