Remembering to Forget: reflecting on imperial liturgies

“The people who burned witches at the stake never for one moment thought of their act as violence; rather they thought of it as an act of divinely mandated righteousness. The same can be said of most of the violence humans have ever committed.” (Gil Baillie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads)

Violence is always justified. No matter what, where, who or how the violence carried out is always “necessary.” This is especially true when it is carried out systematically through empire or nation. Whether “freedom” or “security” or the suppression of “terrorism,” violence is always justified.

Even the smallest acts of micro-aggression, such as violence to a child’s imagination, is justified. Consider a classroom of 4-6 year old kids listening to the Canadian anthem and viewing images of military. This isn’t necessarily “violence,” but it is formative (if it weren’t public schools wouldn’t do it). Now imagine the same group of young children standing for hymns like “Highway of Heroes” and moments of sacred silence. What exactly is happening here?

This is how we pay respect and remember (you might say). I would disagree and suggest that this is how we forget. And the way we do that is through powerful myths and liturgies like Remembrance Day.

The Greek word for myth (muthos) comes from the root “mu” which means ‘to close’ or ‘keep secret.’ Muo, from which we have the word “mute,” means ‘to close one’s eyes or mouth.’ In other words, myth provides a way to remember selectively, to remember without seeing or stating the whole truth. (For more see the book quoted above by Gil Baillie)

What I am suggesting is that for all their noble motives, high holy days like Remembrance Day are actually a means for the empire of Canada to perpetuate a myth that remembers only selectively.

It is not my intent here to offer a critique of the roots of Remembrance Day or Canada’s involvement in WWI. I recently came across a concise essay that does this well. Here are a few short quotations:

“The official Remembrance Day is, ironically, not about remembering at all. It is the ruling class trying to make us forget what really happened in the First World War (and which caused people to create the slogan “lest we forget” in the first place.) That their plea has been so perverted is the real disrespect.

Remembrances in the 1920s and 30s were not just solemn, they were often explicitly anti-war. Instead of celebrating ‘heroes,’ they mourned ‘victims.’

One of their primary focus points was Vimy Ridge, a battle they constructed as gallant and glorious, described by John Buchan as “the birth of a nation.” In fact, military historians consider it an insignificant skirmish within the Battle of Arras, the Germans retreating to take up a different position. 

But this charge up a hill into certain death has been canonized as a turning point in Canadian history. Our memory of Vimy Ridge would more logically be to remember that rich, powerful men sent poor people to their slaughter for absolutely nothing. Anger at this injustice, rather than patriotism, would be an apt remembrance.

Remembrance Day is not such a day. It (and the relentless plastic poppies produced by convict forced labour) is about forgetting what the veterans of WWI tried to warn us: imperial wars enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, at great and bloody cost to the poor.”

My intent here is to emphasize the fact that the myth of redemptive violence – like all myths – demands the act of sacrificing our children. This is most obvious in the act of war in which we send our young men and women to die for the myth. But it is also true in the sense that we must sacrifice subsequent children to the myth itself in order to create the conditions to enact the myth – to live the lie – indefinitely.

This is the function of our national liturgies – our anthems, our silent moments, our symbols of military and State police. The function is to not only memorialize the dead, but to integrate the power of their death into the mythology of redemptive violence.

As C. Wess Daniels points out in a post, these liturgies function to…

  • Shape our desires by the kind of story we see ourselves a part of (if we are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys then we will see our actions as benevolent)
  • Shape what we believe is possible (and what is impossible)
  • Dull our senses so that we are not aware of the suffering of our neighbors
  • Drive us towards seeing the “sacrifice of others” (or scapegoating) as a necessary part of what we do in order to maintain the peace
  • Distract us by excitement, sensationalism, and spectacle that feels good to be on the inside of but keeps us from actually knowing what is going on

When the most solemn experience of a child’s school year surrounds songs, poems and sacred moments for a nation’s military endeavours, this is imperial religion. And, it is nothing less than a form of child sacrifice demanded by the religion itself. The brain plasticity and purity of a child’s imagination is such that these kinds of acts are literally brain-washing. Children who lack alternative perspectives are being force fed a collection of core beliefs that will prime them for readied adoption of nationalistic myths.

Readers will accuse my view as extreme, but I ask: What is happening in an educational community that stops regularly scheduled learning for a civic liturgy? What is happening in a child’s formation when they are guided through poems, songs, and sacred moments dedicated to the nation’s military?

I recently read a biography about Eberhard Arnold, a German revolutionary who created alternative communities during both World Wars 1 & 2. During the rise of German Nationalism the community’s school was threatened with closure when the Inspector of Schools learned that the children did not know any National Socialist songs. This was the same person who, three years previously, had praised the alternative school for its high standards.

I am in no way against teaching children history or having a national anthem. Nor am I against the respectful remembrance of compatriots who died in the conflicts of history. But it is how we remember that matters. It is the way we invest them with holy powers. As the linked essay suggests, the original memories of WWI were neither sentimental nor nationalistic. As the White Poppy campaign says, to remember is to work for peace. We owe it to our children to remember in truth.

Appropriately, the Greek word for truth is alethia, which means “to NOT forget.” I think we are better off to NOT forget the truth than to remember selectively.

“Frederick Varley’s For What? portrays a cart filled with bodies collected from the battlefield. It starkly portrays the horror of war and questions its purpose. In a letter dating from mid-May 1919 to his wife, Maud, this eminent Canadian artist summed up his feelings about the war. “I’m mighty thankful I’ve left France – I never want to see it again. This last trip over has put the tin hat on it. To see the land half cultivated & people coming back to where their homes were is too much for my make up. You’ll never know dear anything of what it means. I’m going to paint a picture of it, but heavens, it can’t say a thousandth part of a story. We’d be healthier to forget, & that we never can. We are forever tainted with its abortiveness & its cruel drama – and for the life of me I don’t know how that can help progression. It is foul and smelly – and heartbreaking. Sometimes I could weep my eyes out when I get despondent… To be normal, to be as those silly cows & sheep that do naught but graze & die, well, it’s forgetfulness.” (from WikiCommons)

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