A Historian’s Perspective on the Importance of Remembrance Day and Understanding War

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On Remembrance Day, as Canadians honor those who sacrifice their lives to defend our freedom, a historian says it’s more important than ever to talk about war and history.”There are still a lot of wars in the world,” said Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford.

“And I think we really need to think about it, because if we don’t think about it, we won’t think about how to stop it, how to end it, how to control it, how to potentially ban it completely. ”

MacMillan is the author of several historical books. His latest work, War: how conflicts have shaped us, examines how conflicts have shaped human society and culture over the centuries.

She spoke with The streamMatt Galloway explains what it means to remember and how learning about the past can help us in the present.

Why is it important for Canadians to remember what happened in a war that dates back over a century?

It’s part of the fabric of our history and it’s part of what made us who we are.

As a result of World War I we came out more confident of ourselves as a nation, as an actor in the world, we were ready to take more independence from the British. And as a result of World War II we became pretty much completely independent from the British. And I think those were important moments.

So it’s always helpful, I think, to look back and see how we got to where we are today.

You say that remembering war, and how it is remembered, is often entangled in political and social debates. What do you mean?

We change ourselves as a people and we change the way we remember the past, and it is inevitable.

World War I, when it was first commemorated in the 1920s on the Allied side, it was commemorated as a victory. And people have spoken in Canada and in Britain, in Australia, elsewhere, about our dead heroes. And it was seen as a victory and a triumph. And then little by little doubts crept in, especially as the world entered a Second World War. And I think people started to think, was that a waste?

What I think has also happened to the memory is that we are remembering the people on our side more and more, as we once would have said. We remember all those who die in war, and I think that’s an important thing.

A lot of people in Canada… come from very different parts of the world, whose countries were not involved in the first and second world wars or were involved on the other side. And I think the memory is now something we should think about together [in terms of] those who died in war and are pondering the costs of war.

Canadian soldiers returning from the trenches at the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 (Library and Archives Canada under reproduction reference number PA-000832 / Wikipedia)

In this book, you grapple with what war is and say that war is not an aberration, nor the absence of peace. Tell me more about how we define what war is.

Especially in the West, we have had a very long period of peace. And so we tend to see war as something that happens when things go wrong, that it’s an aberration.

I think we have to recognize that war is not something that happens by mistake and that few people want. I think it’s something that goes directly back to human organization and human history.

The danger of war is always present. I’m not saying we’re going to have a war anytime soon, but there are still plenty of wars in the world. And I think we really need to think about it, because if we don’t think about it, we won’t think about how to stop it, how to end it, how to control it, how to potentially ban it altogether.

When war happens elsewhere… what does it do to our relationship to war?

It can make war glamorous.

You know, there are hundreds of books when you go to bookstores, on war, and a lot of it is about battles and movies…. Those who have fought do not see the glamor of war. You know, they see the ugly side of war and they see the costs of war. So I think there is that. We can falsely glorify war, thinking it is something noble and glorious because we don’t experience it much.

We must be aware of the costs of war and we must be aware that these costs are borne by the world as a whole, and not just by those who suffer and die from it.– Margaret MacMillan

But the other thing I think is that we tend to distance ourselves and… mistakenly say, “Well, some parts of the world are just warlike. I mean, these people are like that. ”

It’s dangerous because I think we have to be aware of the costs of war and we have to be aware that these costs are borne by the world as a whole, not just those who suffer and die from it. Waves of refugees around the world – it’s part of the cost of war, and it’s something that affects us.

MacMillan is professor of history at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford, and author of several books. (Andy Hincenbergs / CBC)

Why is it [it] important to study war, especially now?

Because if we don’t study it, we fail to understand how human society has developed.

Canada may not be a nation forged in war, but it is a nation that has been affected by war. I mean, governments have become stronger, for example, in part because of the need to respond to war. The country almost broke apart, I think, a few times during WWI and WWII because of conscription. So these are things that I think we need to be aware of, that even a peaceful country like Canada shows the scars of war.

But I think studying it also gives us… a better understanding. The more we understand the past, the more we understand ourselves and the more we understand others.

And yet, as you say, I mean, in some ways we don’t take war seriously enough.

Why is it [that] the study of war is largely ignored?

I think maybe it is because it is considered in many circles to be military history. So it’s a kind of battles and toys for boys. And I think this is a mistake.

If we look away just because we don’t like something [or] we find it unpleasant, so I think it’s pretty crazy.– Margaret MacMillan

Understanding how wars break out and understanding something about the nature of war can give us healthy respect for those trying to keep the peace, and can make us understand the need.

But I think there is a sort of distaste for studying war…. I was giving a lecture once and someone said, “Why don’t you study peace instead? And I said, you know, you have to understand war if you want to understand peace. The two are linked together. What if we look away just because we don’t like something [or] we find it unpleasant, so I think it’s pretty crazy.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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