Saturday, November 11, 2006


Everyone else is writing about Remembrance Day, and who am I to buck the trend? Chrisale and Mike have both written eloquently about their thoughts, and there's plenty more out there.

November 11th, 1918 was the day the German Empire finally accepted defeat was inevitable, and agreed to an armistice before the American, British, and French Armies crossed the German border. It was not the day the peace treaty was signed, and it was not the day the guns fell silent - sporadic fighting across Europe would continue as new countries sprung up in the collapse of the Ottoman and Austo-Hungarian Empires.

It's worth saying that there's probably no war in history that accomplished so little for the major actors at such high cost. There have been more expensive wars since, but I doubt any of them have ended with such little change in the borders for the belligerent powers.

The Peace Treaty that would end the war - in Versailles - did not, of course, guarantee the peace. The comment, at the time, that Versailles had only secured a "20-year armistice" was woefully prescient. War came again, and we now remember that tragedy as well on November 11th.

At the end of World War II, the victorious powers, desperate to shape some stability out of the ashes and rubble of the world, crafted the United Nations, whose Charter declares:
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind...
The United Nations was no more able to hold the peace than the League of Nations before it. In Korea, Canada would go to war once again for the United Nations' pricinple of non-aggression.

And then something wonderful, maybe slightly delirious happened. In 1956, after the joint invasion of Egypt by the United Kingdom, France, and Israel, the United Nations intervened, managed to halt the hostilities, and implement a peacekeeping force in the Sinai, the United Nations Emergency Force. The United Nations would protect the Egyptians from what the rest of the world saw, even then, as the kind of imperial war that belonged in the dustbin of history. Not because anyone was wild about Nasser, but because if the UN Charter meant anything, it had to mean this. Everyone - no matter who their leaders were, or where they lived - deserved to live in peace. That the United Nations not only believed this, but acted upon it, and made it so may very well be the high point of Canadian Foreign Policy to date.

The man most widely credited with the creation of the UNEF, of course, was Lester Pearson. For those who might think the Suez Crisis was a minor flare-up, nothing worth remembering in Canada's history, or simply insignificant given the rest of the Cold War, I would commend to you the text of Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize:
Never, since the end of the last war, has the world situation been darker than during the Suez crisis, and never has the United Nations had a more difficult case to deal with. However, what actually happened has shown that moral force can be a bulwark against aggression and that it is possible to make aggressive forces yield without resorting to power. Therefore, it may well be said that the Suez crisis was a victory for the United Nations and for the man who contributed more than anyone else to save the world at that time. That man was Lester Pearson.
Canada has contributed peacekeepers all around the world, and has made peacekeeping central to our national identity. Other countries have warriors that sometimes do peacekeeping. Canadians, it seems, now think of their soldiers as peacekeepers who can sometimes be called to war.

As they are today. Canadians in Afghanistan are, by popular acclaim, engaged in some of the most difficult combat since the Korean War. I strongly disagree with the government they currently serve, and I am not enthusiastic about the mission they are engaged in - that's no secret. But that's not what Remembrance Day is about.

Whether our soldiers served under the Red Ensign, the Maple Leaf, or the Blue Helmet of the UN, there's no contradiction between being proud of Canada's military history, and being deeply ashamed that any of it is necessary. I am proud that Canadians have never crossed a border bearing arms without having our borders - or those of our friends - crossed first. But I cannot, as a Canadian or a person, disregard my deep sadness that this continues to be necessary.

War, as the UN Charter says, has brought untold sorrow to mankind. I personally can't believe it's brought much else besides.


Mike said...

Well said John. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Have a listen to the Remembrance podcast on iTunes or on the Royal British Legion blog. It's a good way to remember.