11.13.2008

ancestry.ca: a mistake, but not an outrage

Canadian readers all heard about a mistake made by Ancestry.ca in a photo used for a Remembrance Day ad. US and other readers probably didn't hear about it, so here's the story.
Call it a Remembrance Day story that a leading genealogy website would rather not remember.

To honour the memory of the Canadian soldiers who died in the First World War, Ancestry.ca was offering, until the end of the month, a free Web search of military databases that contained the records of this country's soldiers.

A half-page ad that ran in a Toronto newspaper on Sunday, adorned with a large red poppy, was titled "My Grandfather. My Hero," with details of how to do the search.

But the colour ad featured a photograph of a German, not an Allied soldier, a blunder that angered some veterans and historians.

The above story shows the ad with the blunder.

I saw the headline, skimmed a paragraph or two, thought "Oops," and moved on. So I didn't realize that veterans and others quoted in news stories were saying things like, "It's an outrage to the memory of those who died fighting for this country."

No, it's not an outrage.

Today, the Globe and Mail ran two letters with a more enlightened perspective.
More than a few Germans have emigrated to Canada since 1918, many with ancestors who fought in the First World War.

Although Ancestry.ca accidentally used a picture of a German soldier in an ad honouring the memory of Canadian soldiers, the controversy speaks to the ambiguous nature of wars waged long ago. The German soldiers whom Canadians so bravely fought in the Great War were not monsters. They were young men, much the same as their enemies.

Should any Canadian with a German First World War vet as an ancestor be ashamed of that fact?

Surely not.

Julian Reid, Ottawa

*

I was disappointed to read this story just a day after the country commemorated the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day. The website made a very unfortunate mistake, but the rhetoric in response - calling a photo of a German soldier "an outrage" - was all out of proportion.

Don't German soldiers who died also deserve our respect and remembrance? Or are we now blaming young conscripts for the crimes of their leaders?

Nov. 11 has never been about celebrating only the winners, but remembering all the lives lost in war.

Eva Holland
Verona, ON

These letters point to the fallacy of Remembrance Day. If we honour veterans only from our own country, with no reminder of how completely useless and insane war is, no reminder of all of war's victims, military and civilian, then it's all just so much flag-waving. No matter what the official spin, at bottom it's just another glorification of war.

It's horribly sad to think that in the 21st Century, some Canadians could still think of any soldiers as "the enemy". They should be required to read All Quiet on the Western Front.

The enemy is war and the governments who prosecute it, spending other people's lives for their own gain. Everyone forced to partake in it, no matter where they were born, is a victim.

29 comments:

M@ said...

God forbid that War Gloating Day be used to remember the insanity and inhumanity and senselessness of war. Maybe there need to be more flags associated with the day or something.

bgk said...

OMG. Now you know why I cringe with horror on Veteran's Day here in the US. Its all about how "We're the best country on earth..." said in tones that infer.

1.) All other countries are inherently inferior

2.) Anyone who disagrees with the first sentiment isn't a real Amurican.

OMG -- Only a few more months to go til I have the funds for the PR app... maybe if I just bury my head in the sand...

laura k said...

War Gloating Day

Nice. Sad.

OMG -- Only a few more months to go til I have the funds for the PR app... maybe if I just bury my head in the sand...

That's how I got through my last months in the US. I know you've got a while left. Hang in there.

And hang out here. Maybe it will help.

Ryan said...

I've always thought the Legion, etc. should take a book from the War Amps and change their slogan to the much more appropriate "Never again."

Rather than doing that, they constantly connected Afghanistan to the wars of the past, as if it is just a continuation of a never ending conflict.

laura k said...

I've always thought the Legion, etc. should take a book from the War Amps and change their slogan to the much more appropriate "Never again."

Rather than doing that, they constantly connected Afghanistan to the wars of the past, as if it is just a continuation of a never ending conflict.


Which it is.

You're right, they should do that - but they don't, because they don't really believe "never again". They feel when the Government says there's a reason for war, you're supposed to salute and look no further. Don't ask why, just go off and die.

Now there's a slogan for ya.

M@ said...

Which it is.

On that note, it might interest people to know that Why We Fight is available for free on the internet right now. I don't know whether this is a limited time thing.

laura k said...

Why We Fight is available for free on the internet right now.

Wow, how cool. Thanks, M@. I will check it out and post that soon.

Jere said...

Forget nationality, what about the grandMOTHERs?

laura k said...

It was specifically about soldiers from WWI. There were lots of heroic women in that war (nurses, peace activists), but I don't think there were any female soldiers.

Jere said...

Well they're in the database!

I had heard the WACS recruited old maids for the war...

laura k said...

Surrender, surrender...

impudent strumpet said...

WTF, all this outrage was about a First World War soldier? Like I could see the outrage if it was a nazi (although I'm surprised anyone can tell at all since he's mostly in shadows), but a WWI soldier stands for...not much apart from the futility of war. I don't know why in this day and age some people insist on glamourizing WWI and making it out to be less idiotic. The whole problem in the first place (both in the countries declaring war on each other and the boys running off to join the army) was that people were under the mistakn impression that it would be glamourous and worthwhile.

Actually, I recently learned that I have ancestors who fought (legitimately and honourably) on both sides in WWI. Apparently they were conscripted by whichever side was controlling their village (in what is now Poland), then the village changed hands and they were conscripted by the conquering army. Just a change in management. Go stand in the other trenches and shoot in the other direction at the other occupying army.

So that goes to show just how much of a threat the two sides were to each other's way of life.

laura k said...

Very cool, Imp Strump.

a WWI soldier stands for...not much apart from the futility of war.

Word.

Go stand in the other trenches and shoot in the other direction at the other occupying army.

Goddamn. That is heartbreaking.

* * * *

There is nothing I know of that stands for the futility of war more than WWI. All hail Blackadder Goes Forth, the saddest comedy I know.

M@ said...

All hail Blackadder Goes Forth, the saddest comedy I know.

Seconded.

So that goes to show just how much of a threat the two sides were to each other's way of life.

One hates to always bring up the same thing, but if anyone comes across Dwight MacDonald's essay "The Responsibility of Peoples", grab hold with both hands and read it right away. I still can't find an online or in-print source. I'll have to defy copyright and type it out one of these days... as soon as my books are unpacked.

laura k said...

One hates to always bring up the same thing,

Oh no, by all means do, since I always do.

but if anyone comes across Dwight MacDonald's essay "The Responsibility of Peoples", grab hold with both hands and read it right away. I still can't find an online or in-print source.

I have been on the watch for it since you told me of its influence on you. Not on a close watch, I admit, but a half-watch.

I'll have to defy copyright and type it out one of these days...

Lend it to me and I'll scan it at work with our nice OCR thingy. It might not even be under copyright anymore.

M@ said...

By my calcs, it's under copyright until 2052. But since both MacDonald and his widow have passed on, and I can't find any reference to his having any children, I suspect the piece isn't an especially hot property. As soon as I find it we'll get it done. If someone sends me a C&D, I'll just comply, I suppose.

Honest, it's really quite an essay! :)

laura k said...

I take copyright seriously, but not if the author is dead. :)

I used to send out those C&D letters, many moons ago.

Eva said...

Hiya,

Thanks for posting my letter! That being said, for me Remembrance Day is one of the most powerful and meaningful days of the year, so I think you may have misunderstood me a little when you wrote:

"These letters point to the fallacy of Remembrance Day... No matter what the official spin, at bottom it's just another glorification of war."

I was upset about the Ancestry.ca story precisely because it seemed so disconnected from my understanding of Remembrance Day - not because it was a perfect example of everything that's wrong with November 11th.

War Gloating Day? I don't mean to sound too harsh, but can you guys really watch a parade of broken, damaged men holding back tears and marching every year in Remembrance, and think that's what it's about? Did you see the Queen weeping watching the names of all of Canada's WW1 veterans being beamed onto the walls of Canada House in London?

Nothing makes me feel the tragedy of war more keenly that the ceremonies that take place across the country each year. I dunno, I don't see gloating. I really don.t

laura k said...

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I don't think I misinterpreted your letter. But the letters do point out the fallacy of Remembrance Day for me.

A few tears from the Queen don't mean anything to me. It's easy to shed a tear when you're safe at home with all your eyes and limbs.

Re War Gloating Day, I didn't write that, but perhaps the person who did will stop by to explain further. He's been in the Canadian Forces and is a supporter of the people who fight, but not necessarily the people who make the wars.

laura k said...

I also meant to say that this

Nothing makes me feel the tragedy of war more keenly that the ceremonies that take place across the country each year

is great. It's good to hear the ceremonies mean this to you, and if they do for you, perhaps they do for many other people.

It's possible that because I grew up in the US, my sense of veterans' ceremonies are very different. I can't see them as speaking to the futility and horror of war. To me they always look like glorification and nationalism.

Thanks again for stopping by and for commenting!

allan said...

Colour phots from WWI!

laura k said...

Colour phots from WWI!

Wow! How strange that looks.

impudent strumpet said...

I think the ceremonies vary widely from place to place (not so much as a function of nationality) because mine from childhood were very much all about making the vets out to be heros as opposed to the senseless tragedy of it all, and the teachers seemed most concerned with us giving a performance that would impress the vets. It was all 1914-1918 archduke ferdinand, 1939-1945 hitler invaded poland, concentration camps, blow not grow, poppy goes on your left, don't pick your nose.

Colour phots from WWI!

Whoa, that actually looks like real-life Europe! (As opposed to some fictional place called History)

laura k said...

Thanks, Imp Strump. Good perspective.

blow not grow

What is this?

laura k said...

I assume it's not a drug reference.

impudent strumpet said...

The first line is "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow" but people keep thinking it's "In Flanders Fields the poppies grow".

laura k said...

Wow. I've always thought it was "grow".

M@ said...

I've been wanting to respond to this thread, but life persists in getting in the way, so apologies for the late reply, Eva. And I hope that I don't sound impolite or harsh in my response -- I do appreciate your point of view and I understand where you're coming from, but I'm looking at it from a different perspective.

As Laura said, I have been in the military myself and have published a book on Canadian peacekeeping veterans. I mention this because I want you to know that I'm not just mouthing off from the sidelines; I said what I said because I care very deeply about this issue, and about the people involved.

War Gloating Day? I don't mean to sound too harsh, but can you guys really watch a parade of broken, damaged men holding back tears and marching every year in Remembrance, and think that's what it's about?

The problem is, that's not what Remembrance Day tends to be. I see far more of the documentaries about how Canada totally kicked ass in various places (Vimy, Passchendaele, various VC winners, whatever the flavour of the year is). And things like the ritual recitation of In Flanders Fields, which is a poem actually glorifying war; after a promising first stanza of reflection about war's cost, it goes on to beat the drum and claim that if we don't send more lambs to the slaughter, we're actually doing the dead a disservice. It's a hymn to not learning from your mistakes.

But that's the opposite of what Remembrance Day is about. Remembrance Day was conceived as what remained of a generation looked back on four years of truly unbelievable carnage and said "Holy. Fuck. Was that ever a huge mistake. Let's not ever, ever let this happen again. It's just not worth it."

That's not the emotion I see on Remembrance Day. There are too many flags, too many stirring images of battle, too few corpse-eating rats and lonely, broken PTSD sufferers. It's all about the benefit of war, and not about the cost. And until that changes, I'll continue to complain about War Gloating Day.

allan said...

M@: That is a great post!