Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Flander's Fields - Time for a little iconoclasm

. . . Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw the torch
Be yours, to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep
Though poppies grow in Flander's Fields

Remembrance Day in Canada is fast approaching, and all across the country the poem of a Canadian officer in His Majesty's army will be recited and sung, set to a multitude of different tunes. I have sung it so many times that I know it by heart, and can sing it two different ways. I never really thought much about it - I have been a member of a couple of different amateur choirs, and it had little meaning to me. I didn't care much about the "Great War," but I liked the music well enough.

I was rehearsing it again this year, when I thought a little deeper about that verse. What exactly does it mean, anyways?

Take up our quarrel with the foe

Not to be trite, but why? This is a song about the first "World War." What exactly was our quarrel with the foe? The French Canadians who stayed home, those who refused to rush over to Belgium so that a British nobleman could tell them which machine gun they were to run in front, had the right idea. It wasn't cowardice - why would anyone want to deliberately involve themselves in a meaningless, brutal, badly fought clash of imperialist forces on the other side of the Atlantic? The presence of the Canadians, for all our self-flattery about Vimy ridge, was not going to settle it either way. If anything, our only motivation for laying down our lives was a slavish devotion to a global empire that had its own well-documented reputation for brutality and barbarism.

Of course, that's not how it would have been seen at the time, and maybe there is something to be said for alliances and sovereignty and all those noble ideals that are trotted out every time we are asked to go to war on someone else's behalf. So that's not actually my problem with Flander's Fields.

This, however, is:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep

This is the kind of primitive thinking that I object to, but which is still so frequently used to justify the perpetuation of mindless killing. I'm not a vegetarian, and I believe that some killing of human beings can be morally justified, if conducted in the proper way with the right intentions. With that said, it makes no sense to do so in such a purely ritualistic fashion, just to please the dead and give meaning to their sacrifice, even if it was, in the end, entirely without purpose. Some torches ought to be dropped.

The mentality that underlies Flander's Fields is the same mentality that has driven powerful people, both before and since, to argue that wars should be continued, not because they serve morality, or protect the interests of those on whose behalf they are fought (which can also be evil, but can at least form the basis for a rational debate) but for the sake of those who have already fallen. It's the mentality that caused Gen. MacArthur to advocate, not for a negotiated end to the intractable and soul-numbingly brutal Korean War, but for the use of nuclear weapons against China. Why? Because no man of his was going to "die for a tie." Turn on the TV today, and you hear the same excuse being given.

But I'll probably still sing it anyways. . .

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Unknown said...

"I believe that some killing of human beings can be morally justified, if conducted in the proper way with the right intentions"

That's a really big point to bring up so vaguely! (Not that I necessarily want to see another blog about it at all!)

The Proud Islamist said...

Well, then a comment will have to suffice - if you do get a chance to come back to the comments.

I think that, in general, killing ought to be avoided, but it isn't as if there aren't mitigating circumstances. The obvious ones are things like self-defense and defense of others. The former might seem somewhat selfish, after all, wouldn't you rather be the victim than a perpetrator? It is, however, a question of intentions - if you didn't go out of your way to kill someone, but instead the other person created the situation where you had to choose between your life and theirs, then the question has to be a matter of individual choice - it's easy to moralize if you've never been in the situation.

More controversial ideas are things like the death penalty. This is an unpopular thing to say, but I don't think it's entirely a bad idea. Its only drawback is that it is irreversible, and mistakes happen, so for that reason alone, it might be better not to have it. Otherwise, I think we are better off disposing of some people, rather than permanently warehousing them in government facilities that have no chance of "correcting" them. That is no life for them, and no way for us to use our resources.

The Proud Islamist said...

The case that we're dealing with here, though, is a question of warfare. And in that case, it depends on whether or not we're talking about a "just war." There is a great body of literature published from both secular sources and from religious institutions like the Catholic Church on whether or not a "just war" is possible, and what counts as one.

I think there is such a thing - but it has to have rules and limits. In the early 1990s, most of the Western world asked Bosnians to just accept the actions of the Yugoslav army - they even imposed an arms embargo on the Bosnians so that they couldn't raise an army. Not fighting, however, would have meant the end of Bosnia and the wholesale death or expulsion of the Bosnian nation, so for them, the war itself was a "just war."

Kelly said...

Thank you for following up, I feel much better. I'm not sure how I feel about it though, I'll have to think. I certainly agree with self-defense but my yogic self objects to all the others right now (not having been in any of those situations).