Lest We Forget
This week you’re getting an early post. Partly, because I’m off to Buffalo and Toronto, respectively, to visit friends and partly because I want to put my normal random shenanigans aside for a moment and talk about Remembrance Day.
I believe that Remembrance Day is important but often jaded from what it should be, so I’d like to take this opportunity to say my piece.
Remembrance Day is the day we remember the sacrifices of those who fought on our behalf.
It is not a day to glorify war.
There is no glory in war, there is only gore and pain and death.
It’s tempting to imagine soldiers and battlefields as things of legend, as clear cut examples of Good vs Evil, but that isn’t reality.
Every soldier is a person and the majority of battles fought are for reasons too complicated to fully pin down.
War movies love to focus on WWII and point to the Allies as the “good guys” and the Axis as “the bad guys” but even that war is more complicated than it seemed. There is no doubt that the Axis comprised of powers perpetrating acts of intolerable cruelty but that does not mean every soldier believed in what they were fighting for, knew what was truly going on, or wanted to be there. That doesn’t mean that their families loved them any less than those on the opposing side. If you want a true villain, look to those who made people choose between doing what was right and doing what was safe in the first place.
Those who stood up and refused to be part of the atrocities of the Second World War should be honoured and commended, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to cast judgement on those on the losing side. If you can’t be right without being self-righteous about it, then you’re probably talking out of your ass.
I remember going to assemblies as a kid and listening to a local veteran who, from time to time, told us stories we probably shouldn’t have heard…though if I’m honest, I’m not sure if he told those stories at assembly or at my grandparent’s (he’s also a friend of the family). I remember him talking about the death of a friend of his once and I’ve forever been struck by the shock he described at the time and how incredibly impossible things had seemed.
This memory especially became poignant to me when I worked briefly at Library and Archives and handled literally thousands of files that represented thousands of WWII soldiers. Many of them did not make it home.
Every soldier of all time, on every side of every war, has had someone who cared for them. Someone who missed them and someone who cried for them.
We should be proud of our soldiers, we should respect them, and we should guard them closely. They agree to put their lives on the line and trust their governments to judiciously choose when that is called for. We should hold our governments accountable for the decisions they make regarding the lives of our soldiers both during and after their service.
I think of all the soldier’s medical files I handled in a short few months and I picture looks of lost incomprehension across their features when a friend is there one minute and literally gone the next. I think to the military tombstones I’ve seen in different cemeteries and how many of those soldiers died as a result of war even if they lived long enough to come home. For some, they were killed in battle but continued to live until the bombs planted in their psyches drove them to the edge and for others, they lost the person they were and had to rebuild themselves on the wreckage of who they had been.
In the words off a speech delivered to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy by, a man who died decades before the first of the World War, William Tecumseh Sherman:
“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”
It’s a shame the above words are little more than a cultural touchstone at this point. At least, that’s how it seems.
So on this Remembrance Day, let us all truly remember what is important.
Lest we forget that soldiers are people and not ammunition.
Lest we forget that our troupes should be deployed sparingly and with deep consideration.
Lest we forget the swaths of wreckage we have built upon and that which the earth swallowed up on its own.
Lest we forget those who died trying to do what they believed was right.
Lest we forget those who are and were and will be caught in the crossfire.
Lest we forget the families left behind both in the past and presently.
Lest we forget that war is not a game, it is not a noble pursuit, but a last desperate move.
Lest we forget it is Peace would should be glorifying.
Lest we forget our soldiers when they come home.
We owe them a debt.
Often, Remembrance ceremonies like to end with In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. While that’s a beautiful poem, it is very much a poem of pressing on during war. Instead, I’d like to end with Emily Dickinson.
I Many Times Thought Peace Had Come (739)
I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—
And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor be—