Humanity must triumph self-interest

A student and former soldier reflects on the centenary of the end of World War I

Humanity must triumph self-interest

Last Sunday’s Remembrance Day marked the centenary of the end of the Great War. As we remember past sacrifices, we must also reflect on the present and future of conflict. After all, despite the grave lessons of the twentieth century, including the vow to never again witness another Holocaust, we continue to come up short.

Central to this reflection is to understand what military service means, and how it can be used as a force that brings about a better, more peaceful world.

Some time after high school, I enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). I did so because I’m indebted with gratitude to those who serve and protect humanity. Having been born in Yugoslavia — a country that no longer exists — I know the horrors of war and felt a duty to prevent it from happening again.

Yugoslavia was born and died in a context of ethnocentric nationalism, one which has left me strongly apprehensive toward politics of fear and hatred. What also compelled my regrettably brief service of just over four years is the CAF’s ethos: fighting spirit, discipline, and teamwork.

But above all, I am inspired by its principle of unlimited liability, which means that those who serve agree that they can be, lawfully, ordered into harm’s way. How remarkable that, nonetheless, so many have and continue to enlist and serve voluntarily. It is the greatest commitment that any society can ask for. And if the global community still values its vow to prevent genocides, it is also a necessary commitment.

Unfortunately, this vow is undermined by a pervasive indifference and self-interest in the leadership of the global community. They have fallen short of full dedication to peace and human rights.

Whereas the Great War at the beginning of the twentieth century resulted from a failure to respect sovereignty, the genocides of the mid- and late-twentieth century came, paradoxically, from a respect for sovereignty. We shouldn’t repeat this in the twenty-first century. Today, we need a global community, via the United Nations (UN), that fully commits to a military force that protects human beings.

Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who headed the UN mission in Rwanda, was unable to convince an indifferent global community to intervene and prevent genocide, despite his best efforts. He correctly suggested that in order for the UN to be effective, it has to weigh human rights over sovereignty.

According to U of T professor Randall Hansen, international diplomacy should be driven by Canada’s self-interests, not morality. But so long as this happens, the legacy of the sacrifices of the last 100 years, which sought to create a more peaceful, inclusive world, will be jeopardized.

These sacrifices are intimately tied to our campus. More than 6,000 U of T students, faculty, and staff served in the two world wars. They travelled great distances to help people they didn’t know. All risked their lives: 1,185 lost them.

Canada shouldn’t now turn its back on these sacrifices by, for instance, arming oppressive regimes for billion-dollar contracts. If our history of sacrifice is to mean anything, it is that our humanity is not for sale. If you don’t serve humanity, you’re neither fit to serve nor govern.  

I encourage U of T students to visit the Soldiers’ Tower, located by Hart House. It’s a memorial honouring U of T students, alumni, faculty, and staff who had served. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf also have their names carved on the Memorial Screen and engraved into the walls of the Memorial Arch.

In the Memorial Room, there’s a book recording names of those who served. Among many of the interesting items that visitors to the tower will see is the Memorial Window. I ask that visitors notice the words that are written at the bottom of the window: “Service,” “Sacrifice,” “Peace,” and “Freedom.”

I ask that visitors remember Canada’s commitment to peace and freedom, and that the tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.

Lest we forget.

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

U of T students pay respects in Remembrance Day service

Annual Remembrance Day service recognizes university members who served in the military

U of T students pay respects in Remembrance Day service

November 10 marked the University of Toronto’s 93rd Remembrance Day service organized by the Soldiers’ Tower Committee. Held annually since Soldiers’ Tower was built in 1924, the service pays tribute to the many Canadian servicepeople. This year’s service recognized the 1,181 students and faculty members who sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom.

In attendance were members of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee, religious leaders, university faculty members, student organizations, veterans, and active members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The service commenced with a few words of welcome from Matthew Jurczak, chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee, and a prayer from the chaplain, Major the Reverend Richard Ruggle.

The poem “In Flanders Fields” was read by Major Jana Lok of the 25 Field Ambulance unit and the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. The poem was written by University College alumnus Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who was a veteran of the South African War and died in 1918 while serving in the later years of World War I.

Francis Vivian Morton, also one of the many U of T men who enlisted during World War I, was recognized for his service in a statement read by Austin Cotton, President of Toronto’s Theta Delta Chi Fraternity Chapter.

“In March 1915, this small-town boy from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba cut short his studies at University College and enlisted with several other U of T men in the 25th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery,” said Cotton.

“Reaching France with the same unit in January 1916, [Morton] served continuously for nearly two years, through the battles of St. Eloi, Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Fresnoy, and Hill 70. He was killed at Passchendaele while in charge of his gun, which was in action on the afternoon of November 10, 100 years ago today,” continued Cotton.

Also recognized was the service of Jewish and First Nations people in the military via a memorial prayer led by Rabbi Julia Appel and a statement given by First Nations House Elder Andrew Wesley. Wesley recalled a story from his own father, who served in the First World War.

“They were 40 young Omushkagowuk who enlisted for the First World War. They left their hunting ground [way of life], families, and community to travel to a foreign country they never heard of,” he said. “Many of them did not speak English and many did not return; for them this was a sacred thing to do.”

The service concluded with the laying of wreaths and a playing of the “Last Post,” followed by a two-minute silence and a playing of the lament by a piper.

The Remembrance Day service at the university was one of many services held in the city. Others were held at the Ontario Veteran’s Memorial in Queen’s Park, and the cenotaph at Old City Hall.

What ought we remember, and what ought we forget?

A critical perspective on Remembrance Day

What ought we remember, and what ought we forget?

As I have grown older, I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about Remembrance Day. That is not to say I take issue with setting aside a day to remember and contemplate those who risked everything in the name of what they thought was right.

But Remembrance Day as it is observed today has little to do with such contemplation. There is no room for questions about whether what our progenitors fought and died for was indeed right and just. Consequently, Remembrance Day has become nothing more than a time for uttering platitudes soaked in ardent nationalism and blind veneration of military force.

[pullquote-features]Remembrance Day as it is observed today has little to do with such contemplation.[/pullquote-features]

I witnessed one of these unabashed displays in Kingston a few weeks ago, although ceremonies similar in tone and substance took place nationwide. The Master of Ceremonies stood in front of the crowd and loosely recited, with much conviction, a few stanzas of Charles Province’s poem, Solider. “It is the Soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the Soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to protest. It is the Solider, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.”

Then came the bishop, who admonished us to pray for the men who died so that we may live, and who died in the name of some sort of holy “truth and righteousness.” We were to pray for men who took life, and who in turn had theirs taken, all with God on their side.

I found this disappointing, but hardly surprising. What profoundly disquieted me was that these statements were put forth to a crowd that included several elementary schoolchildren. I couldn’t help but think that these children would grow up actually believing that all our freedoms were won at gunpoint; that the actions of journalists and poets and protesters and lawyers are deservedly secondary to the actions of soldiers; and that it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.

When the moment of silence came, my thoughts turned to the men who served in the World War I. Many of them were younger than I am now when they went to war. I thought of how they had been duped by their leaders, tricked into going off to fight for freedom only to be slaughtered in the mud of some foreign land. Few Canadians had the courage or the decency to warn these men that they were dying for nothing, and those few that did find their honest voice were met with swift and severe ‘patriotic’ backlash. To question whether the war was just had risen to the level of heresy and slander — and I can scarcely imagine it being much different a century later.

Perhaps my discomfort is best summed up in the book Warrior Nation by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. It is worth reading at length, but one of its major themes can be paraphrased as follows: When we make every soldier into a hero, we make all of their actions heroic, and the result is that we find ourselves unable to debate the merits both of past wars and of sending our armies into combat again.

[pullquote-default]Few Canadians had the courage or the decency to warn these men that they were dying for nothing, and those few that did find their honest voice were met with swift and severe ‘patriotic’ backlash.[/pullquote-default]

Thinking back to the schoolchildren, we hope they will become tomorrow’s active participants in democracy. But by consistently telling them that freedom is always born out of violent conflict, and by giving them such a peremptorily one-sided picture of how war, nation, and freedom are intertwined, we do them a significant disservice. We make democratic participation more difficult for them, and consequently, their contributions become less likely. And in consistently feeding the same lines to adults, we essentially do the same, for we circumscribe the important discussions we ought to now be having.

Nick Papageorge is a second-year student at the Faculty of Law.