Passchendaele: Memory

“Lest we forget” they say every year. Old men and old women, standing in the inevitable rain, remembering both friend and foe. But what is it that we as a culture remember? When I first started reading about the Great War, the war that Remembrance Day was created to commemorate, what struck me was the amount of what was ultimately an anti-war feeling. Eye-witness accounts told of the trenches and the mud, the rats and the recognized humanity of their enemy, and above it all, a deep deep sense of bitterness. So many were left with a feeling of the sheer futility of war. “Lest we forget” should be followed by “for what?” I thought that this was why it also called the War To End All Wars. I thought it was a comment about the staggering number of dead and wounded. Here, I thought, was a war with no redeeming values, no Big Bad that needed stopping lest they take over the world to justify the level of violence. And, as far as the soldiers were concerned, the casualty rates were enormous (civilian deaths in WW2 far surpass the total dead in the First World War). During the Battle of the Somme, for example, the British and Empire troops suffered more causalities in 4 months of fighting than the U.S. has in all the wars it’s ever been in combined – including the Civil War. The British suffered approximately 5000 casualties a week just in maintaining the 475 mile front. Trench wastage, they called it. There were no “tours of duty”; one was in until you were too wounded to fight, dead, or insane.

It was cataclysmic enough that there was, amongst those that lived through those times, a sense of history that began or ended with the war. There was before the war, where everything took on a rosy, idyllic tone, and after the war. From the books I’ve read, it seems that the Great War was perceived as the ending of innocence. The ending (or the beginning of the end) of the belief in Empire, Civilization, trust in those in power. A tremendous shift occurred in western cultures because of that war – empires fell, women’s rights rose. But that’s not why they started calling it The War to End All Wars.

They started off calling it that because they really believed that it was a fight to save Civilization, rather than an indication of its crumbling edifice (I capitalize Civilization to highlight it as a concept, rather than a reality, with the attendant racist, imperialist associations – kind of a quieter version of scare quotes). When the war went on (and on, and on), and when it finally ended, many of the veterans were deeply bitter about their reasons for fighting, and disillusioned about the old men in charge. So while “The War to End All Wars” may have started as a desire to preserve Civilization, I suspect that after the Armistice the term also came to represent an anti-war feeling – that this cataclysm should never happen again. Perhaps I’m projecting my own pacifist sentiments when I read the eye-witness accounts. But there is so much bitterness, so often a sense of fighting, paying with blood and death, for a new world, a safer world, only to have everything remain the same at the end. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, yo) wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew.

But of course this is something that most of us as feminists know all too well. One cannot create a new world by using the tactics of the old – the master’s tools, and all. We cannot let the old patterns, beliefs and assumptions stand if we are to affect any kind of meaningful change. We must examine every pattern of behaviour, every assumption about people and situations and how best to deal with them. We cannot continue with this pattern of domination over others, women, the earth. We must learn to recognize when we are doing it, for we are so militarized as a culture that it is mostly invisible to us.

“Lest we forget.”

But what do we remember? We remember death, but do we remember the pointlessness of the war causing it? Do we remember how the British leaders refused to work with the German offers of peace talks mid-way through the war, and do we ask why? Do we remember our own troops, our heroes, rioting in that French town? Do we remember – do we even know the women raped by those same soldiers? Our soldiers, their soldiers. For that other war, do we remember the steps leading up to dictatorship in Germany? Sometimes, yes. Do we remember the othering and hate that lead to, contributed to the Holocaust? Sometimes, yes, but usually only how it happened in Germany. Do we remember how we were complicit? Do we remember what the US did to Japan in WW2, what Robert McNamara in The Fog of War said should/would have been called a war crime if the US had lost the war? Some of us do remember, but it never seems to be the bloke speaking in front of the cenotaph every fall does it? Every year comes by and I wait to hear something approaching an anti-war sentiment. No one wants to be disrespectful to the men and women abroad then and now, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Can’t we be anti-war while still respecting their sacrifice? We seem to give lip service to the horror of war, without addressing our part in creating war, in participating in all the ways that militarism spreads and functions to underscore our responses. We remember something, alright, but not enough.

Do we remember war’s impact on women?

I remember. I remember my mother’s cousin, running naked and bleeding to her mother’s house after being gang-raped by Russian soldiers; my grandmother afraid to go outside to find food because of these same soldiers. I remember my uncle, now an old man, not being able to forget walking past women being raped in the street because the level of trauma and violence was such that one just didn’t see anymore. I remember the rapes of the women in the former Yugoslavia, used as a means to terrorize and genetically alter the population. I remember that pornography was made of those rapes. I remember the huge numbers of women being raped in Darfur, but not just by enemy soldiers but by their own townsfolk now. I remember the Americans raping and murdering that girl in Iraq. And more. How many more? I wonder how Canadian soldiers have raped in Afghanistan, or just on leave in the South Pacific? Or in Toronto? I remember the thousands upon thousands of women of African descent, raped by their enslavers, including Thomas Jefferson – oh but wait. No. She said yes, to the man who owned her. She could say no to the man who legally owned her flesh and could sell her family and torture her with impunity. Couldn’t she? She said yes. That is free consent. Right?

I remember the countless thousands upon millions of girls sold given away as brides and moved to new countries. The unknown expanse of female diaspora. I remember my great-grandmother, raped in her bed by her drunken husband, her dozen children all pretending to sleep whilst in the same room. I remember my best friend, raped repeatedly by her boyfriend, and beaten bloody. I remember how the police came and took him to a hotel to cool off, instead of arresting him. I remember my own rape. I remember that other woman’s rape. And hers. And hers. And theirs. I remember my other dear friend, raped and beaten nearly to death. Oh, and her – I remember her too.

And I remember how 30% of Canadian women will be faced with that lovely passive phrase: domestic violence. Stats are similar elsewhere. I remember how 85% of murdered women in Canada are killed by their current or former male sexual partner. I remember that a woman is raped in the U.S. every – what was it? 6 minutes. I remember that murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in America, and that most of the time she is killed by the father of the fetus she’s carrying. I remember that murder is the leading cause of death for European women between the ages of 18 and 35. Not just European women –  Australian women too. I remember —

Oh. We were talking about War, weren’t we?

Lest we forget.


2 Responses to Passchendaele: Memory

  1. Toni says:

    My favorite Vonnegut quote:

    “When I was a boy… all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

    It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another.

    I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

    Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
    So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things…”

    (from Breakfast of Champions)

  2. Crowfoot says:

    yeah that’s a great quote, Toni. Thanks for sharing! Armistice Day does bring home exactly what it is we’re supposed to be remembering doesn’t it?

    “They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God.” I seem to recall reading something similar as well. I’ve just learned (re-learned?) that the last Canadian killed on the Western Front was killed at 10:58 am on Nov 11. *sigh* such a huge waste

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