The Importance of Remembering

A Commentary on the victims of war.

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Once again, the November 11th Remembrance Day is upon us. It is the day of the year that marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, veterans.

Allied military cemetery in Normandy, France

Since visiting Vimy Ridge and the Normandy Beaches in France two years ago, my wife and I have a stronger appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Visiting both WWI and WWII military commentaries was truly a humbling experience. What struck us both was the age of many of the soldiers, some as young as 17 years old. We now attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies with much more gratitude and appreciation for all soldiers.

Remembrance Day is an important day and it is imperative that we remember the soldiers who have lost their lives or put their lives on the line to protect the rights of its citizens. But what about the countless civilians that lost their lives during times of war or worse, through genocide. Article II of United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Countless numbers of people have lost their lives as a result of genocide or because of bombing runs or merciless killing because they were considered enemies. Shouldn’t they be remembered too?

I would like to believe that one of the reasons the world went to war in 1939 (WWII) was because the Nazis were exterminating not only the Jews from continental Europe, but millions of others it deemed “undesirable.” By the end of the war in 1945, some eleven million people—over half of them Jews—had died, either through mass extermination, deportation, starvation or overwork in his prison camps. However, much of the world ignored or denied that the Nazis were doing this.  There is little doubt in my mind that it was a genocide that occurred.

Also during WWII, the Rape of Nanking took place. We seldom hear about this event as most schools in the West focus on the fascist Nazis. The Rape of Nanking began on December of 1937 when the Japanese Imperial Army marched into China’s capital city of Nanking and proceeded to murder 300,000 out of the 600,000 civilians and soldiers in the city. The shocking violence consisting of citywide burnings, stabbings, drownings, rapes, and thefts which continued for about six weeks. The Japanese troops are most notorious for raping over 20,000 women, most of whom were murdered thereafter so they could never bear witness. Clearly this was a genocide.

Then there was Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Stalin ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign. It has been estimated that between 1934 and 1939, one million party members were arrested and executed. During the same period, it is thought that 10 million were sent to the gulags (system of forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union) with many of them dying either in transit or as a result of the terrible living conditions they had to endure.  This certainly was a genocide.

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide By DFID.

Many of us older people remember the Rwandan Genocide which began on April 6, 1994. This was when groups of ethnic Hutus, using mainly machetes, began a campaign of terror and bloodshed the Central African country of Rwanda. For about 100 days, the Hutu militias followed a premeditated attempt to exterminate the country’s ethnic Tutsi population. The killings ended after armed Tutsi rebels, invading from neighboring countries, managed to defeat the Hutus and halt the genocide in July 1994. By then, over one-tenth of the population, an estimated 800,000 persons, had been killed. At least the history books label this event as a genocide.

There are many, many other genocides that have occurred in history. Those listed above are but a sampling. Shouldn’t the innocent victims of genocide as well as civilian casualties— referred to as “collateral damage” by the military, be remembered? Many of these victims were children.  Now I’m not suggesting this be done on Remembrance Day, but perhaps there could be another day set aside as a holiday to remember civilian victims of war and of genocide. Perhaps this day could be called Victims of War Day or Victims of Genocide Day. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Diane Samuels, a British author and playwright, said, “How can I pretend that nothing happened?”  Sometimes I feel like that is what is happening. We pretend that these genocides or civilian deaths did not happen because we focus solely on our soldiers.

But perhaps Aldous Huxley, an English writer, novelist, philosopher, said it best when he said,

“The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”

We need to pay more homage and respect for those who innocently have lost their lives in conflicts that were not of their own making. They deserve that respect and honour.