As World War I and II become more distant from current affairs, we at The Weekly Press feel it is important to address if this distance could impact the way future generations honour Remembrance Day. We spoke with Ken Hynes, who is the curator for the Army Museum at Halifax Citadel, and a Veteran of war himself, about how to keep Remembrance Day relevant to generations who weren’t present during this time and may not fully understand the significance and impacts of the Great Wars and why we must remember.
How do we keep people honouring Remembrance Day as generations become more disconnected from the realities of World War I and II?
We have a fairly robust, and becoming more robust outreach program aimed at commemorating Canada’s soldiers. You bring the stories of real people to the people, and that never goes out of fashion.
I think that interest in military history, and military history of Nova Scotia is rising and I think that’s partially due to the recent experience that our country has had at war in Afghanistan, and they see the faces of young people that are just like them, so I think that helps to connect them with those experiences of those soldiers.
It’s an ongoing mission to connect with people, the Royal Canadian Legion, Army/Navy Veterans Association, the veterans themselves along with our institution play a role in keeping those memories alive. I think there’s a way to modernize it in terms of how we get the message out, but the message remains the same and it is that these people provided a tremendous amount of themselves, gave themselves to our country and that’s an easy thing to sell.
Is it more difficult to get the message of why we remember across now than before?
The further removed from those events you get, it does. If you’ve never met these people or never heard them speak of the stories they would tell about their experiences, that is an issue. That’s why this institution and others like it are so important, so that we can continue to remind people in a unique way.
We’ve seen a surge in interest about the World Wars’, and there are people who continue to be interested. The average age of a World War II vet is 92-95, so the families of those service people are coming forward now with artifacts from their service, and that is causing people to remember again the service of their grandfather or whoever, because they’re dying.
What is the age demographic that you see having this interest?
Mixed demographic interested, because of the recent experience our country has had, young people kind of relate to those young people who were wounded in Afghanistan and that allows people to make the connection or draw the line between those people and the soldiers that have fought for our country for hundreds of years.
Often times those present at Remembrance Day ceremonies are of an older demographic, with very few Veterans from World War I and II left, will it become more difficult to draw people out to ceremonies in the future as demographics change?
If you look at attendance before the war in Afghanistan, in Ottawa, attendance numbers were on a down trend, since that time and particularly since all of these things have happened in our own country, such as the young man who was killed at the tomb of the unknown solider, the numbers are astronomical, much bigger than it was in the 70’s and 80’s. I think people may feel closer because young people in our society have had the recent experience of war and the media has helped in establishing awareness in what our country is doing and perhaps that has an influence.
Could there be a point where we may stop learning about World War I and II in school, as it becomes a more dated event?
We don’t stop learning about it. I think it has to be taught, you are domed to make the same mistakes if you don’t remember what happened. There were a lot of things that happened to cause the First World War, and a lot of these things are still happening today, so people have to be able to have that broad view of history in order to connect the dots. What happened 100 years ago isn’t necessarily irrelevant to what’s happening today, there is a direct correlation between what people thought was going on and what they did about that and to take ourselves up to the present day, there are plenty of examples of demo gauges and dictators and so on that they have obviously not drawn the correct results from history, but it’s up to the rest of us to continue to remind people of the costs of war
And no one knows the consequences of war better than soldiers, so I think to a large extent those of us who have served in the military and are veterans of conflict we have an on going responsibility to explain to people that war is bad, the costs of war is astronomical not only in terms of the men and women and machines that loose their lives, but in the day-to-day progress of a nation, so I think its tremendously important to continue to push the idea that war is no way to settle differences. Nevertheless it’s a fact of our existence so we must look at it, analyze it, and draw whatever conclusions we can from those points in history and try to apply those lessons to today.
How do we start getting participation from a young age in Remembrance Day?
We try to go out in the schools and talk to people about these things with the students, but I think that the education system of our province and our country really has done a great disservice to young people by not continuing to teach the lessons that lead to the great war, but also the results of those conflicts and what impact they’ve had on our lives today. You don’t have to dwell on it, but you should always spend a certain about of time and learn why did that happen what was the result of that war and why that led to the second war. To a certain extent I think all of us need to take some responsibility for that, because here I am telling you I have no idea what’s in the history text books in school these days, I should know, but I don’t. I think there is an impact of not having a broad treatment of history.
Will present day soldiers be as apt to continue on with the education process?
My experience is yes, because of the young Veterans that we have associated with the museum and how they think about these things, I can only speak for my own experience and what I’ve seen in other people and the Veterans that have returned. The short answer is yes, how will that impact larger segments of society? I don’t know. But I think as long as we continue to focus in on remembering the real lives of real people I think that’s the key.
Is there a difference between the ways people look at war now vs. how they would have looked at war during World War I and II?
During the first and second World War, the world was at war; our whole country was at war. There were 30,000 women who worked in the factory for the first time and that was a change, but when you have the whole country at war and working for the war, whether it be selling war bombs, or working in the factories or mining coal, everybody was involved and same in the second war, our whole country was engaged.
In the later times, even perhaps staring in Korea and then peace operations in Afghanistan, there are still soldiers on the battle field fighting and dying for our country, but the rest of us back here in Canada for the most part went about our business and weren’t engaged in the war effort and didn’t feel the same amount of closeness to the soldiers that were on the front lines fighting.
So it is a big difference when your whole country is at war, it’s easy for people to be engaged in it but when there’s only a certain segment of the country, the military, involved in something that the government tells the military to do, and its not everybody in the country and that’s why some of that closeness isn’t there anymore.
As immigrants continue to increase in numbers, with many of them coming from war-torn countries, do you see this impacting Remembrance Day and the way we look at it?
There are cultural differences with immigration, people coming with their own values, but some of the new Canadians that I’ve spoken to, do appreciate the contribution of the military, some of them though may have been persecuted by the military or had terrible experiences, so there is a difference there. We need a robust citizenship program where we will need to educated people that the military in this country is a force for good and it’s used only when the government thinks that it’s appropriate and it’s not engage in some of these more nefarious activities.
Do you think that the media’s portrayal of war will really turn people against war and the motives behind it, and that that could have impact on Remembrance Day at all?
In the 70’s at the end of the Vietnam war, any one in the military, for anyone wearing a uniform there was a huge backlash against the military at that time because of the way the war was seen on television and some of the things that happened and the fact that people were tired of it, tired of the carnage, and society had changed they’ve moved beyond, it was different than it was in the 40’s and 50’s and so one.
I don’t know what happened after that but there seemed to be a forgiveness and willingness to embrace those people and the horrors they experienced on the battlefield and for a while it was just not too kosher to be too positive about the military, one can argue from a whole bunch of perspectives as to why that was but once we get into the cold war, further on in the cold war before it ended the whole principal of two global powers maintaining relative peace in the world gave people the sense of complacency that, oh well nothings going to happen, but then we have 9/11 and Afghanistan and other things happening that brings it to the fore because now your brother or your sister is engaged in another war and it brings it closer to home and makes it’s a real person. Where as before there was such a huge gap, that now we can be able to connect with the human nature of a solider that they are just like you and me.
War is not positive, but the soldiers are.