Remembrance Day is one of the most emotional and solemn days of my year. I take it very seriously, and this one day exemplifies everything I stand for and believe in. Even the name of my blog was taken from a famous 1940s British saying, and references my strong belief of respect and reverence for veterans and the past. The sacrifices made by soldiers in times of war (and occasionally, peace) are so great that we can never do enough to remember or thank them- but recognition and respect go a long way. That is why I believe it’s my mission in life to educate others on little-known aspects of war, and to contribute to the gratitude society feels for soldiers.
A monument to John McCrae’s famous WWI poem, “In Flanders Fields”. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Lx 121
So why should we remember? Why is it so important to remember things that happened so long ago, in a different time and a different place? First of all, we should remember because it is the least we can do. When countless millions of people sacrificed their lives and their safety for the well-being of the world, it is almost shamefully simple to spend a dollar or two on a poppy and attend a Remembrance Day service for an hour on November 11. But even these simple displays of respect and remembrance are meaningful to veterans; and they contribute to a greater culture of remembrance which can encompass an entire nation and influence new generations.
The National War Memorial in Ottawa (recently in the news due to the killing of Corporal Nathan Cirillo) honours Canada’s war dead. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Jcart1534
I’ve noticed that Remembrance Day unifies people more than almost any other event or holiday. On days like Thanksgiving or Christmas, most people just stay at home and spend time with their families; and it is only on Remembrance Day that thousands of people flock to one place with one common mind. Such unity is rare, and it’s so satisfying to see adversity and shared remembrance bringing people together.
Service members and civilians alike place their poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Mikkel Paulson
Another reason to remember is because veterans are humans just like we are. Today’s culture is certainly different from that of 100 or 70 years ago, but that doesn’t mean it was any easier for young men to leave their families and take up arms, or for women to take jobs in factories away from their children and all that they knew. Those who fought and contributed to the war effort demonstrated courage and selflessness; two virtues which are as difficult as ever to attain. And we are not remembering someone else’s history; this is our history. It is our ancestors, grandparents, and friends who fought, suffered, and died in conflicts past and present.
A view of Mamayev Kurgan in Stalingrad. This one hill was the site of some of the Battle of Stalingrad’s fiercest fighting in 1942 and 1943. Image from http://www.volganet.ru via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0
One of my most striking realizations was that, had my generation been born 70 years earlier, we would have been the ones tasked with fighting the largest war the world has ever seen. Sometimes, on Saturday nights at the hockey rink, I look up and down the bench at my teammates and marvel that they would all be off in Europe if this were 1944 and not 2014. And it’s a frightening thing. If the WWII generation’s duty was to go off and fight in the war, then surely this generation’s duty is to at least remember.
This photo from New York in 1917 depicts eager young men signing up for the war. Image from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Bain News Service
I know that some find it unpleasant or against their beliefs to acknowledge Remembrance Day. But remembering is not a political statement and it’s not a glorification of war. Remembering is simply acknowledging that, in distant places and sometimes long-gone eras, strangers and friends have fought to protect what they believed in; not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of humanity. Remembering is an unadulterated respect for those people who have put aside their own wants and comfort in very uncomfortable situations.
These graves at the Douaumont ossuary, numbering 130,000, hold the remains of unidentified French soldiers killed in WWI. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Ketounette
A lack of respect for veterans and their deeds and experiences is sad and often detrimental. It is sad because these people should be appreciated or at least acknowledged for what they went through; war, after all, is a thankless and horrible thing. As we can see from the prevalence of PTSD and depression in soldiers today, combat is a heavy burden even if it is undertaken with courage and morality. And it is detrimental because we desperately need to hold onto what we’ve learned throughout history if we wish to face the future with any shade of wisdom whatsoever.
A Canadian soldier of WWI, suffering from mustard gas burns. Image from Library and Archives Canada/C-080027 via Wikimedia Commons
I personally find Remembrance Day quite difficult to get through sometimes. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m usually tearing up long before the Remembrance Day service begins. Even on sunny summer days, far from the grey solemnity of November 11, visiting war memorials or museums is a sincerely emotional experience for me. But that emotion is always fulfilling- because it means that those past sacrifices mean something to me. And that’s the way it surely should be.
Memorial outside Westminster Abbey, with wreaths leftover from Remembrance Day.
If my readers recall one thing from this post, I hope that it is this: remembering is not a chore, it’s a privilege. We don’t think enough about all the everyday blessings we wouldn’t have if millions of individuals hadn’t fought and died in the name of freedom. There was a time when I felt very obligated to observe Remembrance Day, but now that I understand it better, it’s a sombre joy- if there is such a thing. I am so grateful that I have freedom and peace, and now I live with thankfulness and respect for veterans and the dead every day. You don’t need to go to that extreme; but please, show you remember. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or showy. But do it with conviction, because even today just as in the past, soldiers are showing that same conviction as they pursue freedom and security in the world.