Monday, November 03, 2003

Lest we forget

Born long after the end of the two World Wars and Korea, I was nonetheless raised in a family culture that imparted a significant amount of importance onto Remembrance Day and the activities that surround it. The importance of passing this down through my own children, and thus for generations to come, was well ingrained - considered a duty, even.

And one I never really thought to question.

Personally, the day itself invokes many emotions for me: pride; sadness; honour; guilt; thankfulness; and a sense of historical unity, all messed up in one really undefined jumble, packed together over years of reinforcement.

Yesterday, my fiancé, one of the smartest people I know, a historian of the World War's and a man whose opinion I respect highly, dealt me a blow. I was surprised how angry it made me.

He simply said that he doesn't celebrate November 11th. That he never has attended a ceremony outside of school assembly, ever, and none since leaving high school. Further, he said that he thought it was a misdirected ritual that holds no true meaning and he didn't really want to ever have a part in it.


The problem is, aside from a bunch of irrational anger, and senseless rebuffs of "because it's important", I really didn't have an answer to his claim. It saddens me to admit this, but I have been struggling ever since to find a suitable response. Could he be right?

And what does Remembrance Day really mean, to Me?

Why do I wear a poppy on my shirt and religiously read Flanders Fields to my children? Why do I brave usually uncomfortable weather to stand in attendance at a memorial believing my presence honours all too few remaining veterans? Why do I tear up when the haunting sounds of Taps signal the end to the moment of silence? And most infuriatingly, why don't I instantly know the answer to these questions? Have I lapsed into dereliction and committed the immortal sin of "forgetting"? And if so, what is to become of us?

If I dare to sort through the layers of superficiality in order to deconstruct my own belief structure, I think I can find an answer.

For starters, people died in these wars, and a lot of them died wearing a Canadian uniform. The very same uniform I myself wore, with pride, years later in a more peaceful time. That uniform displayed honours presented to my unit for their conduct and success in these battles. That means something to me. True or not, I believe that those who fought in that uniform, did so knowing that they were likely to die, if necessary, for the cause and for Canada. I believe that maybe what helped them face that reality was the thought that their families would be kept safe against the greatest evils they had come to know, and that generations of their families to come would live in a freer world because of their sacrifice.

But, however valid, that is too easy an answer, and one most likely told to make ourselves feel better with minimal emotional investment.

I do believe that the horrors of war must be remembered, entrenched for future generations, or, as creatures of habit, we are destined to repeat them. I would be willing to admit that, as war can only ever really be known by someone who has experienced it, that Remembrance Day remains our best opportunity to attempt to comprehend it ourselves.

War is not easy, romantic, or safe. How easy we seem to forget, our false security shrouded within the complacency of many years of 'peace' and short wars fought far away from our homeland. How easily we seem to have become de-sensitized to... well, everything.

Einstein was trying to tell us something when he warned that world war four would be fought with sticks and stones.

I once saw a Veteran, with tears in his eyes, give his poppy to a small girl who had lost hers. He simply and gently said "Here, you can have mine."

So, in part, my answer is, 'because'.

Because of that look I saw in that same Veteran's eyes, because of what he wanted to hide from me, what he wanted me to never have to know, and because some people say it doesn't matter, anymore. Because it is bigger than me, and bigger then I can imagine, and because I don't want my children to be bombed, asked to pick up a rifle or be tracked through concentration camps... Because too many people already died to learn this lesson...

All of this together, is why I remember, and is why I want my children to remember.

In the end, I think really, what Remembrance Day is all about, is remembering why we remember.

"To you from failing hands we throw, the torch..."

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