Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Just what do we remember on Remembrance Day? Certainly, we recall that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice was reached to end The Great War, as World War One was known. All wars did not end with that consuming conflict, as had been hoped, and successive generations have stood against tyranny to preserve our freedom. In the words of British Major John Etty-Leal, “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
But what, exactly, comes to mind with almost a century of war and peace gone by?
Author and veteran George Orwell averred, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” That is true, so far as it goes, but many of those whom we honour on November 11 are neither rough nor men, and they stand guard for the best interests of their fellow human beings, regardless of faction. Western militaries in modern times are an amalgam of destructive power, engineering genius and humanitarian outreach unmatched in history.
Whether they carry a gun, or a tool kit, or a doctor’s bag, these are real people in unreal situations. And, in today’s all-volunteer force, they are there by choice.
Ray Wiss, a Canadian Forces doctor and author of A Line in the Sand about his tours in Afghanistan, says that it is not enough to “support our troops” in the parlance of some who are unsure about the cause. Go further, he instructs, and, “Support our mission.”
If you differ from the surrounding politics – for which civilians, not our military, are responsible – pick some portion of their mission you can support, and do so with strength and pride. Perhaps it is allowing girls to go to school, or protecting them from rape and mutilation. Maybe it is bringing medical care and supplies to people who have known only brutality and hardship. Or perhaps it is just the telling humanity of our military doctors that wounded enemies are given the same treatment as our own injured troops.
The Great Lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, opined, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” This bespeaks the monumental courage of those who face and return fire, but also the spirit of sacrifice evinced by those who sign up to serve. Most of us lack one or both of these towering qualities.
In honouring that spirit of sacrifice, we remember above all those who did not return, who died far from home in defense of the best things we know. As has been understood since the dawn of our culture, “Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Although they answered a higher calling, these were people just as we are. Canadian Army surgeon and In Flanders Fields poet John McCrae captured this commonality by reminding us, “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved.”
And so, on November 11, consider that each name on a wall is a life that was lived. With a thankful heart for those who serve, and a thoughtful prayer for those who are lost, we heed the declaration of Laurence Binyon’s immortal verses: “We will remember them.”
Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.