By calling Armistice Day on November 11 “Remembrance Day” we miss the point. The original Armistice Day in 1918 was a day of joy, celebrating the end of a hugely bloody war. As one newspaper at the time described it: “Whole country goes wild with joy at news of peace”.
Traditionally, Armistice Day has become a day for communities to remember and grieve together for those who lost their lives in war. Conventionally, the emphasis is on those who died in military service: uniforms, medals and solemn military display are the order of the day.
After four years of pointless slaughter, the so-called Great War — World War 1 — had come to an end. It had been “the war to end wars”, the first thoroughly industrialised war, which was unlike any previous war in the scale of its destruction.
When the guns fell silent, all involved in the grisly work of warfare must have heaved a huge collective sigh of relief. At last, the business of killing one another had come to a halt.
Peace is supposed to be the default position, from which war is an aberration. Commemorating the return of peace should be a major feature of Armistice Day. However, that is not the case.
Today, we are expected to accept “perpetual war” as the modern reality with peace being aberrant.
This was exemplified last year at the Sydney Cenotaph where a small group of peace activists unfurled a banner with the words: “Honour the war dead, by ending war!”.
Those wearing medals felt that this besmirched their solemn event and accused the activists of being traitors for having the temerity to draw attention to the idea of peace.
Remembering and commemorating war, as opposed to peace, has become the dominant message of Armistice Day. It has become one more day upon which to glorify the noble “warrior hero”, presumably in the hope that other heroes will step forward and give their lives in future wars.
The possibility that future wars may be unnecessary, avoidable or too terrible to contemplate, has not yet entered the consciousness of those in the business of war.
Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem prevails: “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. [It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country].
But the persistent myth of the warrior hero overlooks one very salient fact: in all the wars since WW1, the overwhelming majority of casualties have been non-combatant civilians. Some 90% of the victims of war are not military personnel.
However, on Armistice Day we are invited to remember those who suffered through military service — exclusively.
Society’s memory has yet to catch up with the reality of modern warfare, especially that so much of it is now conducted by means of bombing.
Bombing is, and always has been, an imprecise practice in which indiscriminate — collateral — damage is routine.
What is more, since WWII, civilians have even been deliberately targeted in bombing campaigns. There is little that is noble in this form of warfare; it has no connection with the mythical hero.
Armistice Day is another opportunity for us to be told that making war has been the most essential part of our history and one that will remain with us indefinitely.
Peace activists believe that Remembrance Day needs to be re-jigged. We say it is a day to remember those who have fallen in war, civilian as well as military. But it is also one to commemorate the return to peace and proclaim the need to work for a peaceful future.
[Nick Deane is the convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group and is a member of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network. Activists will attend the Remembrance Day ceremony at the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park on November 11.]