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.
—from In Flanders Fields (1915), John McCrae
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
—from Dulce et Decorum est (1917), Wilfrid Owen
The English slogan for Remembrance Day is "Lest We Forget," but I prefer the more active French je me souviens. The day is to remember the sacrifices (life, limb or otherwise) of those who have fought in wars past. Consider, though—why remember, why rehearse old pain? What is the use?
The observance dates to the Great War, and the two World Wars are foremost in the minds of many; but there are many other conflicts in which Canadians have done yeoman's work. My uncle retired from the Maritime Command as a Commander; my cousin was seriously wounded in the Balkans when his APC drove over a land mine. One major conflict is ongoing. As an ex-Air Cadet, I have teenage friends who went on to serve in the Canadian Forces—at least one in Afghanistan, and others possibly there depending on how long the mission lasts.
The Toronto Star has a striking video of a soldier reflecting—his "a hundred lives" refers to the 97 Canadian deaths since 2003. We are exhorted to "support the troops," often with the unspoken demand to also "support this war so the deaths were not in vain." Our own most noted WWI poet telegraphs that the dead wish us to take up their quarrel. What then are we to make of Wilfrid Owen's bitter invective against Horace's Old Lie, "It is sweet and noble to die for one's country"?
To me, Owen's words reflect the undeniable truth that it is young (wo)men who fight the wars of the old; it is they who make the sacrifices. But the horror of war is well-known—surely Canadians would not, time and again, leave their homes and families, cross oceans, and throw themselves into the breach in strange lands, merely because they had been well lied-to. Nor do I think this is ever the case. If the third World War were—God forbid—to break out and somehow not descend into nuclear holocaust, I might go to fight, but never with a heart full of sweet and noble feelings.
Instead, soldiers seem to go to war with their jaws set. For some few there may be a sense of adventure; but that is the esprit de corps created by good leaders. The remainder go out of duty, because they value service and their own freedom, because they remember how hard-won that freedom was, and because they feel others should also be free from tyranny and oppression.
Because I cannot fault this, I can only praise the many peacekeeping missions to which we have sent contributions. To me, peacekeeping is untainted by the Old Lie, because the peacekeeper consciously plants him- or herself in a place of danger and says to the opposing sides, "No. We will not let you do this, because our mothers and fathers have done it and we are haunted yet by their suffering. Live instead."
In the cynical political arena it is easy to justify a war of aggression fought for some material gain, but difficult to explain why our troops are making themselves targets—with bright blue helmets and white jeeps—for the benefit of strangely-dressed foreigners living in mud huts. This selfish calculus should not govern us in the slightest. We can reconcile McCrae and Owen by realizing that the former's foe is not the Hun or the Islamists but human suffering, writ large. One's country is little more than a flag and some lines on a map, but one's fellow man is perhaps worth dying for, even if he lives within a different set of lines.
I will not say that lives lost in Afghanistan—or anywhere else—are wasted, that other casualties are needless. That is very rarely the case. But in the Middle East, once Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, conflict is perpetual because some people remember only the count of the dead, as a grim yardstick for vengeance. If we bypass the official histories and read instead the letters sent home by lost servicemen and -women, we will remember that they simply wanted peace, for themselves and for others.
Having not found an opportunity to buy a poppy (and too lazy to find one), I instead offer these reflections on Remembrance Day.