Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering Sacrifice

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.


amulbunny's random thoughts said...

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Anonymous said...

It gets even trickier if you're from Europe and the country you're fighting in one war is your greatest ally in the next.

This came to light quite plainly in the Netherlands and UK a few years ago when historians found old records dating back to (I think, give or take a century) the 15th century about a war between the two nations over fishing rights in the North Sea.
Both claimed ownership over a small sandbar in order to extend their territorial claims.
Decades later (those things really took their time) the sandbank disappeared and the war was forgotten, but no ceasefire or peace treaty were ever signed until the early 21st century, 50+ years after the Dutch government sought and gained exile in London during the WW2 German occupation, our forces fighting side by side.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, thanks. Here's a personal story about a connection to risk and sacrifice.

During the war my Grandfather and four of his friends were cut off from their group and got stuck behind enemy lines. They hid in the basement of a bombed out farmhouse that was surrounded by enemy troops. Their food ran out quickly and they had to subsist for nearly a month on what they could find in a little wine cellar in that basement. Life seemed so fragile. They made a pact that, should any of them reach their fiftieth birthday (a ripe old age I'm sure in the eyes of five guys in their late teens and early twenties!), they would celebrate for all five.

Some 30 years later my Grandpa had a party... the others never made it home.

We do need to work hard at remembering those who rushed willingly to an unknown fate for our sakes and the sakes of their loved ones.


Elizabeth McClung said...

In Cardiff, there was a soldier's grave who was shot on Nov. 12, 1918 - yes, after the peace, but then, communication wasn't all speedy back then - I wondered how hard for the family who heard of the peace in the UK, then later, a week or two, to hear their son dead.

WWI was seen as a folly, a barbarism mixed with idiocy that should never, ever be done again, and the date is now joined up with the NEXT war (so much for 'The war to end all wars') - which leaves me very troubled, and unsure, as it seems people can accept the inevitability of these types of conflicts, when the people who made rememberance day could not.

It is not uncommon in the UK for certain educated people to make references to roundheads and whigs, from Cromwell, sort of more an ideological identity than lineage.

Luke said...

The trouble with your logic is that it discounts the idea that some principles are worth fighting for. Soldiers who died in the line of duty are equated with, say, city bus drivers who suffered fatal heart attacks while behind the wheel. I rather think this misses the point.

Of course, it's this thinking that has led Europe, and to a lesser extent Canada, into its current predicament...

Aviatrix said...

Okay, yes, I will start over, Luke. I'm sorry I misinterpreted your comment. I genuinely could not see where it had come from other than as a misinterpretation of the post, and I didn't mean to feign victimization. I've reset that exchange.

Whose logic are you referring to? I don't see any comment or part of my post that implies soldiers should not be honoured in a special way. Where my post says "to remember those who died in the service of their country," it means fighting in wars, not driving buses.

My intent is to ask that we honour and remember those who fought and died for their countries, long after the sandbars, disputes or even the named countries themselves are gone, and to say that I find it comforting to observe that the tradition of remembrance is outliving knowledge of the disputes they died for.

Aviatrix said...

Aaron: I love that story. Made me cry. Of course I didn't make it through the second line of O Canada (i.e. the opening of the cenotaph service) this morning without bursting into tears.

Luke said...

You said: "...without perpetuating the conflict that killed them". Perhaps I'm misinterpreting, but to me that suggests not only psychologically putting past wars behind us (a noble goal), but to put the causes of those wars behind us as well, which I think does everyone involved a disservice.

My point is that, while soldiers serve their country (as do, say, bus drivers and police officers), they go a step farther, in voluntarily putting themselves in harm's way in between our countries and their enemies. ("Rough men standing ready in the night to visit violence" and all that.)

Similarly, were I to pass by the same cenotaph you saw in Germany and see WWII dead listed there, I wouldn't honor them in the same way I would Allied dead; I would wish instead that evil would never again waste so many lives.

Aviatrix said...

Individual soldiers are given neither the choice nor the tools to evaluate the justice and nobility of the cause they are fighting for. They are often not even given the choice of whether or not to serve.

I don't want to see "NO WAR FOR OIL" banners at my local cenotaph service. I don't selectively acknowledge veterans based on whether or not I approved the choices their government made in declaring or prolonging the war in which they fought.

There is definitely a venue for such opposition, and for perpetuating the truth of evil things that happened, but I don't believe that Remembrance Day is it. It's okay if anyone wants to post more here on that topic, but I'll let you all have the last words.

Luke said...

I agree -- that's not what I intended to suggest. In an ideal world, the "No Blood for Oil" guy and I could stand side-by-side at an Iraq War memorial and be equally respectful of the fallen, despite the fact that we're coming from very different places.

And I agree that soldiers, by design, aren't given much of a choice (but they have the same tools as the rest of us to evaluate their cause: their intellect and reason), but again I feel that your explanation doesn't capture the distinction of serving as a soldier. I feel like your description could equally be applied to police officers killed in the line of duty -- who also died serving the public, and are worthy of great respect, but in a different way.

coreydotcom said...

Nice post. I enjoyed it. I am also happy you didn't use the word "hero". It is so over-used nowadays. It seems like everyone is a hero, especially on CNN.

I hope I don't upset anyone but to me a soldier is not a hero by virtue of being a soldier. I have unimaginable respect/admiration for someone willing to serve his/her country and go to battle so that the rest of us can be safe. I can't begin to imagine what kind of sacrifices these people make - being away from family, being in harms way, PTSD when they return for many of them. Nevertheless, a hero for me is someone who does something heroic, not in the normal course of their duties, or not by virtue of being a _______ (insert whatever job/position there).

The best way I can illustrate this is Captain Sullenberg. To me, he is not a hero (and he does not consider himself a hero). I don't know anything about piloting, but it seems to me that if you are in control of an aircraft, and you lose both engines, it is your obligation/duty to try and save the aircraft/the people's lives.. that's why you're there. Yes, he made incredible split second decisions and from what I gather it was a textbook ditching, but he was just doing his job. Obviously, an extraordinary job, and he saved everybody but what were his other options? He could have made mistakes and it could have ended worse so yes he did an awesome job... and I admire him for it... but he is not a hero.

My two cents...

Once again, not meant to offend anyone.

UnwiseOwl said...

I was attending an SA vs England cricket game this year when 11am struck. Suddenly, unbidden, play stopped and players and spectators alike (I guess this tell you what kind of crowd were there) stopped and observed the minutes silence, then returned to the game.
It was a touching, almost surreal acknowledgement, and the way it was done, and the sharing it with out English visitors, with whom we have such a shared history of warfare and loss, made it particularly special.

Aviatrix said...

That's neat, OU. In some way it's more meaningful than being at an event that is designated for remembrance.