Lessons of war: an aging peacenik reflects on Remembrance Day
By Barrie Zwicker (Special to Truth and Shadows)
As we have almost every year for many years, my wife and I this past November 11th attended the Remembrance Day commemoration at Toronto’s Old City Hall. We’ve seen the crowds grow ever larger
This year we and our daughter had to leave our homes more than an hour and a half before the eleventh hour in order to secure what would have been a good view, had not a solid bank of camerapersons’ backsides all but obstructed it.
Our main reason for joining the commemoration is that Jeanie’s father, Charles, who volunteered and served in the Canadian Army in the Second World War, was killed in the final days of the war in Holland. The reverberations from his death continue, as do the family reverberations for all those killed and maimed in all wars. Jeanie grew up fatherless. There’s a book right there.
My father, Rev. Grenfell (“Gren”) Zwicker, also volunteered and served in the Second World War, as a padre. He was honourably discharged with the rank of Squadron Leader a short time after Charlie’s body was interred in the Canadian War Cemetery at Groesbeek outside Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands. It celebrated its 2000th year in 2005.
Nijmegen also was the first in the Netherlands to fall to the Nazis in the Second World War. Although 2,338 Canadian soldiers are interred near Nijmegen, it is not twinned with any Canadian city, yet it is twinned with cities in Turkey, Russia, Nicaragua, the U.S.A., China and Japan.
From my Dad’s service there also are some family reverberations, but mainly reverberations of a different kind.
Charlie was a farmer and a square dance caller. We don’t know what his politics were. My father’s politics all his life, from the time he was a student during the Great Depression, were left-leaning. He was not a pure pacifist, obviously. But he would not have objected if told his epitaph were to read: “He was obsessed with the cause of world peace.”
So in 1946, when I was 12, my introduction to Remembrance Day was nuanced, as today’s terminology would have it. This was in Swan River, Manitoba, where my father was the United Church minister in his first postwar parish. As such he was one of the town clergy to deliver prayers on the Remembrance Day.
These prayers, and what he shared with us at the time he was composing them, were as important an education as anything I was learning in public school in Grade 8.
Most of the other clergy, and the general tenor of the arrangements led by the Royal Canadian Legion, emphasized the valiant patriotism of those who “paid the ultimate sacrifice.” My father’s prayers emphasized applying the lessons of war to the goal of peace and his deep belief that the most meaningful way to honour the fallen is to bend our energies toward preventing more wars.
His prayers, obviously, were not answered, whereas those of most of the other clergy (occasionally Dad would be joined in his emphasis by a progressive Anglican) were. It was not that the other clergy prayed for war. It was just that they did not question the roots of war nor did they call for a vision of peace, let alone for the deep study and difficult prolonged actions needed to make that vision a reality.
As my life unfolded I paid more, or less, attention on various Remembrance Days. But I noticed that the conflict of values embedded in those early ceremonies continued through the Korean War (the establishment attempted to mask the brutal nature of that war and its hidden history by calling it only “a conflict”).
Then through the Cold War, when the alleged adherence to Christianity and allegedly spotless democracy of “the West” were presented as being under mortal threat by “Godless communism.” This was as neat a setup for simplistic global hatreds as the Devil himself could wish.
Then, as the illegal “Western” invasions of first Afghanistan and then Iraq – based on a big lie about “the war on terror” — blighted history’s landscape, Remembrance Day prayers continued to invoke reverence for “our heroes” in Afghanistan and the naming on August 24th, 2007 of a portion of Highway 401 as “the Highway of Heroes.”
Basically these young Canadian men and women, who undoubtedly very often perform heroically, were sent to kill and maim, as they always are. Not only that, but the last thing you’ll hear on Remembrance Day, or any other day, is that the war on Afghanistan undoubtedly was and remains illegal.
Consider: On October 2nd, 2001, the US representative to NATO allegedly provided evidence to a closed-door meeting of the NATO Council that Osama bin Laden and “his al Qaeda network, operating out of Afghanistan” had perpetrated the crimes of 9/11. 
NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson assured the world of this in a press release that day. The alleged evidence, however, has not been made public to this day, despite promises by the U.S.A. that it would be. Yet on this frail — really non-existent — basis NATO decided for the first time to invoke 5 of the NATO Charter. 
Canada is a NATO country. On October 3rd, 2001, Alexa McDonough, at the time leader of the federal New Democratic Party, rose in the House of Commons asking that the Canadian government make public the proof allegedly supplied by the U.S. government of bin Laden’s and al Qaeda’s involvement in 9/11.
The proof was not forthcoming then, nor has it been to the present time (as was also the case when these facts were published in my 2007 book Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11). 
This is just some of the background as I understood it that bubbled up in my mind this past November 11th, as I watched the fly-past of four Harvard trainers, their sound so familiar to me from my childhood.
I respect the many backgrounds and viewpoints that all those attending these ceremonies bring to them. For my background I followed in my father’s footsteps in trying to be a promoter of peace. I joined him, for instance, in being active in the Cruise Missile Conversion Project.
A lasting memory of my father is how big the smile on his face was as police officers carried him off to the paddy wagon during a demonstration at the Litton Industries plant in Rexdale, where the “brains” of the new cruise missiles were manufactured. The damage we demonstrators inflicted to the factory was restricted to trampling a few flowers. Dad was soon released without charge. (An avid gardener, he might have pleaded guilty and offered to pay a fine, had he been charged with “wanton flower destruction” but the authorities passed up the chance to test this theory.)
For the likes of my father and me, it was not surprising that the role of the Royal Canadian Legion grew, over the years, increasingly objectionable. The instance that really got up my nose was the year the Legion, or someone in it, flexed their muscles to deny, for a time, the organization Veterans Against Nuclear Arms (VANA) a place in what’s called the Warriors’ Day parade in Toronto.
Held in August, that parade, as you’ll find on its website “is the longest running veterans parade in the free world and has been a part of the [Canadian National Exhibition] since 1921.”
That anyone connected with such an event, that eulogizes the defence of democracy, would do anything to diminish the right of free assembly, so integral to any meaningful democracy, I found mind-boggling. After that I never bought a poppy.
The group of bona fide veterans that established VANA included medal-wearing heroes.
For instance the late C. G. (“Giff”) Gifford was its founder. In 1982 he mobilized a group of veterans in Nova Scotia to speak out against Canadian complicity in the growing insanity of the nuclear arms race. VANA grew to a membership of more than 800 vets.
Giff joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. He survived 49 bombing raids over Europe as a Pathfinder navigator and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He participated in the February 13, 1945 raid in Dresden, which resulted in 35,000 deaths on a city jammed with refugees.
He was a warrior in the conventional sense and he was also a warrior for peace – really, for sanity.
The difference between the members of VANA and the broad membership of the Legion was that VANA veterans actually wanted to do something to try to prevent future wars, rather than protect their versions of what happened in various wars, and pay lip service to worn out generalities. VANA’s members knew the destruction of life and property in a nuclear war would surpass that of all the wars in past history combined. They knew, because they went out of their way to inform themselves. They knew it would be so much more destructive than past wars that the word “war” wouldn’t cut it. “Genocide” would, certainly, or “ecocide,” or as the British historian E. P. Thompson suggested, “extermination.”
One supporter of VANA is my friend Phyllis Creighton, an Anglican, member of the Global Issues Project and of The Raging Grannies. In a piece she just wrote entitled “Remembrance” for The Herald, a quarterly published by her Toronto church, Christ Church Deer Park, she writes:
“Like most Canadians, I supported World War II as a necessary and just war against Nazi and later Japanese aggression. But in the blinding light of the nuclear bombs dropped by the U.S.on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, I saw a new truth. With the raining down of this utterly evil indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction on civilian non-combatants, ‘just war’ became history. The present U.S. use of drones for assassination at will confirms the lawless immorality of armed violence and the looming future of death by disassociated computer.”
Occasionally as Remembrance Day approached and fresh-faced young members of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets were out selling poppies, I would gently share with one of them why I was declining to buy. (I had been a member of the Air Cadets in Swan River, rising to the rank of Flight Sergeant.) I’d tell the uncomprehending young person that unfortunately the proceeds from the poppy sales contributed more to a war mentality than a peace mentality. Even as I did so, I half understood that essentially what I was doing was apologizing to myself that I was not doing enough to abolish war and promote peace.
In 2010 there was a change. My wife and I were gratified to the extent of surprise to hear the Remembrance Day remarks of then Toronto Mayor David Miller, his last before he left office. They were closer to what my father would have delivered than I’d heard before in a Remembrance Day speech.
In researching for this piece I called Toronto City Hall in search of the text of Mayor Miller’s speech. A protocol officer at first told me she was not sure if she could find Mayor Miller’s words as delivered. She might be able to find the prepared text, she said, “but Mayor Miller always spoke from the heart.” As it happened, the National Post of all places, published the transcript of the speech as delivered.
“It is with mixed emotions I address this gathering for the last time,” he began. I remember thinking that was a promising start.
“November 11th serves as a painful and tragic reminder,” he continued, “that despite the hope that the carnage of World War 1 would make it the ‘war to end all war,’ we are still a long way away from achieving the lasting peace that was perhaps naively envisioned but that we nevertheless still desire.”
He acknowledged “the emotional damage that combat deaths inflict on friends, families and loved ones.” That surely resonated with most present as much as for my wife and me.
Nor is it enough to fill the void that those departed through war leave, the then-Mayor said. “Today, I’m reminded of the words President Jimmy Carter spoke in 2002 while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He said…’War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.’”
As I finish writing this on the last day of November I think of the dead children in Gaza. So far there are no dead children in Israel, which shows the disproportionate response of Israel to the wrong and regrettable firing of missiles from Gaza into Israel. But again if one takes the time to look at the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s clear that Israel has initiated illegal actions – including ever-growing settlements on Palestinians’ seized land – and continues to do so in contravention of international law. Decades of repression are bound to provoke reactions. Some will be stupid and self-defeating. As Noam Chomsky and others have noted, Gaza is the world’s largest outdoor prison.
Mayor Miller continued: “We gather today as we do every year in sadness, in mourning and in the faint hope that next year we will not be remembering any additional casualties of war. Sadly, history teaches us that is not likely to be the case.
“Would that it were otherwise. Would that we could choose the path of peace and embrace it. Would that we were here today celebrating such peace, not resenting war; speaking of life, not death; looking forward with hope, not dread.
“The reality is that the depravity of war continues today.”
He concluded: “Remembrance Day is also a day for us to hope and pray that one day the true peace we all desire will come to pass.”
Mayor Miller’s remarks came to mind at the most recent commemoration especially because the remarks of Rob Ford, Toronto’s current (at least for the time being) mayor, differed as much from the remarks of his predecessor, Mayor Miller, as did my father’s from those of his fellow clergy back in Swan River in 1946.
A comparison of the two speeches is educative. It’s important also to note the larger current Canadian political and cultural context for this comparison. Attitudes toward war and peace have been changed in this country to an extent that alarms or saddens some of us.
These changes, it is widely agreed, are due to the influence and policies of the federal Harper government. Stephen Harper has incrementally (many of us say stealthily) moved the political culture of Canada away from an emphasis on peacekeeping and toward emphasis on the military, meaning a glorification of the military and emphasis on justifications for wars past present, even when the justifications can be shown to be fraudulent and future wars (possibly on Iran) are virtually certain to be based on fraudulence.
It is impossible for me to imagine a military assault on Iran not based on the demonic lie of a false flag operation. My current understanding is that this would likely involve some U.S. warship. The claim, if this happens, will be that Iran (insanely) “fired the first shot.”
Mayor Ford is adamantly a member of Harper’s right wing, law-and-order, no-time-for-“lefties or peaceniks” camp. Mayor Miller was faulted for leaning the other way. Let’s compare their speeches. Words matter.
Mayor Miller’s was 1,151 words in length as delivered. Mayor Ford’s was 443 words as per his text and as delivered.
The word peace did not make it into Mayor Ford’s remarks. The word peacekeeping made it twice as could hardly be avoided in light of the history of our soldiers’ sacrifices while they wore the blue helmets of the United Nations in the Suez, Cyprus, Bosnia, and 31 other missions.
In addition to his use of it twice in peacekeeping, the word peace made it into Mayor Miller’s speech nine times.
The word war was used by Mayor Ford six times. In five instances it was a proper noun (as in “First World War”). In one instance it was as a common noun (“in times of war”).
In sharp philosophical contrast, the word war was used 20 times by Mayor Miller, four times as a proper noun and no fewer than 16 times as a common noun (as in “the depravity of war” and “the destructive hell war brings”).
In the 2012 commemorations it was Toronto Fire Services Padre Dr. Ron N. Nickle who expressed such deep values for us in attendance. Near the beginning the words of his “Prayer of Remembrance” reverberated out to the crowd from the loudspeakers: “We remember that those who died, died too young, because some in positions of power could think of no better way to conduct the business of the world than through armed conflict.”
His prayer continued: “Save us from easy excuses, invented to make us look noble, grand and righteous.”
In a call for under-rated civilian courage, he prayed: “Save us from taking the path of least resistance when what is really called for is determination and fortitude. “
In a call for adherence to true democracy and deep tolerance and humility he prayed: “Keep us from thinking that our way is the only way: be it in politics or religion or life style.”
And in a call to lift our eyes and goals even beyond removing the scourge of war Padre Nickle prayed: “Give us the vision to see that the world is now too dangerous a place for anything but truth; too small for anything but love.”
In the context it was almost an insurrectionist prayer, but for those of us raised in a progressive Christian tradition, one that would find favour with him known as “the Prince of Peace.”
Those who attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies, or partake of them through watching live TV coverage, are encouraged to reflect privately, especially during the two minutes of silence, on the meaning of Remembrance Day.
I’m old enough to remember when “general and complete disarmament” was a stated goal for humanity that many even thought might be achievable. This goal was championed by the leaders of the former Soviet Union. This in turn ensured that it could be – and was –- characterized as nothing more than a Communist trick, a characterization diabolically short-sighted at best, if not blind, and perversely partisan.
The call for general and complete disarmament was as far from a ploy as could be and can be. The people of the U.S.S.R. suffered at least 20-million dead in the Second World War. Their leaders were accurately reflecting what their people were united in not wanting: anything resembling a repeat.
So many Soviet males were slaughtered in that war, taking with them skills such as plumbing, as one example, leading to faulty construction, that “the West” then could smugly hold up the U.S.S.R. to ridicule and of course blame all shortcomings on the Communist system. So much for even a nod to the history of a recent major war.
A question: when was the last time you even encountered the phrase “general and complete disarmament?” Can’t remember? Right. “The West” has dealt a death blow to a legitimate and (perhaps still a barely) achievable and noble dream of humanity and certainly of Jesus Christ, whose name is so freely invoked on occasions such as Remembrance Day.
As far as tricks are concerned, most of those who volunteered for, or were conscripted to fight in most of the wars in history, were tricked. Tricked by those in power to risk or give their lives for the leaders’ dreams of conquest, glory and power – and for the profits of the arms makers and for the careers of the military establishment and its appendages, such as the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization that after a time my father resigned from in a civil protest.
Most of those who died in most of the wars in history did in fact die in vain, contrary to the claims repeated every Remembrance Day. Not only that, but certainly in ignorance.
Example: A reading of veteran New York Times correspondent Charles Higham’s book Trading with the Enemy will acquaint the reader with the plausible observation that the Second World War may have been artificially extended by two years by “the Allies” in order to keep profits flowing to the arms and other corporations such as those in oil and pharmaceuticals that were making out like bandits from the carnage.
For instance, the successful bombing the giant SKF ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt in Germany would have very shortly crippled the Nazi war effort, since, as Higham writes “Tiny ball bearings were essential to the Nazis: The Luftwaffe could not fly without them, the tanks and armoured cars could not roll in their missions of death. ITT’s Focke-Wulfs, Ford’s autos and trucks for the enemy, would have been powerless without them. Indeed World War II could not have been fought without them. Focke-Wulfs used at least four thousand bearings per plane…” 4]
The plant was never successfully bombed. The lone attempt, led by maverick General Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold on October 14th, 1943 ended in disaster with 60 U.S. bombers lost. 
“Arnold, writes Higham, “was shocked to discover that news of the supposed bombing had been leaked to the enemy. Arnold told the London News Chronicle on October 19th ‘I don’t see how they could have prepared the defense unless they had been warned in advance.’” 
In Berlin in 2005 I met, just outside the Reichstag, a visiting middle-aged German couple who had lived near the SKF plant all through the war. They insisted that the reason it had never been bombed was because of “our superior anti-aircraft defenses only.” They said they “loved” the Americans, to whom at war’s end they rented their large home for administrative purposes.
It gets worse. American-born William L. Batt, a director of the SKF corporation (along with Hermann Goring’s cousin Hugo von Rosen) got himself appointed vice-chairman of America’s War Production Board, a position he held throughout the war.
Of SKF, Higham writes: “With its 185 sales organizations throughout the world, SKF could have contributed a fine example of Sweden’s economic democracy at work. However SKF was concerned only to make profits, trade on both sides of the fence in wartime, and act as a front for German interests.” . Batt, himself with Nazi sympathies, was in a position to get word to the Germans about the planned raid.
It gets worse yet. Even as Nazi ball bearing production proceeded without pause, American ball bearing production mysteriously declined, leading to a partial crippling of the U.S. war effort.
Higham writes: “Under von Rosen’s leadership and Batt’s trusteeship SKF production in wartime [America] failed to reach even the minimum of American expectations. This fact infuriated [Henry] Morgenthau [secretary of the treasury] who designated the stocky, feisty Canadian-born Lauchlin Currie of the White House Economics Staff to hammer away at the government to stop this outrageous circumstance.” 
On April 10th, 1943, Higham writes, “a loyal and patriotic American, J. S. Tawresey, chief engineer on the SKF board of directors, resigned following a furious quarrel with Batt. He charged that SKF was ‘destructive to the war effort,’ that SKF had failed to meet orders for 150,000 deliveries per month to the all-important Pratt-Whitney fighter airplane engine company, and that Batt was flagrantly working against America despite his WPB role.” 
American bombers were falling from the skies because their engines were seizing up from worn out ball bearings.
Six months later General “Hap” Arnold lost his 60 bombers.
TV specials that always air around November 11th seldom if ever explore such indubitable history. (General Motors and other corporations named in Trading With the Enemy as aiding the Nazi war effort throughout the Second World War never sued Higham or his publisher for any material in the book. His publisher paid one of the lowest premiums ever for libel insurance after the publisher’s lawyers checked out the facts and sources for the facts in Higham’s book.)
Instead, emotional TV specials air around November 11thsuch as the recent extended interview with Canada’s 2012 Silver Cross mother. These specials serve in large part to harness our emotions in support of the military and by extension military solutions – the ones that the Reverend Dr. Nickle and before him Mayor Miller, dared to question.
Yes, Remembrance Day is devoted to remembering. But to remember we first have to know. We need to take into account The Uses of History, to quote the title of Margaret MacMillan’s 2008 book. In it she writes: “History is about remembering the past but it is also about what we choose to forget.” 
Equally on the mark, as Napoleon (not Winston Churchill) wrote: “History is written by the winners.” Whatever is our best grasp of history, it places on our shoulders a responsibility, however unwelcome it may be for the “remembering establishment.” A responsibility, first and foremost, as the Rev. Dr. Nickle’s prayer reminds us, is with courage and dedication to seek truths wherever they may lead us. They may be unpopular. They may be subversive. But, as his prayer so centrally tells us:
“The world is now too dangerous a place for anything but truth; too small for anything but love.” If we seek truths with courage and love, that will oblige us to speak out.
All of us, in my view, are faced with a duty to remember. That starts with the legitimate assumption that goes beyond healthy skepticism. It is that official histories are never to be trusted.
Three days ago an event in Toronto entitled “Memory as Resistance: Grassroots Archives and the Battle of Memory” was sponsored by CONNEXIONS and Beit Zatoun (http://beitzatoun.org/cms/Home.aspx). The latter is a community organization that emphasizes the rights of Palestinians but offers space to all progressive organizations. The open invitation to attend stated: “Mainstream media and institutions of power consign inconvenient histories, struggles and alternative visions to what George Orwell called ‘the memory hole.’ People’s history projects, such as grassroots archives, preserve and share stories of resistance, hidden histories and alternative visions.”
The more I learn the more it seems evident to me that the truths about most crucial events in history (World War Two, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, JFK’s assassination and 9/11 being some examples) are rammed down the memory hole with a vengeance.
These few thoughts still leave me with about two years of contemplation in order to arrive at a better understanding of what Remembrance Day really means – just to me. I hope others will face as much doubt, anguish and inspiration as I do, in pondering the meaning of Remembrance Day.
1 Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11, New Society Publishers, 2007, page 110
2 Article 5 reads: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary including the use of armed force to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
3 Ibid. page 111
4 Trading With The Enemy: An Expose of The Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-49, by Charles Higham, Delacote Press, New York, 1983, page 116
5 Ibid. page 122
6 Ibid. page 122
7 Ibid. page 116
8 Ibid. page 119
9 ibid. page 121
10 The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan, Penguin, 2008, page 127
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