Ich Nicht Vergesse
November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
I want to tell you about two days, 91 years apart, and it begins in the past but not at the beginning. This has no beginning.
On November 11, 1920, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the first of its kind in the world, where the body of an unidentified soldier was laid to rest in state. This was an unprecedented act, for as early as the Second Boer War (1899-1902), it was not uncommon for the graves of individual soldiers to be forgotten, or only honoured en masse with mass graves on significant battlefields. The sheer death involved and the scale of the civilian sacrifice demanded a change in burial practices. For the first time in Europe, the significance of the war dead was that they were remembered as individuals and not as nameless soldiers who died in mysterious battles at, say, Rorke’s Drift or Waterloo, far from home and wrapped up in glorious ideology. They were remembered as people that were known to others, because the toll was so high that everyone knew someone who was gone. Villages were depleted and cities hollowed of an entire generation. Perspective is key, because humans can’t understand numbers that high. We cannot. The United Kingdom, in World War One, lost over 800,000 men and women. That is all of Mississauga, Ontario and then some, gone. Or, roughly London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and most of Windsor, Ontario. And that was just the United Kingdom. And that was just World War 1.
But this Warrior is important because while he was only one of the few soldiers to be repatriated during World War I, he was one of a great many soldiers that were remembered. While before it had been common practice to ignore the loss of “common” (i.e. non-officers) soldiers, that was impossible after the scale of death of World War 1. Yet still, no-one even anticipated that the original Tomb was going to be significant. Originally, it was built of wood and plaster, and only after some 1.25 million people viewed it in the next few days was it replaced with stone. That is because those 1.25 million people who had lost someone used that public, nameless space to vent their grief, making the remembrance of that grief necessary. The Unknown Soldier is nameless, and therefore became “the cipher that can mean anything, the bones that represent any and all bones equally well or badly”, as Thomas Laquer put it. He became whoever those grieving families wanted him to be. He can become whatever we want him to be.
On November 11, 2011, there are going to be ceremonies all over the world, celebrating the sacrifice of brave men and women who gave their lives in war. Their deaths in foreign lands make them heroes, so much so that here in Ontario, Canada, we have the “Highway of Heroes”. This is the path that hearses take as they carry repatriated bodies from CFB Trenton, the military base in Trenton, Ontario, to the coroner’s office in Toronto. When the dead are brought back, this stretch of highway is often lined with supporters, well-wishers, and patriots who do…what with the dead soldier? Celebrate? Mourn? Remember? What are they thinking as they stand on that highway? What are they trying to express? Support for the grieving family? Hold a vigil to honour the dead? I suspect there are as many answers as there are people who attend. But what is not in question is that they are heroes, those who died. Heroes, because that is the highway that they ride on. That is what we call them. Heroes, every one.
Remembrance Day has undergone a great change in those ninety-one years. In the very beginning, it was an outpouring of grief, held in for two years and which exploded once the Unknown Warrior was buried. Now, it is a celebration of the dead. They are remembered as brave, noble men and women who valiantly gave their lives in defence of something. They are remembered much like World War II is remembered for the Russians. It is the Great Patriotic War, because more than anything else, Russia faced the possibility of being destroyed, root and branch by the Nazi war machine. Remembering our war dead is to celebrate them, so much so that recently on the subway I saw an advertisement for CP24 who asked us to share our “heart-warming memories for Remembrance day.” I have read many memories others had of the Somme. Few are heart-warming.
That is not how I see Remembrance Day. It is not a day for heroes or for martyrs, not even for victory or celebration. It is a day for the dead, a day for raw, raw grief to be spilled; such grief that can only be expressed in the biblical “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” We are far away from the time where everyone was touched by some war, and for that we should be more thankful than anything else. But also for that fact we should remember the millions that have died in war. The millions of civilians who died for causes only partially related to war. The millions who lost friends, fathers, mothers, sisters, and sons for no good reason. Western society does not keep the Dia de Muertos, but I think that is what Remembrance Day was meant to be.
So, as a historian, I ask you to remember the dead of war, all of them from the cowards and heroes, to the innocents and monsters. Celebrate or castigate them tomorrow. Make of them the greatest heroes that the world has ever seen, but do it tomorrow. For today, miss them. Miss having them around, miss the sounds of their voices and the feelings of their presence. Miss them, miss them terribly, and in doing so, remember them today, as they were and as they are now: dead because of war.
Dedicated to the Canadian soldiers, servicemen, and civilians who died in Afghanistan, and all others, soldier or otherwise, who have died in war. You are missed and you are remembered.
The reference was taken from Thomas Laquer, “Memory and Naming in the Great War”, in Commemorations, The Politics of national Identity, ed. John Gillis, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 158.