Year after year, every country organizes memorial days for the wars they fought in the past. ANZAC Day is the Australian and New Zealand version of this, but for what follows, it matters not which country you live in and what wars you remember.
Of course, not every war from history is celebrated – or we’d never stop. Besides the allies from one war becoming enemies in the next, usually fighting over similar ideas, which most people have long forgotten. It benefits governments to pick the most recent wars, because they can motivate people by referring to their still known ancestors. Who, after all, knows whether their family members were involved in which Medieval wars.
Memorial days are there to keep the war alive. If they are made a big deal of, it is usually to remind people that their government was on the right (read “winning”) side and therefore that people should be grateful to live in their country and not complain too much. Usually, governments will not make a celebration out of the wars they lost; they might have a small commemorative monument, but they will not emphasize the day, and so for other historical behaviour they are ashamed of.
For example, New Zealand and Australia commemorate the First World War – which is known as “the Great War” – even if there is probably nobody alive today who remembers it. Nevertheless, they make a big event and allow the greatgrandchildren of those soldiers to dress up in military uniforms and wear the medals. But the New Zealand Land Wars – the wars the invading Europeans fought with the native Maori over ownership of the land and other rights – are not celebrated with a day off and parades with dressed up kids, because they are an embarrassment. Worse than that, the government refuses to make teaching the land wars compulsory, but insists that children learn all about the First World War – which started a mere forty years after the last Land Wars and cannot be considered outdated any more than the first world war, especially in view of the importance Maori people attach to knowing their ancestors. Some people argue that they were civil wars and therefore different, but they were not civil wars in the eyes of those who had been invaded. That would be the same as saying that the occupied European countries fought a civil war, because Hitler had decided the land was his. The American civil war, for example, was between different fractions of the white invaders.
Australia, which has an even worse track record with regard their behaviour toward the native population tends to proudly teach its convict history in schools, but conveniently forgets to mention the way they removed an entire generation of native children from their homes in the name of white supremacy.
In other words, both countries’ obsession with the European wars, with which they continue to identify, is kept alive to have something to celebrate in the face of the rest of their history being shameful.
I will not argue the political details of any of those wars. My goal is to deal with the concept of war itself. Because, if we truly want world peace, we have to change our attitude to war as a whole and not justify one war in favour of another, because, obviously, different people are going to consider different wars justified, which only continues these conflicts.
For me, there are only two parties in every war, and those parties are always the same: Soldiers against Civilians, no matter what their nationality, culture, ethnic background, religion or belief. There are those who make war and there are those who suffer from it.
As explained in my philosophy book, Homological Composition, every soldier you meet today – those who have chosen to become professional soldiers and walk around the town in military uniform, even if we are supposed to live in a time of peace – will repeat the same slogan: that without “them”, we would not have freedom and free speech. In other words, they take credit for having won a war that was fought before they were born. They equate their “soldiership” with the collective and make “being a soldier” their identity, so that they do not identify as individual human beings, but as “soldier”, which is why they wear the uniform.
In name of dead soldiers who “sacrificed their life for their country” governments use soldiers and police to silence those demonstrating for peace. If civilians are lucky enough to live in a country where the oppression is less open, they get verbal abuse for not being grateful and unpatriotic and so on; if they are unlucky, they are often violently silenced.
But the government that today makes this claim for their country, is not the same government as that which engaged in the war, no more than today’s soldiers are the same soldiers. They are claiming the right to a piece of Earth that has changed hands thousands of times during history, based on a selected historical event. That, however, can never be right in the eyes of those who do not identify with a nation (an abstract entity called a state that exists only because the soldiers they employ use weapons to control the people who live within their equally abstract borders. The population is kept within those borders with tools like passports, taxes and soldiers guarding them.
Besides, most soldiers who died during the world wars were conscripted, which means they were used as fodder; their lives taken from them, not by the enemy, but by their government, to be thrown away as bait for the enemy. By saying that those soldiers “died for our flag”, they imply they did that willingly and they call them heroes. In short, the nation reciprocates (or washes their hands of their guilt) for taking their lives by force with the label “hero.
In New Zealand, thanks to the public displays of some action groups, some schools are tentatively beginning to acknowledge that conscientious objectors were tortured by their own people during their ‘Great War’. They do so, only because they can no longer deny that this torture took place. Likewise, every child in New Zealand knows that Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest; that he is a national hero, but neither teachers nor government remind the people that he was also a conscientious objector. That information is deliberately kept away from the children. Worse than that, the national museum has put a big war display on, but it called in the police when the action group put up a statue of a conscientious objector outside their door to remind them that their exhibit was biased.
Without any doubt, all other countries have similar discrepancies; every reader will be able to find those in their own country. In all countries, history is selectively remembering only that which benefits the politicians in power today. One of those benefits is that they need the support of the people for their next war. Those frightened young boys the historical government didn’t give a damn about when they were alive, are now called heroes and as such used to recruit the next generation of cannon fodder.
But wars are not fought by heroes, because, to be a hero, you need to identify as a human being, not as a “soldier”. Soldiers sign away their individuality to become tools of the state.
Soldier is not a profession, because professions are done by individuals to contribute to the society (not the state). The function of a soldier is to kill (the enemy) and to control (the subjects) in name of the government, regardless of the motivations of that government and regardless of how oppressive it is.
War never benefits the people. Civilians, no matter where they are, suffer from war. The derogative term “casualties of war”, which diminishes civilians to numbers without value, are victims of mass murder, defenceless and not involved in the wars of their governments; they only accidentally lived in the wrong place. That a people wants to defend itself against invaders is no doubt justified, but to be able to invade and attack civilians, there is a nation with an army at its disposal. In other words, the rulers have long ago decided that the civilians living on the land they claim are not free individuals but subjects to the nation state. That is another way of saying that the lives of civilians are worth less than that of the rulers and those who control the civilians in their name. In many places, the rulers as well as many soldiers and police are above the law, like when they put a greater penalty on a civilian attacking a policeman than on a policeman violating a civilian.
In short, governments identify with the nation; the police often identify with justice, – although justice is an ethical concept and has nothing to do with laws – and those who have chosen the military identify with “being a soldier”. But that implies all soldiers, including those who fought for Hitler.
These soldiers, who promise to obey orders, make themselves tools of the state and, would the state change rulers, they would still exercise their duty, no matter what is asked of them. Tools, after all, have no individuality. Of course, as in the gun control debate, regardless of whether we believe it is people or guns that kill, getting rid of the weapons (the tools) will stop most of the killing.
Unless we re-evaluate what it really means to be a hero or a coward, we will keep supplying the next war with voluntary tools, so that those can force the involuntary tools when the state decides it wants some more power. In that light; the only heroic soldier is the one who is willing to stand up against their own government. If we truly want peace, we have to start with telling our children that those who control civilians while holding a weapon, those who blindly follow orders and those willing to kill on command, are cowards. We need to understand that peace is only possible if we have no tools to fight wars with. Only if we stop deceiving our children with false hero stories, will we be able to tell them that their lives are valuable; that civilian have value.
Dictators and wars cannot exist without those who obey and do the dirty work in their name.
Soldiers do not exist because there are wars; wars exist because there are soldiers.
My book, In the Real World – written to help young adults understand the emotions and politics that underlie wars, paints a realistic picture of some of the events of both world wars. It will be on sale during the month of April to help create awareness and help the peace effort.
Thank you for reading.