Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"But what are we remembering?"

A thoughtful post, though one may have disagreements, by Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen:

Ten years ago today, I was in Mons, Belgium. It was the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War and there was a small ceremony in that beatiful medieval town to commemorate the Canadians who arrived in Mons the morning the Armistice.

There was bitter irony in the Canadian position at 11 AM, on the 11th day of November, 1918. It was in Mons in 1914 that forward units of the British army first clashed with the Germans. At one non-descript spot in the outskirts, there are plaques on either side of a little road: One commemorates the place where the first British shot was fired and the other commemorates the position held by the furthest unit forward -- a Canadian unit -- at the moment the Armistice took effect [the last Canadian fatality was at Mons in 1918, two minutes before the eleventh hour - MC]. It takes just a few steps to travel from one to the other but between the two lies four years of hell and millions of dead.

I was particularly lucky to be in Europe on the 80th anniversary because it was the last in which veterans took part in the ceremonies. I will never forget speaking to Tom Spear in a concert hall in Arras. If you know your First World War history, you know what Arras means to Canadian veterans and Spear [more here and here - MC] -- a remarkably sharp 102-years-old at the time -- fought in that war for more than three years.

Unfortunately, not many of us do know the history of the First World War because, for all the fine words about remembrance that will be spoken today, we don't remember. History continues to be treated as a fringe subject by provincial education ministries and, as the Dominion Institute surveys show [my link - MC], historical awareness is declining, not rising.

What is on the increase is piety about remembrance. The ceremonies each November 11 attract more people, the newspapers swell with purple prose, the promises to "never forget" are intoned by suitably solemn politicians.

And then the government does something like this [Mr Gardner's link] and hardly a word of protest is heard. How do we expect historical awareness to improve when governments won't increase the time devoted to the teaching of history and won't spend what amounts to chump change to build a National Portrait Gallery and other national institutions? Ceremonies won't do it. Pious speeches won't help. Remembrance requires meaningful policies and that is the one thing governments will not deliver, and Canadians will not demand, on this day or any other.

It seems it is not remembrance we admire and seek. It is the idea of historical awareness. It is the sentiment of remembrance.

That sentiment may be very satisfying for us but remembrance is not supposed to be about us. It is about Tom Spear and the millions of others who are now gone. Ignorant sentimentalism is hollow, false, a lie.

It is a betrayal of a promise encapsulated in the very name of this day.

I completely agree with the final two paragraphs. As an aid to remembering, this is a most valuable site: The Canadan Letters & Images Project (via J.M. Heinrichs).

Three related posts by Mr Gardner:
From Canada House, 10 years ago

From Mons 10 years ago, and 80 years before that

From Arras ten years ago


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