The eleventh of November is Remembrance Day in Canada, a day set aside for us to remember those who died in the service of their country. It's not a victory celebration. It's not about pride in ones armed forces. It's not supposed to be a political statement about the nature of war. It's just a day, and specifically a minute of silence, to remember those who died fighting in the name of their countries. In Canada we wear poppies, or nowadays plastic and felt representations of poppies, as a symbol of our remembrance.
I explain this holiday every year, but this year I happened to have an experience that illustrates how I feel about it, and showed to me that I wasn't kidding myself. I was walking along an unfamiliar road and came across a cenotaph to the local war dead. It was of a common format: a square column with the dates 1914-1918 engraved on one face and 1939-1945 engraved on another, accompanied by a list of the men from the local community who had not returned from the corresponding combats. Of course I'm not old enough to have first hand experience of either of those wars, but those dates automatically bring to mind history class images of mud and barbed wire. I stopped and looked at the memorial, read some of the names and wondered what they were like, how bad it had been for them, wondered if their families still lived in the town. Then I walked on. Around the next corner was another war memorial, very similar to, but a hundred years older than the first. It was from a war I'd never heard of.
It was focus-changing. It reminded me that someday an ordinary person will have no specific emotional associations with the first and second world wars, and eventually even with the most recent gulf wars. Someone who paid attention in history class may recall the official causes and some of the combatants, but it will be nerd knowledge and not a topic of political debate. Does anyone today identify personally with one side or the other of the Thirty Years War? Perhaps some people do. I heard someone use the pronoun "we" with reference to the Saxon tribesmen who harassed the Roman soldiers in northern Europe. I don't think that sort of identification with past grievances is a good thing for a society to keep alive. I believe one can remember and honour the fallen without perpetuating the conflict that killed them.
I know I've made that step because it only occurred to me as I typed this up that the names I read on that first memorial were the names of people who may have either killed or died at the hands of people whose names I have read on other cenotaphs. It was in a village in Germany. May they all rest in peace.