Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day - but what if you have no need to remember?

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada. It’s Remembrance Day in the UK. These are completely different than Veteran’s Day in the US. We all know this, don’t we?

I had to think about this, moreso than anything, because of a tweet I got from a friend who lives in Sweden. It was almost as if she sent me a random writing prompt that said: 

Write a letter to describe Remembrance Day to someone who lives in a first world country which has never been touched by modern warfare.

We were taught that a World War meant the world was involved. The world being the UK and the British Commonwealth, the countries now known as the European Union, and eventually, the United States. 

So, how you would tell someone who has never been touched by war about Remembrance Day and why we celebrate it? How would you talk about the erection of cenotaphs, the celebration of the glorious dead, and why all those poppies?

There’s the dry, historical and factual method of explaining names, events and dates to distinguish WWI from WWII and the other wars – Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan – and distinguishing Canada’s role in all of these conflicts.

There’s the emotional, heartfelt method where mothers lose their sons, wives lose their husbands, and the return home for the soldiers after seeing atrocities that no person should ever have to witness. Those things that every time we think they’ve disappeared, they come back with a vengeance.

There’s the journalist method, which simply talks about what happened across the country and around the world today, and how this day brings together all Canadians across the country and around the world with the purchase of one small plastic red flower, and that little fake poppy brings together nations to remember our glorious dead (and explain the irony of that statement) and our hope that it never happens again.

But although we are joined hand-in-hand with several countries around the world who are remembering their veterans, alive or otherwise, the added step for me was explaining why Canada’s Remembrance Day celebrations differ from those of other countries. Sure, I could go into the usual national pride: a Canadian doctor wrote In Flanders Fields, the poem used around the world on this day to remember those who fell in combat. I could talk about how Canada helped in the battle of Vimy Ridge, and our unique roles in WWII, as a peacekeeping force around the world, our role in Afghanistan…

But I think this says it best this year:

We have this giant memorial in the middle of Ottawa near the Parliament buildings. It is called the National War Memorial, and it is dedicated to the memory of all of the soldiers whom we lost in all of the conflicts that Canada was involved in. Next to it lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who represents the thousands of soldiers who died in conflicts whose bodies remain unidentified. As part of specialized sentry duty, certain soldiers in each division of our armed forces are specially selected to stand guard at our National War Memorial, as a symbol and in tribute to all of the Canadian soldiers we lost. This has been the way of the monument since it was erected, and it continues to this day. Every year, they have the Canadian National Remembrance Day ceremony at this memorial, the largest ceremony in the country.

Three weeks ago, one of the sentries, doing his duty, holding a symbolic rifle, with no artillery out of respect for the monument , was gunned down in cold blood by someone believed to be affiliated with a radicalized group. Everything that the Memorial stood for was shattered in one split second.

But instead of descending into madness and panic, Canada came together as a nation. We had to show the world who we are – today's ceremonies, not only at the National War Memorial, but at other cenotaphs and memorials around the nation, were up to twice the size they usually are.  Because that is our memorial. 

Remembrance Day is a celebration of gratitude – not a glorification of war or pomp and ceremony. Regardless of how you feel about the conflicts, the soldiers who died, were maimed or otherwise hurt, physically and emotionally, willingly put their lives to stand in front of the attacks for the sake of Canada and all Canadians. Doesn’t matter if you think war and its politics are right or wrong. Someone was your human shield whether you wanted it or not.

That is why we remember.

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