On Heroes, Villains, and Victims of War

This may be controversial for some people, so I’d like to apologize in advance. I don’t like to offend people, but those who know me also know that it is not my nature to keep my mouth shut when I feel strongly about something. I feel very strongly about war, so here we go.

Today is Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day) in Canada and many other Commonwealth countries and Veterans Day in the US. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the date marks the Armistice signed on November 11, 1918 that effectively ended World War I. In Canada, it’s sort of a veteran’s day meant to remember the men and women who fought for Canada in various wars and conflicts. It’s also a day to reflect on the horrors of war. Many people wear red poppies on their shirt collars or lapels to signify remembrance of wars and those who fought in them.

This year, there was a controversy surrounding a group who decided to wear white poppies instead of red. The poppies were meant to signify peace instead of war. Some people were outraged and found it very disrespectful. I originally wanted to talk about this because I think it’s one of those cases where both sides are wrong. The red poppy does not mean war, but that doesn’t mean that the white poppy is wrong either. However, the whole thing reminded me that what Remembrance Day means or how it is observed is not up for discussion. Why is that?

On Remembrance Day, the common tone is usually that of veterans as heroes. Although I don’t have a direct problem with this, I do have an issue with seeing people who fight as the only heroes of war times. What about the resistance movement in Nazi occupied France? Moreover, what about resistance members in Nazi Germany? Or resistance fighters of any oppressive regime, for that matter. Are they not heroes too? What about people who struggle in war zones, trying to live their daily lives despite the danger. What about refugees who risk everything to get out and live a new life? On a day dedicated to remembering the hardships of war, why don’t we remember these people?

Talk about heroes always implies a villain, although this “villain” is never really explicitly mentioned. Wars always involve an “enemy” side, but war is not so black and white. Sometimes you have a clear-cut case where one side is wrong, such as the Nazis in World War II. However, sometimes there are cases like World War I, where “right” and “wrong” really depended on which side of the battlefield you were on. Even when there is a clear “bad guy,” not everyone behind enemy lines is really part of that. War teaches us to see the country we are fighting as the “other,” but really, the other country is full of civilians just like us, who are trying to live their lives.

In the past, veterans were often seen as victims of war. This makes sense, seeing as conscription forced many people to fight, whether they wanted to or not. They ask for the hardships they faced, and sometimes these were completely unjustified. However, victims of war are not limited to people who fight in them. Victims are often civilians who get caught in the crossfire and lose their homes, family members, and often their lives in the process. War can also affect people long after it ends. People still step on landmines in Vietnam. Here in Germany, bomb squads are still called in to deactivate live WWII bombs found in construction sites; in 2010, one of them went off in Göttingen, killing the squad that tried to disarm it.

My point is not that we shouldn’t talk about the hardships that veterans faced or show them respect on Remembrance Day, but that we need to expand the dialogue to include the various ways that war touches peoples’ lives. That’s part of why I liked the white “peace” poppy. It was something different, and even if its message was somewhat misplaced, it does beg the question of why we can’t expand how we view the day. Some say that talking about other war experiences and talking about peace should be left for another day, but what better day than one designated to reflect on the tragedy that is war?

Canada is a diverse country and there are many people there touched by war who never fought for Canada in a global conflict. Some people come from countries that were the enemy in conflicts. Many others come from refugee backgrounds and have had their lives torn up by war. Many people came from Bosnia in the 1990s, for example, and the country will accept many refugees from Syria in 2014. If we, as a country, are going to remember how war has affected our lives, why can’t we bring other experiences into the dialogue?

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