dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Here I stand, I can do no other.
– Martin Luther

Georgia O’Keeffe

If you were a nation, would you be at war?

This question downloaded itself—seemingly at random—into my consciousness during a particularly turbulent era in my own life, creating a “eureka” moment that directed me—one baby step at a time—towards a discovery of peace.

I’m still working on it.

During this week of Remembrance Day preparations, I have been considering our assumptions about the way we model peace in the classroom, and I have concluded that Remembrance Day should be more than the theme of the week, more than a poppy project in art, or Dona Nobis Pacem in music. I would never wish to undermine the purpose of Remembrance Day, or its focus on our veterans, but I tend to shy away from the lone perspective and I can’t help wondering whether an approach that engages students at a more sophisticated intellectual level—one that more closely matches the complexity of war itself—might be more useful in preventing war in the first place…

Consider, if you will, the Vietnam War.

Yes, I hear you,

… we’re Canadian, that war doesn’t concern us on Remembrance Day, that was an American crusade…  

but that assumption actually serves to highlight the very ways in which human collectives memorialize military conflict. What most westerners actually mean by “The Vietnam War” would be more accurately described as “The American War in Vietnam,” given that the geographical collective currently identified as Vietnam had essentially been at war since the French colonization of the Indochina Peninsula in the mid-19th century, (a state of affairs complicated during the Second World War when the Japanese interned the French), and by the time Lyndon B. Johnson escalated American involvement in the region in 1963, Vietnam had been the subject of external military domination for more than a century. U.S. troops pulled out of the region in 1975 only to be replaced by invading Chinese forces in 1979, and yet western perception continues to define “The Vietnam War” as the era of American involvement between 1963 and 1975.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Consider as well this particular conflict in light of the purpose of Remembrance Day itself: the nature of the “Vietnam War” sparked an unprecedented reception for American soldiers returning home and it was the first (American) full-scale war in which the perception of soldier as hero was challenged, and personal bitterness became the defining characteristic of a war largely regarded as “meaningless.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Divorcing our veterans from the conflicts in which they served, as per sanitized public education Remembrance Day services, is as disingenuous as it is ineffective. The truth is, we can’t ethically or logically separate military business from the people who conduct it, and an examination of the effect of political  conflict upon thousands of drafted soldiers may give students a more meaningful perspective regarding the social and psychological realities of serving in a warzone than making papier-mâché poppies.

I want to engage our students in a deeper discussion of these concepts that doesn’t reduce the sacrifice of millions of soldiers to a Friday afternoon art project. I want our kids to actually think about their own peace-time assumptions without trivializing the individuals who comprise the military.

But I also want them to consider the words of John McCrae in light of the conclusions of Wilfred Owen, who died a week before the signing of the Armistice on November 11th, and whose poetry has never been read at any Remembrance Day ceremony I have ever attended.

The question becomes, then, can we direct our students on this kind of inquiry without undermining the very security that the social studies curriculum seeks to promote?

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved

Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)