Selective Remembering

As Remembrance Day is upon us here in Canada, I just wanted to take some time and think a little bit about the day itself and why we observe it. We all know the reason for the day, to remember the sacrifices made for us by the millions who went to war on our nation’s behalf, and those who are serving in our armed forces today. It is important to keep the memory of what was done for us living on, the lives given on our behalf so that we can enjoy the rights and freedoms we have in our country; it is important to remember the scope of what was given for what we gained by it. I think too often we do the observance without making it connect to anything else; Remembrance Day just kind of sits there on the calendar and the rest of our days sort of just brush awkwardly by it. Nobody says “Happy Remembrance Day”, it’s a solemn occasion, and we don’t know how to do solemn all that well any more. We do huge celebrations, we do high holidays, we do all sorts of days that you can buy cards and balloons for, but today is like a funeral we all attend every year to bury the same bodies.

When we observe Remembrance Day, we make certain that we feel gratitude to those who served and especially for those who died, we ensure that we maintain an attitude of thankfulness, of a shared debt we all owe to a dwindling few survivors. As of February of this year, there is not one surviving veteran of WWI; that entire generation of soldiers is gone from the Earth. The First World War is an important touchstone for this day; it is the reason we observe it on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, it was the date of the cease-fire that ended the Great War. The men who fought and died in that war were decimated by the experience; it left scars on the public psyche that continue to have an impact to this day. The poetry of the day was a mix of propaganda in the papers from governments and churches all supporting it and saying things like:

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,

The red crashing game of a fight?

Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?

And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?

– Jessie Pope

while veterans came back from the trenches (or didn’t come back at all) writing poems like Dulce et Decorum est:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen.

That last line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” is a reference to a well-known passage from Homer, and translates as, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” It was a phrase that was in common currency at the time, young men were constantly exhorted to join the army and go fight the Huns, but to Owen, it was revealed to be a lie. There is nothing sweet or fitting about drowning in your own blood during a gas attack. The price paid by the young for the wars of their elders is a high one, and at least in the view of some of his contemporaries, it was a price not worth paying.

This, I think, is what we should be remembering on this day; that because we ask our soldiers to pay the ultimate price for us, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that their sacrifice is for something worth the price we’re asking them to pay. This lesson does not seem to be part of our regular Remembrance Day observances; we don’t have a national moment of solemn reflection on what reasons we’re giving to the troops for sending them to some of the worst places on Earth on our behalf. Sit for a moment and ask yourself exactly what Canadian troops serving these past eleven years, one month and four days in Afghanistan have given their lives and service for. Once you have your answer, ask yourself if that reason would be worth sending your own son, daughter or other loved one off to fight and die for.

This Remembrance Day, don’t just be thankful for the soldiers’ sacrifices, count their cost and see if they’ve been given a fair trade for what they’ve given up. One hundred and fifty-eight Canadian mothers have lost their sons and daughters in Afghanistan since 2001; it is the single longest military engagement in Canadian history, and I honestly cannot tell you the mission’s objective, the reason we’ve spent so much blood and treasure for over a decade now. This seems to me like a case of national amnesia rather than Remembrance, like we’ve forgotten to do our duty to our soldiers and protect them from our politicians’ ambitions.