I have been involved in organizing Remembrance Day assemblies at my school for long enough that I’ve lost count of how many years it’s been. It’s a day that has always meant a lot to me, and has always been an internal struggle as well. (As you already know, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while.)
What I am grateful for on Remembrance Day? The typical thing to say would be something like, “I’m grateful for the sacrifices of the men and women who have suffered and fought and died in wars for the freedoms we have today.”
That is something I could never say flat-out, because I find it too simplistic. The freedoms we have today are built on many things, not only wars. And those freedoms don’t belong to everyone – not even in Canada.
And as for the sacrifices… It would be easier to be grateful for those if I knew, for absolute certain, that they were all necessary. All the unfathomable amounts of pain and destruction. But that’s not something we can know.
The more deeply I reflect on war, the more clear it is, for me, that all of it is tragedy. Everything about it, including the reasons it exists in the first place.
They say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Keeping that in mind:
I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to visit Vimy Ridge and the Normandy beaches, including a little slightly inland town called Carentan that my father’s father parachuted into, along with many other Allied soldiers who landed off-course. I’m grateful because these experiences make the history that much more real and devastating. We must continue to be devastated, so as to – we hope – avoid similar catastrophes in future.
I am grateful for the chance to discuss war and peace with children, to talk about Remembrance Day – to dissect the poem “In Flanders Fields”, for example. I’m glad that war is still real enough to them that they won’t – we hope – go equating armed conflict with “glory.”
I have been talking with some of my classes this year about Indigenous Veterans Remembrance Day (November 8th), and several students have expressed the thought that war might be harder for Indigenous peoples to participate in, because they view all life and the land as sacred – and war is so destructive.
I am grateful for those insights. Although many Indigenous servicemen were in fact known for being excellent soldiers (fierce, stealthy, patient, courageous, skilled in marksmanship, able to speak languages that no European knew how to translate, and so on), I’m confident that those thoughts are not wrong.
War IS so destructive. It IS very painful for anyone who views life as sacred (or even important) to see humans mown down like so many blades of grass. The ruination of homelands IS an atrocity, no matter where it occurs.
I believe that all empathetic humans, including soldiers, know this, whether it’s a concept that’s buried deep down under layers of military conditioning, or one that imbues every aspect daily life. PTSD (or shell-shock) exists because we are social creatures and it hurts us to see each other killed.
It struck me today that the horror of war is, weirdly, a uniting element in the world. It’s been happening forever, all over the planet. Are there any cultures in the world untouched by violent conflict? What a miserable kind of common ground that is.
It is heartbreaking that so many places in the world are in a state of war, right now. Some of them have been for many, many years. I grieve for those people and places. I am grateful to all the members of the Canadian military and other organizations who have and do put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of protecting and helping those humans and communities.
And of course, I am also profoundly grateful for every puzzle-piece of circumstance, including the courage of those soldiers we remember today, that has led to my family being in a place so removed from war… that we can even start to worry about it being forgotten.