Huddled as a mass, we across Canada gather at our local cenotaph on November 11th. The experience transcends differences of rural and urban, class and race, gender and belief, because the spectre of war brings us together today as it has throughout our history as a nation. As we give thanks for those whose sacrifice transcended their own lives at the moment their flame was snuffed out, our thoughts may invariably drift to two phrases: never again and the wars of tomorrow.
Remembrance Day seems to ask us to see reality and history as what they are: war is about terrain contested both literally and figuratively. The winners write the history books, but the printing press whirs onward. Therefore, words and discourse, each acting in their own right and as the ultimate impetus for mortal sacrifice, guide our minds through the charnel house of history. As students, it behooves us to consider our role in the future world as we acquire knowledge about the world around us.
Not Just A Game, That Electronic Babysitter
Of the wars of tomorrow, we don’t have to look far for their preparation; in terms of the valorization of combat at the expense of depictions of the suffering caused. Consider one staple video game of our times, its name bearing a hallmark phrase that can be as noble or as vapid as its bearer: Call of Duty. Their website uses stark advertising phraseology: “Earn new functional weapons and get to the fight faster with the newly-opened subway system in Verdansk.” Functional weapons for maximum efficiency, right? It sounds akin to finding the fastest pipeline route from pancake land tar sands through the mountain morass of the Pacific northwest.
Yet, there’s more to building infrastructure than just gettin’ it done; every how defends or denigrates a mound of why, a few alternative visions for society and the planet. Analytic precision, key to winning a video game or engineering a pipeline, has little room for broad historical perspective or the emotions of stakeholders. Cerebrums take second place to the heart when we consider the grim fate of real warriors fighting a real war, far removed from inhabitants of Dorito-laced sofas with legs up on Ottomans without an Empire.
In contrast, feel these few words by a veteran of the Second World War: “Our destination is Dieppe. There are a lot of embankments, and so there’ll be a lot of climbing. It’s not going to be a picnic. But the worst part I have to tell you is that only one out of every four of you people will come back alive.” The worst parts of war are often the parts least understood by those who play at it; likewise, the worst outcome for the planet fails to figure in economic calculations. Historical perspective on our times remains for the future to find, ironically.
The muted suffering of war, for the service of Queen and country and for the preservation of our ideals and liberties, has little place in the realm of video games. Perhaps this is why countless users online, people of all ages, so blithely rampage and ransack each other’s fortresses of personal belief with nary a need to feel the real consequences of their actions. And, lest we forget to put our own studies in perspective, let’s remember too that our deadlines and future careers are also not life and death. November 11th is a chance to balance the act; my decades of attendance on what, in my hometown, annually feels like the coldest day since February have never failed to help define where I’m at in relation to my life as a Canadian. Not just a consumer or a student, but as a Canadian. No moment of silence is more deadening than the one at 11 AM on that day. The machine gun mind stills as the reality of peace descends on us all. And then, when the tune of the reverie wafts hauntingly through the air the real cost of our freedoms becomes clear: to simply live and speak as we will, and know that our flag and our cenotaph and our valued civil liberties will be there, without beheadings and without the evisceration of historical monuments, is a right and privilege that can be lost and thus that we must defend in our discourse and with both our minds and our hearts.
AU Scholars United in Appreciation of our Hard-Won Freedoms
Besides giving thanks to our veterans past and present, Remembrance Day can provide a broader perspective on our role within the Canadian mosaic. (Canada Day, and its attendant concepts of unity and harmony, is perhaps the inverse Janus face of this sombre occasion.) At AU we can see an image of the greatest facets of Canada in our own small struggle for academic success. On Remembrance Day the distance between us as AU students diffuses; what unites us is our valuation of the evaluative faculties of the human mind in terms of intellect and development.
While it may be a fool’s pragmatism to believes that we can fully predict our future life outcomes based on skills we acquire in the present, we fight our own noble fight by working to better ourselves through education. We’re here to learn, not merely to follow orders. We don’t just stand at attention with vacant eyes and zombie souls like conscripts forced to die on foreign shores. And we don’t just wander to class like fresh-faced students piling into dorms straight out of high school at their parent’s bequest.
Each victim of war was exercising their individual agency in the best way they knew how, and we have to honour their service because to believe in something enough to put our body in the line of fire is part of the passion that makes life for living. To limit our struggles to a hedonistic search for pleasure would be like surfing the internet randomly and claiming to have learned as much as a student who pays for the privilege of an education. In this way, AU is about a private struggle for valuable meaning in the way that the tragedy of war is based on people fighting for worthwhile beliefs.
Poetry in Motion; The Wheels of History and The Heroes Who Keep Us Strong
Poetry, that expression of the mirrored soul on the surface of life’s sunny skies, ironically expresses the real shock and awe of war that moving images often fail to capture. Consider this First World War poem about a victim of the first weapon of mass destruction, mustard gas:
“In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est)
Key to the poem is the Latin line, which means “it is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.” A harsh sentiment, but that’s war.
And that’s the point: war has no glory when you’re the one dying in it. Glory comes later or, in a video game, as an artifice achieved without any real sacrifice other then that of one’s precious time. War is emotional, not calculating, and the struggle is in the heart as well as the mind. Feelings aren’t just for the therapists colouring book. The question becomes, in life and in struggles, what do we value enough to suffer and even die for?
Strange Times: All the More Reason to Remember Those Who Fought and Died
That we are blessed with peace in our time gives a healthy perspective on cultural troubles and social media disputes, including riots over police violence and the destruction of monuments to our history. (Recall how in the aftermath of 9/11 monuments were officially protected from terrorists). In our scholar world, our struggles to succeed at our studies clarifies too.
When we ponder the real loss faced by veterans who lost their comrades, families who lost their relatives, and above all, by brave soldiers who lost their very lives, our private troubles lessen in the face of historical fact. There’s no fake news names engraved onto those cenotaphs. Those who fought and died did so not only because they believed that their battle was just or because they were told that this was the way forward but also because, in their heart of hearts, they felt that the history and the future of our humble Canada depended upon them. That’s why their sacrifice is so powerful: the fight for freedom is not a bumper sticker, it’s the ultimate expression of meaning. But war is a last and horrible resort.
To arrest future senseless bloodshed requires nothing less than we ask ourselves what it is that matters most. And in the immortal lyrics of Edwin Starr, that war, all too often, is good for “absolutely nothing”, we can realize that petty cultural bickering withers in comparison to the consequences of real turf battles around the globe. If war is good for only one thing it is that it provides perspective that we may acquire the ability to foresee, forestall, and foreclose the possibility of unleashing of future horrors upon the world. And we can only do that by preserving our freedom of expression and maximizing our knowledge, our book learning and our school smarts, that we may face the future with a real education. One day as AU graduates who studied our world and have the diploma to prove it, we can, when someone speaks of wars of the future, respond with with dignity in our hearts and respect for our forebears under our brow, with a hearty: “never again!”