Whitewashing Old Wars

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

— Philosopher George Santayana

History is political, which why is why it was troubling to read a recent Ceasefire.ca email appeal. The opening paragraph explained: “Remembrance Day is changing as the veterans of the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War, pass away. More attention is being paid to current and more controversial conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Libya.”

The claim that Canada’s participation in World War I or Korea was and is not controversial is a striking example of a supposedly progressive organization accepting the establishment’s version of Canadian foreign policy history.

Fifteen million people were killed and another 20 million wounded in the conflict between rising imperial power Germany and leading colonial powers England and France. With both sides entrenched, the western front of the First World War barely moved from September 1914 to July 1917. Millions of young men lost their lives fighting over a few kilometers of territory. Among them were nearly 60,000 Canadian soldiers. Another 150,000 were wounded.

In August 1917 Robert Borden’s government passed the Military Service Act. The conscription of young men sparked widespread dissent, particularly in Quebéc. On the west coast, police forces tracked down and killed anti-war labour leader Ginger Goodwin after he refused to fight.

About 27,000 Canadians fought in the 1950-53 Korean War. Cold War Canada summarizes the incredible violence unleashed by the US commanded UN forces in Korea: “The monstrous effects on Korean civilians of the methods of warfare adopted by the United Nations — the blanket fire bombing of North Korean cities, the destruction of dams and the resulting devastation of the food supply and an unremitting aerial bombardment more intensive than anything experienced during the Second World War. At one point the Americans gave up bombing targets in the North when their intelligence reported that there were no more buildings over one story high left standing in the entire country … the overall death toll was staggering: possibly as many as four million people. About three million were civilians (one out of every ten Koreans). Even to a world that had just begun to recover from the vast devastation of the Second World War, Korea was a man-made hell with a place among the most violent excesses of the 20th century.”

If involvement in this barbaric affair is not considered controversial what is?

Ceasefire.ca’s acceptance of the elite version of history is harmful because it obscures the imperial interests that have motivated Canadian foreign policy. It also erases decades of international solidarity and anti-war activism that has, to some extent, civilized the Canadian military.

Last year’s bombing of Libya and the ongoing war in Afghanistan may help illustrate the point. These conflicts have caused significant suffering yet they haven’t been nearly as destructive as the war in Korea. But the Canadian military didn’t simply discard their most violent methods. Instead their actions have been constrained (to some extent) by anti-war and international solidarity movements.

Perpetuating ignorance of our military’s history has the effect of weakening the movements struggling valiantly to civilize Canadian foreign policy. It’s akin to erasing the role of unions in restricting child labour, dangerous working conditions, long working hours etc. The labour movement builds its strength by pointing to these gains and the same should be done by anti-war and solidarity organizations.

Instead of promoting a sanitized version of Canadian military history, anti-war groups would do better by helping the public understand the role struggle and protest has played in lessening the military’s worst excesses. Ultimately this knowledge will do more than anything to help fuel campaigns to build a sense of collective humanity.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.