November 10, 2008

Lest We Forget

Remembrance day, November 11th each year in Canada, is a time to reflect on the sacrifices that were made by men and women in the past wars of the last century.

Most specifically, of course, we think of World War One, and the gruesome images of close-combat trench warfare, poisonous gas clouds, and all that such a mode of combat entails. And, we think of World War Two, where war was elevated to a level of mechanization not seen before, and we think of the Holocaust and the millions lost in concentration camps. There are the Vietnam and Korean wars, too, that we must be mindful of when remembering the fallen. Though the number of lives lost in these conflicts was not as great as the first and second World Wars, the sacrifices made were no less significant.

I, as a Gen-X’er, consider myself to have a tangible connection to several of these conflicts. My parents are essentially the genealogical by-products of the end of WWII – The Baby Boomers. My mum, in particular, remembers growing up in her earliest years in post-war Britain and all that that held for her and her family. Her parents were a part of the war effort. My dad, born a few years later and in Canada, had a father – my grandfather – who was in the Canadian Navy and was deployed during Canada’s “forgotten war”, the Korean conflict which began in 1950. I remember, in 1996 after a trip to Halifax, I was showing my granddad some pictures I took of the naval vessels moored up in Halifax harbour. He laid his eyes on one photo of a Frigate.
“That’s the HMCS Sackville,” I remember him saying without blinking or pause. “Spent some time on her,” he said. The man knew his boats. And in that moment, I was connected to his past. The Sackville was a corvette class frigate built in the Second World War, and deployed in that conflict to accompany convoys and attack submarines. It was kept in service after the war, and that’s how my granddad came to know it, during his time in the service.

He passed away two years ago. My grandparents on my mom’s side have long since passed away. My own father is gone now, not that he was ever one to regale us with stories about his dad’s time in the service. The connections to that era are now frayed, to say the least.

My brother, though, spent some time as a reservist with the Rocky Mountain Rangers, and was deployed with the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Third Battalion for a sixth month tour in Bosnia, as part of the NATO stabilization forces deployed to that region after their civil war / war of aggression (the debate continues) was over. He was fortunate enough to occupy the region as a peacekeeper, and not to have to engage in conflict.

And I, a few years ago, took part in a Military Journalism program that allowed me some time in computer graphically-simulated battle zones, and some real time driving around in tanks and TLAVs. I don't think this qualifies as military service.

So the question is this: aside from being able to ask his uncle about what war might be like, where, in digging through the annals of my personal history, can I find a tangible connection for my own son, who as he grows older, will come to know of ugly things like war and why we ought to strive to avoid conflict?

There is the broader picture to look at, of course. We have WWII vets who still stand solemnly on Remembrance Day, and I can say “look son, these men fought so that you and I can be here today.”

I get that, but will he? How many years must past before the notion of old men fighting old wars becomes nought but pages in history texts? These vets won’t last forever, either. Their numbers grow fewer by the year. And what of WWI, the primary reason we recognize Remembrance Day on November 11th, which commemorates, as our generations know, the signing of an armistice peace accord at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month back in 1918. From this conflict, Canada has but one surviving veteran, and he, undoubtedly, will be gone before Sacha ever knows what they did for his freedom. The country has promised a state funeral for the last veteran to pass away. Even if Sacha was old enough to take in such a spectacle and understand it by the time it happens, this veteran has expressed no desire to be recognized in such a way. How very Canadian.

Long story short, how can I ask my son to Never Forget something to which I myself cannot literally remember, and to which he will have almost no connections?

The past will always be important, but perhaps the present should be more relevant to the next generation in learning why, as the literature says, War is Hell, and why it should be avoided. Sadly, there are plenty of other things going on in our world from which he can come to understand this brutal thing called war. War in Iraq, conflict in Afghanistan, etc.

I’ve read something along the lines that in the last century, there have only been 100 plus days of our collective global recorded history which do not show conflict. That’s pretty much only one day per year for the last hundred years where nobody is fighting about something. Christmas maybe? Who knows.

So, when Sacha will wear his poppy in the early days of November as we find it respectable to do in memory and thanks to those who have fallen for our freedom, perhaps that little red flower pinned to his lapel should stand for more than Flanders fields. It was bad enough when I, as a teenager, would stand in silence at my high school Remembrance Day assembly, only to hear people snickering. Even then, there were those who didn’t get it. I fear that by the time Sacha is in grade 12, he’ll have classmates who understand the true significance of that moment of reflective silence even less than those of my generation.

Perhaps that little poppy on his lapel needs to help him know more of Master Corporal Erin Doyle than it does to help him “remember” A/Lance-Corporal John Babcock. Does it dishonour the memory of the latter to think this way? I don't believe so.

One might hope that in learning about a soldier that his uncle Jamie knew, Sacha and all those like him will have a portal through which they might come to know of the sacrifices made by many men and women made today the world over, which in turn will also hopefully give Sacha and his contemporaries an appreciation for the courage that was showed by the brave ghosts of Canada’s past.

One way or another, it would be really nice if my son’s generation figured out ways which would mean no one would ever have to stand in silent remembrance of the violent sacrifices that they have made for peace. May it be so.
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