Anzac, Vimy, and Social Memory

26 04 2010

According to the BBC’s Sydney correspondent, Australians are debating whether the increased popularity of Anzac Day in recent years is helping to promote militarism and chauvinism in that country.  Two historians, Professors Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, have denounced Anzac Day and “the relentless militarisation of our history”. (To hear Professor Lake speak on this topic, click here).

Marilyn Lake

Anyway, I thought that this might be of interest to Canadian readers, especially since Vimy Ridge has a significance to Canadians similar to that of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.  In fact, something called Vimy Ridge Day was invented by our parliament in 2003 to supplement 11 November. In Australia and New Zealand, both Remembrance and Anzac Days are celebrated.

Anzac Cove, Turkey

The parallels between the social memories of the First World War in Canada and Australia are striking. In both cases, the citizens of increasingly multicultural countries pause each year to venerate men who died for an Empire that no longer exists.  In both countries, hard right people who pine for the good old days of the British Empire have latched onto the relevant holidays for present-day political purposes. In both countries, conservatives say  that military history is a very important, indeed central, part of the national historical narrative.

The place of Anzac, Vimy, and other events in military history in the social memories of Australia and Canada is especially striking when one considers that these countries are, thanks to lucky geography and the peaceful disposition of their inhabitants, among the least militarised societies on earth. Compare the histories of Canada and Australia to those of most of the 180 members of the UN and you will see just how pacific their histories are.  The militarization of Australian history described by Professor Lake is ironic because military force has probably played a less important role in the history of Australia than in the history of any other continent (unless you count the guards who watched over the first convict settlers as military). South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, have all been terribly scarred by war. Australia hasn’t.

Similarly, the striking thing about Canada’s past after 1815 is just how _unmilitary_ it is. (I admit that military conflict is a big part of Canadian history before 1815). With the exception of the 1885 Rebellion in Western Canada and the Battle of Batoche, Canada’s domestic history has been _very_ peaceful by international standards. The FLQ crisis was really the exception that proves the rule that Canada is peaceful. Yeah, many Canadians went to help the mother country out in the two world wars and South Africa.  The losses, although tragic, were light compared to those other countries. It’s true that there was a bit of food and gasoline rationing in Canada during WWII, although most British people wouldn’t have considered what we had real rationing at all. Toronto didn’t get bombed. Postwar, Canada made some contributions to UN missions around the world. These contributions are now honoured on the $10 bill.  A few Canadians still go to fight for their respective mother countries today (e.g., the Serbian Canadians who fought in Bosnia in the 1990s). However, the overall importance of war and military conflict in post-1867 Canadian history is probably less than in the history of any other major country in the western hemisphere. War is also less important in Canadian history than in the histories of the countries that supply most of Canada’s immigrants (India, Pakistan, China).  Canada since Confederation has been a pretty peaceful place where few people have died from violence, including wars and other forms of political violence.

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of Canadian history, many of our national commemorations revolve around the military.  We have a national day to mark the end of the First World War (in Europe), but we don’t have a national day to commemorate the completion of the CPR which took place, I’ve been told, in Canada. This is ass backwards!  What is even more bizarre is that so much of the social memory of English-speaking Canada focuses on 20th century  military history and events that took place overseas rather than on the earlier  wars and battles fought here on home turf.  From a purely Canadian standpoint, the pre-1815 battles on Canadian soil were probably more important.

Yet for reasons that probably include the absence of photographic and motion picture records, the pre-1815 wars aren’t a major part of the social memory of English-speaking Canada.  Recognition of the people who died in the pre-1815 conflicts have only recently begun to be integrated into the 11 November ceremonies in Ottawa, a long overdue development. It was only in 2005 that statues representing those of who served in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and other pre-Confederation conflicts were added to the national war memorial in Ottawa.

Statue of Joseph Brant, National War Memorial, Ottawa

As someone who teaches Canadian history to first-year university students, I try to strike the right balance between military and non-military aspects of our history. I talk about Canada’s role in the two world wars, but I also assigned a book on the history of the donut in Canada. Which of those topics is most important? In the long run, over-consumption of donuts may kill more Canadians than either world war.

Emphasizing the role of military conflict in Australian and Canadian history at the expense of other themes (e.g., economic growth, the emergence of consumer culture, the advent of TV, women’s emancipation, the histories of accountancy and fast food) obscures two important truths.

First, the world has been getting more peaceful over the last few centuries. So observers have been so bold as to predict that war is on the way out. This is a risky claim, but it does seem that  as societies progress from tribalism to the nation state to capitalist democracy, the percentage of the population that dies from violence typically falls. The 20th century is often remembered as a bloody century and age of unprecedented mass murder. There are some terrible data points that support this view (the Holocaust, the Battle of Stalingrad) but in reality it was a relatively peaceful period of human history. One of the reasons why the death toll in the two world wars was so high was that the world’s population numbered in the billions by the 20th century. The percentage of the world and European populations that died from war and other forms of violence was actually lower than in early centuries. Of course, the atrocities that took place were captured on film. A German boy born in 1900 likely died of disease, not war, whereas in a hunter-gatherer society about half of all males die violently. Today Europe is, thank goodness, very peaceful, as is the world as a whole.

In Canada and Australia, the demographic impact of war was very small indeed. More Canadians died from car accidents between 1950 to 1953 than in the Korean Conflict, yet there are no memorials to them.

Second, Canada and Australia have been two of the countries that have been vanguard of the move towards a more peaceful world. Among other things, they are the nations that have embraced multiculturalism, democracy, capitalism, and globalization. Maybe we need more memorials to these phenomena.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto