Remembering not to repeat a history of warring ways

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The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month takes on an extra significance this time around, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the war to end all wars.

If that horrific conflict lived up to its name, November 11 would be more of a celebratory event. As it is, Remembrance Day recalls the sacrifices of those who served in the military, particularly those who lost their lives in the two large-scale wars that shaped the 20th century.

But “Lest we forget” is best applied to remembering the horrors of war, and avoiding them in the future. The ideal way to honour the veterans of past wars is to ensure their ranks are never increased.

That is perhaps too optimistic for a species with a long history of violence, conflict and imperialistic aspirations. Despite all we know, there’s still a sizable group of people who support the kind of power plays and warmongering that generates the smaller-scale conflicts perpetually brewing all over the planet, whether they be the work of petty, power-grubbing tyrants or larger powers still bent on imperialism and meddling in the affairs of others.

Wars don’t typically happen in isolation, as Gwynne Dyer notes in his column this week. Those on a larger scale are the result of a host of other factors, from historical grievances to external aggression. Often there’s a build-up of military jingoism and propaganda fanning the fires of war. It’s a tactic that is still employed each and every day by leaders from Russia to North Korea, from China to the U.S., the latter being a textbook case of modern imperialism.

The key to avoiding wars, or at least reducing its likelihood, is an informed citizenry that recognizes the propaganda and refuses to buy into the worst kind of patriotic nationalism. Short of fending off an invasion of your home, there’s little reason for much of the military adventurism of the kind we see continually south of the border. And of which even Canada, certainly not a military superpower, gets mired in from time to time – include on that list the likes of Afghanistan and the missions in the confusing morass that is Syria, for instance.

Recognizing the propaganda angle of much of the jingoism typically involves asking the basic question, cui bono – who stands to gain? There are the arms manufacturers who profit outright, the same people who own many a politician through lobbying and financial donations. There’s the military itself, which extends its raison d’être. And there are the politicians who cling to or seek power on the back of “strong leadership,” recognizing that it’s much easier to stir up patriotic fervour than to do something of actual benefit to the majority of citizens.

Refusing to be caught up in all of that is easier said than done, especially during times of real crisis, no matter how the crisis was manufactured.

Remembrance Day is largely associated with wars from the first half of the last century, the epic struggles of the First World War and World War II and, a little later, the Korean War. It’s indelibly linked to the great wars, those almost unthinkable battles that engulfed the planet. That many of us have never experienced such horrors is a welcome relief, but it is then all the more important that we make the effort to remember lest we be doomed to repeat past mistakes.

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