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Archive for November, 2013

Another Remembrance Day has come and gone, and hundreds of thousands of people gather at cenotaphs and memorials across the country to hear the well-worn words of “In Flanders Fields” echo mournfully out across the assembled crowds.

That poem, more than any other single thing, defines my experience of Remembrance Day. This is itself easy to understand – I don’t think there’s any other single piece of Canadian literature that is so thoroughly instilled in schoolchildren. I think I may have had to recite it on no fewer than four occasions, including once in French. I know I had it memorized by the time I was ten.

The poem is not a call for peace, and I can understand how some find it jarring. It is, unequivocally, a call to war, while at the same time recognizing how terrible war is. You cannot hear the mournful words of the dead, bemoaning that they so recently ‘felt dawn, saw sunset’s glow, loved and were loved’, without feeling a profound sense of loss. They had a good life, and it’s gone now – they have sacrificed it so that the rest of us might have a chance to not only live, but live a life where we too might love and be loved under the waning rays of the Canadian sun.

In Flanders Fields is indeed nationalist. I’ve heard the poem recited in other context, including an bizarre version done by Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang in which the call to action is omitted, but it loses its meaning. The sense of loss is tied to obligations – we have ‘to take up our quarrel with the foe’, lest we betray the sacrifice they made in our service. It is a poem of collective responsibility in service of the greater collective, one that at once mourns the honoured dead, and demands the same sacrifice of each and every one of us in turn.

Americans have a similarly poetic piece of literature – The Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s second best speech touches on so many of the same themes, and I personally like to see the address as a Star-Spangled expression of the same thought. They both honour the dead (or honor, if you prefer), but they both demand that those they left behind ‘take up the torch’ , as it is ‘for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced’.

The two works illustrate the differences in our national character. While the Canadian loss is of, as mentioned previously, the life they lived, the American bemoans the failure of his state to live up the ideals of their forefathers – that a nation ‘conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ might yet have unfinished work to do. It is the very difference between ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘peace, order and good government’. Whether its at Gettysburg or Guillemont, Petersburg or Passchendale, Vicksburg or Vimy, there was an undeniable sacrifice being made in the service of a cause and a way of life.

I like to think I live up to the words of In Flanders Fields when I wear the poppy on my breast. I do my best to remember and to consecrate the sacrifice that those who fought in muddy fields across the ocean made on my behalf. I do this with the fullest knowledge of the horrors of war that someone who has grown up in peacetime and has never seen combat could have, which is to say – not that much. I like to think that I can banish from my thoughts any sense that war is the means by which glory can be won.

William Tecumseh Sherman said that “War is hell”, and I believe him – he was there. However, were it to come to it – a true existential threat to my country – I hope I would be ready to take up the torch, to not break faith, and to let those who have fallen sleep beneath the poppies.

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