November 11 is once again upon us – a time to reflect on the costs of war and show our respect to those who have fought on our behalf. As citizens, these are responsibilities that we should never ignore, but we invite you to go further and take some time this month to consider what we need to do to end war.
Listening to the stories of our soldiers is a place to start. All too often, those who have returned from war stay silent, believing that most of us who stayed behind really don’t want to know about their experiences. They may be right – we certainly prefer the sanitized version, but war, including high-tech war, is not clean and our soldiers are not all heroes; wars bring out the worst of our nature, while admittedly at times revealing some of our finest human qualities.
Our Remembrance Day commemorations seek to remind us of the particular men and women who answered our country’s call. This is very important as the incomprehensibly large numbers of human beings who have died in war – by some estimates more than 200 million in the 20th century alone(1) – can shock, but they then can be far too easily forgotten. Individuals move us; numbers do not. But behind those numbers, we must also remember that it has been civilians – ordinary men, women and children – who have suffered, and continue to suffer the most from war; for most of them, there is no exit from their war-ravaged communities. Rendered invisible by references to “collateral damage,” we must make sure that our remembering of war does not silence them further. Ending war requires us to reflect on the full costs of war, not the suffering of only one side or one group of war’s many victims.
Yet, individualizing war can also be dangerous. Individual stories reveal so much to us about our potential as human beings – our capacity to sacrifice ourselves for others, our resilience in the midst of horrific conditions, and also unfortunately our capacity to destroy. When we focus on individuals, we can lose the big picture. Indeed our Remembrance Day events are often indifferent to the larger political decisions and social conditions which led to these particular wars; wars themselves often seem more like natural disasters out of human control. But wars are human-made. Wars have root causes that can and need to be confronted: economic and social injustice that deprive so many of their basic physical and psychological needs; institutionalized economic interests that are served by war and encourage the continued spread of weapons around the world; ideologies that divide and dehumanize those peoples we deem “different;” and the belief that violence is both normal and inevitable, to name some key ones.
As we think of Canada’s military history on November 11th, it is important to remember that military solutions ultimately do not bring genuine peace. The legacy of violence is just too devastating, leaving broken individuals and communities in its wake. Our world is extremely militarized, and this receives shockingly little attention. The fact that Canada is the only NATO member and one of the few countries which has not signed the new global Arms Trade Treaty – a first global effort to rein in the current largely unregulated arms trade – has received scant attention, let alone outrage here at home. Recently Canada stood opposed to 159 nations who endorsed a joint statement, expressing that nuclear weapons should not be used “under any circumstance.”(2) Let us hope that our new government will move quickly to alter our country’s current course.
Militarized security does not provide genuine security either; rather, it legitimizes the use of force and increases tensions in conflictual political relationships, making nonviolent solutions more difficult to achieve. In 2014 the world spent an estimated $1776 billion – more than $3 million a minute – in military spending.(3) Money can almost always be found for weaponry and wars, but finding the resources to meet the basic needs of all of us who share this planet – well, that is another story. Almost ½ of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. One child will die every four seconds from poverty, hunger or an easily preventable disease.(4) Almost 60 million people are now refugees, fleeing conflict and persecution.(5) War and military preparedness itself carries a massive environmental footprint, beginning, but not ending, with their immeasurably large consumption of fossil fuels.
A more peaceful world for all of the world’s people is attainable, but it requires a fundamental transformation in our thinking and practices. We must remember our past wars and honour our losses, but let’s also recognize that our current unsustainable militarized versions of peace and security are not only unsuccessful, but very dangerous. November 11 is a perfect time to remember that the voices of soldiers are diverse, and a great many have no illusions about the destructive consequences of war and would want nothing more than to see a significant reallocation of the world’s resources from war to peace.
Pat Romano (Humanities)
Dawson College’s Inspire Solutions Project
Claire Elliott (Dawson College Library), Dipti Gupta (Cinema-Communications), Fiona Hanley (Nursing); Greta Hofmann-Nemiroff (English, Humanities, New School; retired), Cynthia Martin (Political Science), Kim Simard (Cinema-Communications)
1. See, for example, Milton Leitenberg. Deaths in War and Conflicts in the 20th Century. Ithaca: Peace Studies Program, Cornell University, 2006.
2. The most recent refusal of Canada to support an absolute ban on the use of nuclear weapons occurred at this year’s NPT Review Conference; a similar position was taken by Canada at the 2014 UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. For a recent article reminding us of the need to abolish all nuclear weapons, see Eric Schlosser, “Today’s Nuclear Dilemma” (The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov-Dec 2015). We also recommend you have a look at NUKEMAP, a powerful educational resource created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology. You can select Montreal as your location and discover what would happen if we were the target of a nuclear bomb from today’s arsenals.
3. For data on military expenditures, see the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s annual reports.
4. For a useful source of statistics on global poverty, see http://www.globalissues.org/.
5. See the latest report on the global refugee crisis at http://www.unhcr.org/556725e69.html