Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eternal memory.

Ninety-two years ago today, "at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month," the First World War officially came to an end with the signing of the Armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers in the Forest of Compi├Ęgne. In prayerful remembrance of all who lost their lives in the Great War, here is a rendition of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations as it is played annually on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the Armistice as part of Britain's major official remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in London:

As I noted last year on this date, the silence that forms an essential part of Remembrance Day becomes a bit more profound each year as the last surviving veterans of the Great War gradually pass away. Out of more than sixty-five million people who fought in the war on all sides, only three remain alive today: British veterans Claude Choules and Florence Green and American Frank Woodruff Buckles, each of whom is 109 years old. As I've written a number of times before (for example, here and here), I believe that something irretrievable is lost when the last living survivor of a particular event goes to his or her grave. That 'something' may be impossible to quantify, but it certainly includes a human connection that helps to keep history from becoming an abstract concept to younger generations. Once that connection is lost, part of our collective memory of the past is lost as well.

As I reflect wistfully on the passing of the final Great War veterans, I find consolation in the above video produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in which a Scottish teenager explains how he developed a deeper appreciation of what Remembrance Day is about. (If you're curious about the poem that this young man quotes, "In Memoriam," by Ewart Alan Mackintosh, you may find the text here.) As long as some of us are willing to engage with the past and allow ourselves to be affected by it, the collective memory of events like the First World War will endure.

On this Remembrance Day, I pray for all who have given their lives in military service and for all victims of war. May the living continue to learn from them, and may their memory be eternal. AMDG.


At 11/13/2010 7:51 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Without wishing to detract from the important spirit of remembrance, appreciation, and prayer, I just wanted to suggest a thought-provoking comment for discussion which leaped out at me while reading your post simply due to the nature of the subject matter. My thought/question has two interrelated prongs/forks. In this postmodern age, will nations come to marginalize the image and visibility of the military in society, and will the average citizen increasingly lose interest in/support for events or sentiments that honor those who serve or have served in the military?

Naturally every country has its left, right, and center (and many variations). In places like China, missile launchers and tanks are paraded down major cities on days of national importance. While the statist mentality is arguably weaker in the U.S., pro-military sentiment remains fairly high overall here. My sense is that attraction to pacificism, or a weaker form which says that all violence is inherently bad and that we should not seek to view an institution aimed at killing positively, is more prevalent in Western European and Japan.

However, anecdotal evidence shows that military parades even in places where leftism is apparently strong, like France or Argentina, do feature tanks and major weapons being driven down city streets, which we rarely do in the U.S.

Part of the complexity is that many in the U.S. who have a strong distaste for American armed intervention still display a deep and usually sincere appreciation and respect for those who have given their lives in national service. If America shifted further to the left, we might societally see military recruiting viewed much less positively, and certainly the executive branch would seek to sharply limit American overseas military activity, but events like Veterans Day and support for wounded veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan etc. would probably not diminish. Still, over the long haul, it's a reasonable hypothesis that support for the military will decline in Western Europe (without, of course, taking the large potential discrepancy in views between "native" Europeans and the now-large immigrant population into consideration). Hard to predict. Ultimately, there will always be figures in the executive branch, in academia, and of course in the military, in any country, who will debate in favor of keeping a small military (at least) and that complete disarmament is impossibly dangerous. But the social position of the military might nonetheless be completely marginalized even if defense forces aren't completely abolished. Canada stands somewhat closer to that than the U.S. does, but I don't think veterans are deprecated or marginalized in Canada--so balance is certainly possible. Costa Rica has, I believe, reduced its military solely to being a national police force--might be an interesting case study.

So again, the two aspects, one political, one social: will postmodern world views lead nations to eviscerate their own military strength, and will societies of the future marginalize and deprecate military service--and if so will that also mean honor and respect for veterans will decrease. In the short term, especially in some of the giant population centers like the U.S, China, or Russia, these questions seem very far-fetched. (And even extreme communism has never sought to abolish the military even if it discarded military ranks--though of course the "left" is far from unified, as many European socialists are also supportive of near-pacificism.) From the viewpoint of political philosophy and/or empirical social science, long-term trends could produce a world radically different from our settled expectations in this time and place.

At 11/13/2010 11:01 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the comment - you cover a lot of ground, so I'll limit my response to a couple of points:

1) "In this postmodern age, will nations come to marginalize the image and visibility of the military in society, and will the average citizen increasingly lose interest in/support for events or sentiments that honor those who serve or have served in the military?"

I think that is happening in a lot of places, actually, and it often seems to be accompanied by a loss of interest in distinctive national identities, e.g. a lack of attention even to things like national holidays and the meaning of national symbols. (This came up while I was in Innsbruck - my German class included people from a number of European nations; one day the teacher initiated a discussion of national holidays and the like, and a number of students admitted that they either didn't know when their national holiday was or knew the date but didn't know what specific event the day commemorated.)

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I think that it is. I'll admit that extreme nationalism and militarism are also bad things, but I fear that many are now going to the opposite extreme and allowing their awareness of distinctive national identities to wither away. It should be possible to manifest a sincere and moderate patriotism thast isn't aggressive or xenophobic - in other words, I think that there can be a sane middle ground between extreme nationalism and what amounts to 'anti-nationalism.'

2) "However, anecdotal evidence shows that military parades even in places where leftism is apparently strong, like France or Argentina, do feature tanks and major weapons being driven down city streets, which we rarely do in the U.S."

That doesn't surprise me about France. I think the dynamic may be a bit different in places like Argentina, though. In much of Latin America, democratic consolidation has been challenged by the persistence of an independent and politically assertive military. I wonder if displays of hardware in military parades in some Latin American countries may have at least the subliminal effect of telling civilian leaders that the armed forces are still capable of intervening in politics if they become too dissatisfied with what elected leaders are doing.

When I was in Chile a couple of years ago, one thing I picked up was what seemed to be a kind of ambivalence and flux in views of the military. Traditionally viewed with great respect, the Chilean military has seen its reputation tarnished by the legacy of dictatorship and human rights abuses under Pinochet. The armed forces have been trying to rehabilitate their public image in various ways. A new generation of military leaders without direct ties to Pinochet has been more explicit in repudiating golpismo and expressing unqualified support for civilian control of the military. There was also a public campaign going on while I was in Chile urging people to be proud of 'our armed forces,' trying to emphasize that the military was a part of society and not an autonomous force separate from the civilian population. In short, I think that the military in Chile has been making an effort to rehabilitate its public reputation partly as a way of asserting its relevance and to try to avoid becoming invisible or marginal in the way that armed forces in some other countries seem to have become.


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