It was a war that took around ten million lives, including over 60,000 Canadians and 116,000 US. The last Canadian to die was Pte. G.I. Prince who was shot at 10:58. The last US soldier was Pvt. Henry Gunther, shot at 11:01. They were shot six hours after the powers had agreed to stop fighting.
In Canada and the US this day has been set aside to remember those who lost their lives in the wars of the Twentieth Century, those who made other sacrifices in war, and are now doing so in our new wars of the Twenty-first Century.
Unfortunately this day of remembrance is also used to promote war by justifying past wars when it frames the motivation for the sacrifices in terms of defence of freedom and liberty, democracy, and a way of life. Such promotion is pure propaganda.
The First World War was billed as the war to end all wars. In reality it hardly slowed the carnage at all. The Twentieth Century, sometimes referred to as the bloody century, started off with wars in South Africa, the Philippines, China and Manchuria, just to name a few hot spots. The pace hardly let up, and at the end of the First World War the Allies invaded the Soviet Union to fight the Bolsheviks with the last troops not pulling out until 1925.
Between civil wars and a Japanese invasion, China was basically in a state of war during most of the century until Mao drove out Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and hostilities were suspended in Korea. The Second World War, an extension of the First on a much bigger scale, brought even more deaths and destruction. And, as we know all too well, it did not bring an end to war either.
Of all of the wars of the past century only the Second World War in Europe against Hitler came even close to being about the eradication of evil and all of the other things we are always told we are fighting for. And, had those been the only issues there is doubt that the war would have been fought at all.
The First World War was certainly about none of those, a stupid blunder by all parties and the shame of every country that took part. Many of the wars of the century that did have elements of freedom involved were the usual cases of colonized people fighting to be free from the very western powers whose propaganda prominently features freedom as a major component.
We also hear about wars as protecting our way of life, which in many ways may be true, particularly if one is rich and sucking the blood of the less fortunate.
One should ask, why is it that we have a way of life that requires wars? Could it be that there is something that we are doing that creates so much hostility? Perhaps we should think about this, too, when we stop to reflect on all of those who have been destroyed by war.
It is important to remember those whose lives have been wasted in war. But, it is also important not to let the propaganda turn that waste into something that it is not with silly praises about liberty and democracy and how all this bloodshed preserves our freedom.
The truth is, had we avoided many past wars, and also the ones we are now foolishly fighting, we might have a better place today instead of having squandered so many lives and resources to serve the profit and egos of a few.
What we should remember most of all on November 11 every year is the terrible waste of life that wars bring, and our failure to avoid them. We should remember that it is a day about death and deprivation, about physical and mental maiming, and about those who for whatever cause or reason, good, bad, or just foolish, were there to bear the burden.
In Canada the slogan of the day is "Lest We Forget." It is hardly enough. The Canadian War Amps have a slogan "Never Again." It is better, and perhaps we would do well to merge them both to give the message "Lest We Forget, Never Again."