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Friday, November 10, 2006

A New Generation of Remembrance

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With Remembrance Day being tomorrow, I can’t help but delve into the reasoning and motivation that shape our approach and understanding of this day. The current military activities in Afghanistan have brought new relevance to the idea of remembering sacrifice and devotion to one’s country. And with these great sacrifices, our faint memories of past sacrifices have become less fuzzy, less black and white, less grainy; now rendering themselves in sharp focus, surround sound and the haunting lament of a lone bagpipe. I have a few Remembrance Day stories I’d like to share, if only to bring you some thoughts to ponder….

For me, November 11 has been a time of remembrance and reflection for as long as I can recall. As a child, the memories are less clear, but they are nonetheless there. Impressions of sadness, of solemnity. John McCrae’s words splashed overhead on a yellowed transparency. Gluing black to the centre of a big red poppy. Stiffness from sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. I doubt that I truly understood what was going on, but I knew that it was important.

As a teenager, the images of memory are less ambiguous. Adolescent remembrance brings feelings of cold, of trembling, of more solemnity and deeper sadness. It also brought me a new appreciation for this day as I had the good fortune to actually speak with veterans. Through an involvement in cadets, I can remember the brave and proud columns of veterans. I remember the wizened world war one veterans, marching as proudly as their age would allow. The group, already decimated by memory, grew smaller and lonelier every year, until there were simply none of these brave men left. I remember that legions of world war two veterans, honoured and strong. And I remember thinking that if these brave people could survive the horrors of war and still be out there in the cold every November, then it would be least I could do to support them out there.

Learning about Canadian history brought a true clarity to what I was supposed to be remembering. To this day, I can’t hear place names like Passchaendaele, Vimy, Juno Beach, Flanders, Ypres without thinking about the great sacrifice that happened there. A gifted teacher brought the grainy, colourless past to life for us. By this time, we knew dates and places, but this illumination added a human side to the historical ledger – a picture of suffering and a deeper respect for all involved. We imagined what it would be like to be in a trench, to endure endless rain and mud, to fear mustard gas, to face an endless barrage of fire and yet break bread with the enemy in the Christmas Day truce of 1914. We felt the pride of being Canadian when we learned about the great success of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. By the end of that year, Remembrance Day was more than a vague impression of sadness, but a true sense of admiration.

At the same time, not everyone understood. I stood with the veterans, I played the Last Post so many times… letting its poignancy ring through an otherwise silent crowd. But not everyone had this. If we go back in time about a dozen or so years, say 1995, we’ll find me, sitting in a 10th grade classroom, valiantly defending the relevance of Remembrance Day to the apathetic adolescent masses. I remember classmates questioning the relevance of this day…questioning the relevance of war in general and wondering why they were supposed to care and why we were celebrating war. But you see, the thing is, we’re not celebrating war. We’re not glorifying war. What we’re doing celebrating the resiliency and endurance of humanity, how the devotion to one’s country can mean an ultimate sacrifice. This sacrifice needs to be remembered. We need to appreciate those young men and women who died and who were injured – they are still relevant. But in 1995, not so many could see the relevance. Our southern neighbours had Vietnam to bring relevance to this day, but we saw war as only a distant memory. Something better left untouched.

I spent some time on Parliament Hill, where I gained even more cognizance of Canadian sacrifice. I saw the books of remembrance, where the names of the dead are inscribed. Over a hundred thousand Canadians have been killed in action and this was something that shocked me. I found myself imagining a group the size of a city all being snuffed out, and it really brought home the depth of sacrifice that happened. I saw the massive paintings commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook on the walls of the Senate, including the cloth guild in Ypres (which I later saw first hand in Belgium).

Fast forward to Remembrance Day 2001. Exactly two months after 9/11, I found myself at the foot of the war memorial of Vimy Ridge. This ridge is almost surreal in its ability to convey meaning and relevance. Somehow, before I visited, I vague impressions in my head about troops hiding in the base of a giant white stone edifice. Not exactly what happened…and probably not what I was supposed to think. But allow me to just try to paint a literal picture of this scene and I can only hope to bring a fraction of its depth to you. The approach to the ridge is via a wide, tree-lined avenue. In rural France, the formality of this avenue seems almost out of place, but yet the natural arch of foliage just invites to continue your exploration. It all seems serenely beautiful until you notice the barbed wire fence keeping you on the avenue, and the abnormal number of sheep munching their way through the wilderness. The ground behind the fence is strangely pockmarked, and very uneven. You’re actually seeing the deep scars of war, nearly 90 years after the fact. The sheep are the only thing light enough to walk in this space, as it still suffers the deadly legacy of artillery shells.

Nearing the end of the avenue, you round a bend, and everything is clear. There is nothing before you but an expanse of green and a gleaming white monument. I was lucky enough to be able to approach the monument in complete solitude, and able to just take everything in on my own. I climbed the steps of the monument, and then I saw. And I understood. Sometimes, it can be difficult to comprehend why a particular battle or a particular sacrifice was of such importance. But the minute you can see over the ridge, you can see why this battle was a pivotal point in the war. Overlooking the Douai plain, whoever controlled this ridge, had control of the Douai plain, and all of the vital coal this to this day is still found there. I saw the statue of Canada, as a young nation, cast in stone as a young woman, mourning her dead. I heard the stories of how Canadian soldiers approached the ridge under the veil of a rolling barrage to surprise the enemy. I learned of the 10 602 Canadian casualties, with 3 598 paying the ultimate sacrifice. These people deserve our appreciation and respect.

But it took the deaths of four Canadian soldiers in 2002 (the “friendly-fire” incident) for Remembrance Day to regain widespread relevance. Since 2002, 43 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and each new casualty brings with it a wave of support to our troops. Do I fully support our war in Afghanistan? You know what, I’m not really sure. I haven’t been there, I don’t know what we’re doing, I haven’t seen what’s going on. But do I support the men and women whose lives are threatened on a daily basis? Absolutely. I think all Canadians should support these people – many of them are so young and so full of life, and to think that it could end at any time is, I would argue, deserving of a minute or two of your time.


Jenny said...

Wonderful entry! It is nice to see that some people our age still pay tribute to our veterans and many men & women in service...

I too, shall be remembering.

Anonymous said...

As someone whose grandfather fought in WWI with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Remembrance Day will always be very important to me. It's greatto see someone put into words how much this day should mean to everyone.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Amazing Post. I remember too being in school defending Rememberance day. People told me I was "brainwashed" because I was in cadets.

My family has many people still surving in the services and my grandfather and others served in the various wars. Luckily they came back but there is many who didn't.

You are an amazing writer!!

Anonymous said...

Great entry! I plan on heading down to the National War Memorial myself this morning to witness the Remembrance Day ceremony. While in school, I played with the city marching band and we participated in the Remembrance Day parade every year. Rain or shine, the veterans would proudly march down the little streets of Fredericton and seeing them every year reminded why I should be proud to be a Canadian.

What makes me really sad is that I noticed the numbers of veteran are dwindling every year. Many of them have switched from participating in the parade on foot to buses or parade mobile platforms. Although some veterans can't march the distance anymore, they still happily waved to the cheering crowd, as proud as ever.

Although none of my family members were soldiers in war, I know my grandparents suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in WWII. So even though I don't personally know anyone who fought in the war, I still understand the terror a war brings to the little people and I think it is extremely to remember the importance of Remembrace Day, so that we can all learn from our past mistakes.

sweet_de said...

Thank you for the beautiful discription of france.
Giving a real perspective of this day. Because far to many people forget.

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