This was not the post I expected to be writing, but sometimes the words that need to be said elbow aside the words that I have the privilege to share.
Today, I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at Canadian Warplane Heritage, where I volunteer. When I looked around the hangar, cleared of planes so that up to about 3000 people could be accommodated, I thought of many things. I thought of the declining ranks of WWII veterans–there were at least five of them at the ceremony, all in their 90s, the eldest 103. Soon, their stories will be simply memories, and we will no longer have the privilege of dialogue, or the direct witness that they bear to acts of valour and horror both. I thought, of course, of my parents, who were of that generation, often called the Greatest, who were born–though they did not know it then– into days of great turmoil and that would ask great sacrifice. I often wonder what it was like for them, to know that nothing of their way of life was guaranteed to persist , to have no choice but to respond to the call when the time came.
War itself is different now, and many of us who have not worn the uniform have grown complacent. Though the strength of a generation was forged in that crucible, when it ended in 1945, they wanted nothing more than to leave it behind, to believe in “Never Again”, to be confident that lessons were learned about the dangers of autocracy and antisemitism and hate, and so they turned to their children and too often taught them that Western democracies had solved these problems. Some of these children, and some of their children, would grow up to point out that there were yet problems at home to address–those of race and the rights of the marginalized. Meanwhile, the world continued to evolve and revolve, and new conflicts arose, some from the ashes of WWII, some from the slow drip of the thaw from the Cold War, and some from conflicts that predated the 20th century. These were more complex conflicts than the simple good-vs.-evil or defense of democracy narratives of WWII. These were messier wars, ones where the “good guys” didn’t always win, and weren’t always, frankly, the good guys, even when their intentions were good. My own generation (the somewhat cynical one known as GenX) never knew world war, but we did know the Cold War and the existential dread of the (un)real enemy of the Soviet Union. Naively, we rejoiced in the “end of history” when the USSR fell, only to discover the invisible enemy of terrorism perpetrated by shadowy organizations who professed to hate the West in a far more aggressive manner than the Soviets ever did.
The model of conflict we studied in history class no longer exists. Just as in WWI, when those who had known years of relative peace were rudely awakened to find the processes of modern warfare had nothing in common with the romantic tales of Napoleonic-era battles, we, too, have learned that WWII is almost as far removed from our time as WWII was from the US Civil War. No one “declares war” any more, and no one surrenders unconditionally. Battles as might have been understood in 1945 have mostly vanished as well. Soldiers in 2019 die the death of a thousand cuts (or IEDs, perhaps). And we have made peace (uneasy as it is) with constant warfare.
At Remembrance Day ceremonies, we know what a soldier looks like. He (yes, he) is old, very, very old, a white man with medals pinned to his chest and stories of his buddies that didn’t make it that he will reluctantly share. As their ranks thin, the applause for those who remain grows louder and louder. Someday soon, it will end, and become the polite clapping reserved for those events we know, but which have passed from living memory. Who, then, will we revere?
I saw but a handful of veterans of Afghanistan at today’s ceremony. I know a few more. They are a diverse lot–both men and women, descended from immigrants (some more recent than others), white, black, brown, and Indigenous. Some of them are of the LGBTQ+ community. They are of us–they are us. They reflect the Armed Forces as they are today–but also continue the traditions of the past. Even in WWII, women also served (and the oldest vet at today’s ceremony was an 103-year-old former surgical nurse.) India contributed huge numbers of soldiers in both World Wars. Muslims flew Spitfires. Alan Turing helped break Enigma. Navajo Code Talkers helped the US prevail in the Pacific. And today, people from every one of those communities serve in the Canadian Forces.
But the attendance at today’s ceremony did not reflect that. Almost to a one, the veterans there were white, as were probably 97% of the audience. Does that mean, as a recently-fired sports personality asserted, that “those people” don’t care about veterans? Don’t respect the poppy and what it stands for? That would be the easy and glib answer.
Or perhaps there is something else. Perhaps the implication that “their people” weren’t actually soldiers, or the inference that it was only white people that “fought for them” and that they better damned well be grateful for it has led them to not feel comfortable attending these sorts of events. Perhaps they have been told one too many times that there is only one, correct way of paying respect—the white people way, the “Canadian” way–and that anything else doesn’t count.
Our Remembrance Day traditions are special, rooted as they are in the symbol of the poppy of “In Flanders Fields”, penned by a Canadian, and imbued by the imagery of the horrors of the War to End All Wars. We have turned away from the exaltation of the power of the military to the acknowledgement of the terrible price war exacts, even when undertaken for the best of causes. But it is implicit in that acknowledgement that those horrors know no borders. I know many Canadians believe that WWI was the country’s coming-of-age, with full maturity during WWII, and indeed, there is truth to that. But 74 years have passed–and Canada has continued to grow. We are not the elderly veteran with his chest full of medals, his life in the rear view mirror. So much of our legacy in more recent years is as a haven for immigrants and refugees and as a country that tries to live up to its obligations on the world stage as a peacekeeper and ally. I think we need to see this reflected more in our ceremonies. The mass battles and casualties may be all but gone, but the horrors and the sacrifice have not abated. And war is a legacy that no one is free from, much as we would wish it otherwise. Tell the stories. Embrace all the paths of remembrance.
When I stand silent at the eleventh hour, I do not just remember the Canadians who have fallen. I think of my American relatives who served as well, and I sometimes cast my thoughts even wider, remembering, perhaps, the Battle of Antietam. As an immigrant, should I feel guilty for also commemorating the sacrifices of my own people rather than only those of Canadians?
I would like to believe that Remembrance Day is more than an occasion for national pride and patriotism–to the contrary, I believe it is a day for humility and respect for the sacrifices of ordinary people in the face of danger.
My people are Americans. What if they were Syrians?
Let us stand together as Canadians, but remember that sacrifice in the service of freedom and basic human rights knows no borders.
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgatha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
—“At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, Wilfred Owen