Waltzing around terrible truths

Brian Jones
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I’ve never much liked Remembrance Day.
In my younger days, I loathed it as mere propaganda that is an insult to the millions of people it commemorates.

But most objectionable are the half-truths, dishonesty, lies, clichés and euphemisms that arise every November.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 1914.

The provincial government announced this week it will hold a four-year commemoration, from 2014-18.

The Rooms announced it will have an extended campaign of exhibits and events called “Where Once They Stood We Stand.” A famous soldier, retired general Rick Hillier, is a co-chairman of the campaign.

Hillier told the media that the campaign commemorates the province’s role in the First World War and the legacy of those who fought in it, including at the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.

Justified anger

It is the buzzwords that make Remembrance Day less than what it should be.

What exactly do we commemorate? Usually, things like “service” and “sacrifice.” Too often, someone will use one of the most obnoxious euphemisms ever invented, “the supreme sacrifice.”

It is a sad day. Solemnity is expected and deserved, such as during the traditional minute of silence.

But I’ve always thought, and still think, that an essential component that is missing is anger.

These days, anger is an emotion that’s discouraged (control yourself; keep your cool; grow up; etc.)

But how can you think about, or talk about, the deaths of millions of people without anger?

On Remembrance Day, we do it by referring to service, to sacrifice, to legacies.

Strong force

Both of my grandfathers fought in the First World War — one for the British Army, the other for the Italian army. When I was a boy, I was relieved when I learned Italy was on Canada’s side in that one.

With all due respect to them both, I don’t want their legacy — nor do I want it for my sons, nor for any grandchildren or descendants that may come.

Theirs was a time and a culture of obedience. When God, king or country called, young men obeyed.

Of course, obedience is still a strong force in our society. The word has unsavoury connotations in this context, so on Remembrance Day it is not used, but is replaced by such words as “duty,” “service” and “loyalty.”

This is not to dishonour veterans, or to question their courage, or to criticize their actions.

On the contrary, it recognizes their history, their life and their experience.

A greater dishonour is done to veterans by using clichés and euphemisms.

The First World War had nothing to do with freedom or democracy. It was all about politics and alliances. Some will scoff, “Every war is about politics.”

Fighting and dying for freedom and democracy would be one thing, but fighting and dying because of politics is another thing altogether.

In terms of the First World War, when I hear or read “sacrifice,” I interpret it as “a needless death” or “a wasted life.”

Should our grandfathers have gone to that war? Their answer, obviously, was yes. But from our vantage point, with what we know now, the answer has to be no. To cite an oft-repeated phrase, there is nothing heroic or glorious — or legacy-building — about young men dying in mud.

The provincial government and The Rooms want young people to learn about the Great War. Here is

a suggestion for teachers. This Remembrance Day, or any other, go on YouTube and look up Australian folksinger Eric Bogle. Turn up the volume on the class computer, and play his song, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” It should spur the kids into a lively discussion.

Brian Jones is a desk editor

at The Telegram. He can be reached at bjones@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.Justified, British Army, The Rooms The Telegram

Geographic location: Italy, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Maggy Carter
    November 08, 2013 - 23:36

    A well written, powerful piece from Brian Jones. He is absolutely right of course that there has long been a proclivity among the powers-that-be to glorify war. As we ready ourselves to commemorate the 'Great War' or the 'war to end all wars', the overwhelming emphasis should be on its futility, its proof of the depravity of mankind, and its victimization not only of those who die in battle - but more so perhaps those who survive it. In no circumstance should we allow our children to view the annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel as our finest hour. It was not. It was a testament to abject stupidity and indifference to the value of life - not by the enemy, but by the authorities in whose trust the youth of our nation was placed. There can be no more disturbing depiction of soldiers as cannon fodder. When the near 800 strong went over the top that morning, few could honestly be said to have done so willingly. They could chance the 80% casualty rate from German fire or suffer the certainty of being shot from behind. If Rick Hillier and Seamus O'Regan hope to achieve anything with their planned memorial campaign, it should be to convey that ugly truth to today's youth. I harbour no expectation that it will do so.

    November 08, 2013 - 22:25

    Brian, the "Supreme Sacrifice" is a phrase used by my father and many veterans, holed up in the DVA in St. John's. Far be it for me to argue about why they still use that phrase. And far be it for you to inquire about why they use it also!! When I talk to a few of them about WW2 , they also use the word Krauts. If certain phrases or words offend you that much , the weekend before Remembrance Day, I would suggest you try and put yourself in their shoes, in the 1940 ties, when some of their friends, died by their sides. "Supreme Sacrifice" certainly would come to THEIR minds. A good article but maybe years to early!! P.S I enjoy MOST of your posts!

    November 08, 2013 - 22:24

    Brian, the "Supreme Sacrifice" is a phrase used by my father and many veterans, holed up in the DVA in St. John's. Far be it for me to argue about why they still use that phrase. And far be it for you to inquire about why they use it also!! When I talk to a few of them about WW2 , they also use the word Krauts. If certain phrases or words offend you that much , the weekend before Remembrance Day, I would suggest you try and put yourself in their shoes, in the 1940 ties, when some of their friends, died by their sides. "Supreme Sacrifice" certainly would come to THEIR minds. A good article but maybe years to early!! P.S I enjoy MOST of your posts!

  • James W.
    James W.
    November 08, 2013 - 19:52

    Brian, I think you speak to the obedience of your own children more so than you do of your grandfather's generation. No? Your grandfather never had the information super highway 100 yrs ago to dispel truth and lies. Your children do. How's that going?

  • Herb Morrison
    November 08, 2013 - 18:53

    As we used to say back in the sixties, the days of my youth, fighting for peace is equivalent to engaging in sexual intercourse in order to preserve virginity.

  • EDfromRED
    November 08, 2013 - 13:22

    Those who beat the drums of war loudest are also those who would shoot themselves in the foot to avoid it. If politicians were made to go serve on the front lines of battle, war would soon be abolished.

  • Cashin Delaney
    November 08, 2013 - 12:30

    Let's make this remembrance year, and continue the dialogue about what we can do for veterans. You may malign Newfies and baymanindians with their hands out, but please respect the warm veteraned bodies we have among us now, their stories, our true repositories of history. Politicians speak of war and the dead so eloquently, almost as eloquently as Ozzy sings about politicians. Where is the middle ground here? I don't think it lies in statues, storyboards poppies, buttercups or forget me nots. Do not let your government handpick your poems of war, and revert to some Homeric ideal devoid of human tragedy. If three staunchly Canadian federal party leaders cannot convince the senate to pass some respect on to our vets, I doubt my blowhard wisdom will stretch their humanity. There are so many worthy efforts; communities, and soldiers, helping soldiers cope. This is a cost, just like single mothers getting payday loans, (insert your own modern Dickensian) et cetera. Punishing soldiers with paperwork. Reamed. Let's not argue over history, what's done is done. Native aboriginal women, elders, war vets, seniors all shell shocked and shell gamed in Canada. We are making history that our native sons and daughters will be compelled to admonish.

  • Winston Adams
    November 08, 2013 - 12:20

    Herb, I have often heard ministers/ priests preach a saying of Jesus " no man shows a greater love than he that layeth down his life for a friend" when describing a soldiers loss of life in battle. They leave out the part that the life was taken by the enemy,(not given) or that the soldier meanwhile was trying to kill his enemy..... a violation of the Christian teaching to love one's enemy. And the memorials to the war dead are numerous on church grounds and within churches... as they should be, as this is where it was preached to the young men about the glory of war. Am I alone to think there is a deliberate attempt to compare the sacrifice to that of Jesus? And which makes war like the Muslim jihad,as god approved, where if you die in battle you go to paradise.

  • Herb Morrison
    November 08, 2013 - 11:15

    I believe that the term "supreme sacrifice," is used, within the context of this situation, to acknowlege that a person has lost their life in battle. No comparison to the Christ event is either stated or implied.

  • David Keat
    November 08, 2013 - 10:11

    Your points are very valid about WW1....a totally needless war. Not so valid when you think about WW2, and Remembrance Day also commemorates the soldiers who lost their lives in THAT war as well as all other wars.

  • Herb Morrison
    November 08, 2013 - 09:09

    In my opinion, one of the most offensive and misguided reasons that is utilized to justify waging war, is the idea that "God is on our side." Whether you are referring to the bloodbaths recorded in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy or ther bloodshed which occurred during world Wars One and Two, the Korean War, The Vietnam War or, most recently, the war in Afghanistan, the notion that God would encourage people to kill other people could best described as perverse. This is not to say that war is not justifiable. Because we are not perfect or Divine beings, conflicts occur between either individual persons or groups of individuals on a daily basis. These conflicts which can range in intensity from of a a so-called "war of words," to the commission of a violent crime, right up to a war involving two or more Countries. As distasteful as any conflict might be, conflict in general, and Wars in particular, stand as testimony to human imperfection. I believe , as Mr. Jones states, that wars are, for the most part, politically motivated; and I believe that God does not encourage or condone conflict in any form, I also believe that, both the Soldiers who fought, and in many cases died in past wars, and Soldiers who are willing to fight and, if necessary die, in wars being waged today, did so, and, are doing so, in the belief that their sacrifice will make the world a better place. The sacrifice, which soldiers have made in wars past or in are making in ongoing wars, should be acknowleged and the soldiers,both living and dead, who made sacrifices in wars should be respected because of the sacrifices they made or are making. Consequently, I wam wearing a red poppy and will be attending Remembrance Day observances.

  • Winston Adams
    November 08, 2013 - 08:47

    Thank you Brian for these honest comments, and I think many should agree with you, except those who deny the history and facts. I shutter when I hear the phrase Supreme Sacrifice, as if to compare a warriors death with that of Jesus. And remember, from my reading many of the survivors own stories, most joined for adventure, some for a square meal, none intending to lay down their life. Many lost their life, taken by the enemy, as they them selves tried to kill their enemy. Such is the cruel reality of war. In WWI, General Haig approached the leaders of the various Christain religions to preach from the pulpits of the Good Fight and the Glory of war, and was done thoughout Nfld and the Empire. And the military chaplains reinforced this. And in the end, the survivors are left to deal with scars of trauma, with little support or understanding. And those in power speak of honour, and sacrifice, to convince the grieving families that it was all worthwhile, good, and glorious. After a century, and with hindsight, we need more truth, honesty and a willingness to point fingers at the cause of such a terrible loss of young men.

  • Politically incorrect.
    November 08, 2013 - 07:28

    Good article. However the politically correct will tell you to shut up, put on a red (not white) poppy and stop saying things questioning the official line.