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Remembering: the Day After


When we launched life/ on the river of grief / how vital were our arms, how ruby our blood / With a few strokes, it seemed, / we would cross all pain, / we would soon disembark. / That didn’t happen. / In the stillness of each wave we found invisible currents. / The boatmen, too, were unskilled, / their oars untested. / Investigate the matter as you will, / blame whomever, as much as you want, / but the river hasn’t changed, / the raft is still the same. / Now you suggest what’s to be done, / you tell us how to come ashore. – Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Translation by Agha Shahid Ali)

 

This is not about Remembrance Day, this is about the day after, and the day after. A journal of sorts, this is about all the remaining days of the year. An invocation to memorialize all those who have suffered and died due to human and corporate greed, military wars and occupations, man-made poverty and environmental devastation.  A Remembrance to the Horrors of the World, if you will, to jar us from our collective amnesia that seems to set in on certain days.

 

I am reminded of scholars such as Reinhart Koselleck and Gilbert Achcar who describe war commemorations as sites of political and national mobilization, conceptualizing past memories of warfare and the fallen as powerful political tools directed primarily towards building support for current and future military operations. Within this context, it is revealing that the institutions that most vehemently uphold the symbolism of Remembrance Day are the ones that are most eager to create a steady flow of the dead to remember. Mark Steel sardonically writes, “Maybe this is why the Government is so keen on the current war – it is convenient to have another one in a place full of poppies.”

 

Never Again seems to have been rebranded into an affirmation of death, rather than life. Ironically, a day where – according to Veterans Affairs itself – we are to remember “our responsibility to work for peace”, we are bombarded with messages of militaristic glory. In the words of US combat veteran and renowned historian Howard Zinn, “Instead of an occasion for denouncing war, it has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.” Indeed, should Remembrance Day stories not emphasize those soldiers who oppose wars, whether as conscientious objectors or war resisters? While many would like to cast them as cowards, refusing to blindly and obediently act on unjust, illegal, or immoral military orders are acts of heroism.

 

But again this is not about Remembrance Day. Today, I am haunted by the faces of those who are being slaughtered and murdered by ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan.  The day after Remembrance Day, after we underscore the seemingly unique sacrifice of veterans and selectively grieve for them, where is the indignation and sorrow for the daily dead of Afghanistan?  Where is our recognition – let alone remembrance – of the soaring number of deaths in a country where, just in the past six months alone, over 2000 people have been killed. According to figures by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, civilian death in Afghanistan have soared by 24% during the first half of 2009 compared with same period last year.

 

I am curious whether former Afghani MP Malalai Joya will be wearing a red poppy during her book launch in Vancouver, and whether she will feel obliged to express her sympathy for dead Canadian soldiers. Joya is a women’s rights and anti-war activist – dubbed the bravest woman in Afghanistan by the BBC – who has repeatedly offered her condolences to mothers in NATO countries who have lost children due to their government’s eight-year occupation of her land. How must it feel to always validate the grief of an occupying country for its losses, while those responsible find greater fervour – and find applause amongst many of us – in perpetuating policies of death, violence, and destruction?

 

I ponder the future, February 2010 to be exact, and whether Vancouverites will awaken to the reality of state-sanctioned repression by over 16,500 military, police, and security personnel in the largest security operation in Canadian history. Vancouver will be occupied by more Canadian Armed Forces troops than Afghanistan has been; bringing $1 billion of closed circuit TV cameras, electronic fencing and monitoring, armoured vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and now LRAD sonic guns,  to our streets.  “Operation Podium”, with regular and reserve forces, JTF2 commandos, and NORAD fighter planes, will become the priority mission in 2010. How will we respond to these extraordinarily high levels of surveillance and, unless we are naïve, undoubtedly violence?  We only have to look at recent episodes, such as Gustafsen Lake or Oka, where Indigenous people bore the force of the Canadian military and police – including surviving over 77,000 rounds of ammunition in the 1995 standoff in BC’s interior – for defense of their land and people.

 

Have we become so engrossed in our own narcissistic narrative of self-righteous freedom-lovers and democracy-promoters that we take offense to those who wear the white poppy (as if the values of peace and justice are any more politically biased than the glorification of war).  To find out whether WWII was indeed a Good War that safeguarded us from fascism, ask a Japanese-Canadian who was declared an enemy alien, stripped of all their property, and forcibly interned.

 

Why do we find it improper when it is pointed out that we are in fact residing in a state and society that continues to marginalize dissent as unpatriotic, that illegally expropriates Indigenous lands and resources, that subjugates and stigmatizes those who are poor, that prioritizes bailing out and protecting the biggest thieves of public money, that excludes and expels thousands of immigrants and refugees, and that perpetuates its racist civilizing presumptions to advance wars and occupations?

 

Why is it inappropriate to suggest – on any day of the year – that freedom for the world’s majority is still an aspiration, though in reality nothing more than magnetic poetry and the shallow rhetoric of politicians?  

 

This, then, is an invocation not just for Remembrance Day, but one to ritualize grief in response to all the violence in and around our daily lives.  As Noam Chomsky writes, “silence is often more eloquent than loud clamor, so let us attend to what is unspoken”.  In contrast to the tyranny of complicity, desensitization, and historical amnesia, with remembrance comes responsibility – so let us act accordingly.

 

By Harsha Walia. This article was first published for Vancouver Sun – Community of Interest.

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