The Ideological Work of Commemoration

By Jamie Swift

In the 1985 Argentinian film, The Official Story, one of the characters, a student, angrily proclaims that his country’s history textbooks had been “written by assassins.” Stories, as we know, vary considerably in the telling. The dominant narrative – to use the now shopworn term – tends to be recounted by the loudest voices. Hardly assassins. But often people with only a passing acquaintance with evidence.

So it is with the Official Story of Canada’s wars.

Just as the Harper government’s spasm of bellicose patriotic storytelling got underway with the centenary of the War of 1812, Governor General David Johnson came up with a curious claim. “When we study our history and the wars in which we fought, the wars overseas, it has been to purchase our freedom, our liberties.” [1]

Such bloodletting would, presumably, include such noble struggles in buying Canadian liberty as the Boer War, fought to ensure British mining companies gained access to South Africa’s vast gold deposits. Tellingly, the government recently added the South African war to Ottawa’s National War Memorial, ignoring the civilian death toll in concentration camps run by the British that far exceeded the number of actual Boer fighters killed in combat.

We can, I suppose, expect the Official Story from Governors General who have of late revived an earlier tradition of appearing in military garb, adorned with medals.

But what about prominent historians?

Now that Canada is marking the various centenaries of the First World War, scholars are weighing in from all sides. On the popular history front, Jonathan Vance produced a high profile article for Canada’s History magazine to coincide with Remembrance Day, 2014. Writing approvingly of Parliament’s 1931 replacement of Armistice Day with Remembrance Day, Vance echoed the Official Story, citing “the values that animated Canada’s war effort – democracy, freedom, justice, Christianity – and the fact that more than sixty thousand Canadians gave their lives to defend those values.”

It’s one thing to claim that lofty principles spurred some of the men who flocked to the colours in the early days of the war. It’s quite another to cite the widely trafficked notion that this unspeakable tragedy was somehow about democracy and, even more puzzling, Christianity. The lads across No Man’s Land were, lest we forget, Lutherans and Catholics.

If droning repetition of the Official Story merely prompted a debate among scholars about the causes and nature of the war, we could simply point to Christopher Clark’s masterpiece The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 to show that the bloody affair was a sordid imperial power play. We would be reminded that it had as much to do with democracy as Canada’s infamously rigged 1917 conscription election. For the debunking of the German war guilt thesis all we have to do is read Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War; Margaret MacMillan’s recent Guardian article “Just Don’t Ask Me Who Started the War”; or Adam Hochschild’s fine 2011 tale of resistance and patriotism, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion.

But the Official Story does more than that. The endless framing of the war in glorious, nation-building terms performs what David Tough calls “ideological work.”[2]

If we are convinced that over sixty thousand Canadians (often still romantically called “the fallen”) were killed to support a noble cause, we are less likely to ask the hard but necessary questions about, say the debacle that was Canada’s war in Kandahar.

One would be hard-pressed indeed to suggest that Afghanistan’s regional or national leadership in any way reflected such values. Expressing even a shred of doubt about that campaign’s dubious objectives resulted in denunciations for failing to “support the troops.” And the current misadventure in Iraq and Syria – a conflict whose aims, like those of the Afghan war, remain undefined, is being treated in the same way.

Tough explains that the Official Story – what he calls “the sacrificial myth of the First World War” – may have some popular resonance but that “the ideological work it does in shielding militarism from critique is very dangerous.”[3]

Tough argues it is better to mark authentic struggles for democracy, freedom and justice being carried out before, during and after the 1914-18 war in an active way. Why not, “memorialize the struggle for democracy by participating in it, taking responsibility for the world simply as an expectation of themselves, and not worship anyone as a ‘hero.’”[4]

One reason that it’s easier to promote war as virtuous and patriotic is because the memory of World War II lingers. The great American broadcaster and author Studs Terkel famously called his 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning oral history of WW II The Good War. More recently, the prominent Canadian literary critic Sherrill Grace points out in her important analysis of memory, war, and the arts that “the Second World War was a good war because this time the Allies really were fighting for freedom.”[5]

This time. The implication is clear.

Grace’s new book is an exhaustive look at the way Canadian artists have recently understood and remembered both wars. Her work is nuanced, probing the contradictions and ambiguities of the “good” war, particularly through Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. Grace regularly returns to the theme of democracy and freedom being “fragile,” especially during wartime. She also asks crucial questions using the metaphor of memory as landscape:

…what happens if there are blank expanses in the landscape
or areas of the map without official signposts? What if the story
is interrupted, erased, forgotten or buried? What if another story
– one that is widely accepted, sanctioned, dominant and official
– already occupies the available space so that one’s memories
and stories can find no room, location, grounding, or accepted
place in the landscape?[6]

Although she focuses on relatively recent works like Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Grace also examines century-old art, highlighting Fred Varley’s gruesome battlefield painting For What? – a work whose title poses the question that Canada’s official storytellers customarily avoid. For Grace, the stories may be “comforting” and noble, but they also may be “terrifying” and tragic:

The landscape of memory metaphor, therefore, is an image of the broken ground of our history as we recall and rework it. The metaphor effectively captures the sense in which history is like a field hiding stones/stories that continue to surface, they change the story, alter the landscape, make room for new, for more, stories, and allow us to see/hear the repressed, forgotten memories excised from the official story of Canada and the wars.[7]

While the Official Story will continue to dominate as we commemorate the First World War, it’s important that we work to bring forward those repressed and forgotten memories that give us a more democratic and universal understanding of our shared past.

Jamie Swift is the author (with Ian McKay) of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, (Toronto: Between The Lines, 2012). Their next book will be The Vimy Trap.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. 


 

[1]David Johnston, quoted on “The World at Six,” CBC Radio, June 18, 2012.

[2]David Tough, “A Better Truth: The Democratic Legacy of Resistance to Conscription, 1917-1921,” in Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney eds., Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror, (Toronto: Between The Lines, 2015), 76.

[3]Tough, 76.

[4] Tough, 76; see also http://ploughshares.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/PloughsharesMonitorWinter2014WEB.pdf.

[5]Sherrill Grace, Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014), 294.

[6] Grace, 29.

[7]Grace, 31.

4 thoughts on “The Ideological Work of Commemoration

  1. “It’s one thing to claim that lofty principles spurred some of the men who flocked to the colours in the early days of the war. It’s quite another to cite the widely trafficked notion that this unspeakable tragedy was somehow about democracy and, even more puzzling, Christianity. The lads across No Man’s Land were, lest we forget, Lutherans and Catholics.”

    It was about democracy, and it was about Christianity – for many in the generation that fought it. What has the fact that there were Christians on the other side to do with that – or have you not noticed that Christians sometimes do one another harm? And, anyway, since when has it been the job of historians to instruct readers that the people who lived in the past were deluded about their own deaths? The silly sods.

  2. I don’t think Swift is saying anyone was deluded. He’s making a point about the use of history. In any history, many claims get made, but some come to dominate – as if it’s truth, which it isn’t. History serves functions, and here it’s that it allows us to forget the complex messiness of the past and focus on the clarity of one vision: WWI was noble cause. If we can accept that – which is a perfectly reasonable thing to accept, just not the only one – we are much less likely to question present-day expeditions. That’s politically expedient, for some. If we accept the messier vision, even just aspects of it, if we see that history is seldom so straightforward, then maybe we might ask tougher questions of the present. And that’s good for democracy, no?

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