Lest we forget… what it is we’re trying to remember.

11 11 2013

Listening to CBC’s coverage of Remembrance Day (it’s a public holiday here in BC – not just the nearest Sunday as in the UK).
Interesting how WW I was seen as “a grand adventure” at the time. Boys as young as 9 years old trying to sign up, pretending to be 18. Boys as young as 10 actually succeeding! Wearing an older brother’s clothes. The lack of TV or the internet hid the true horrors to most, unless they were directly involved. The idea was alluring – the reality brutal. A cruel way to grow up.

Just started reading John Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Didn’t realise he was the Governor General of Canada for a while. A very British book, yet page 1 mentions Vancouver. Kizmet! It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for years. My copy is an ex-school reader. Printed in 1951. Issued three times to schoolgirls in Pontefract, W. Workshire. Fell into someone’s “missing” list in 1954. It was originally written in 1915, and there’s definitely that air of high adventure, going off and fighting wars as almost “cool” – an urge thankfully more often filled by extreme sports today.

But that still raises the question why we seem so genetically pre-disposed (even under more sedate circumstances) to risk the lives that are so briefly given to our custodianship. Perhaps it’s as simple as a quote I recently read, attributed to feminist writer Rita Mae Brown: “If you’re afraid to die, you’re afraid to live. You can’t have one without the other.” We love to play games. We like to win. But you cannot win without incurring the risk to lose. To risk ones life – the ultimate wager – is to perhaps truly win one’s life. Perhaps we no longer need to fight to the death, thanks to ever more inventive “extreme activities”, but we do perhaps need the risk – or at least the perception of it – to truly feel alive.

Whatever their reasons for choosing (or being forced) to go to war – many did not return. I am saddened this year to read more nationalism than ever being expressed both here and in the UK around remembrance day. It has steadily become more about “supporting today’s veterans” than remembering the futility of war. There are huge centennial events being planned for 2014. Ieper/Ypres is expecting a bumper tourist trade for the whole 4 year period. The UK is planting millions of poppies across the whole country. I flew through Dusseldorf airport this last week, proudly wearing my poppy. I wore it to commemorate all those who lost their lives in war – particularly WW I – not as some nationalistic jingoism. It was not intended as a snub to the German people, though one older security checker gave me a gruff snort when he saw it. They felt no less horror and loss than did the allies. I object to history programmes referring indiscriminately to “Nazi troops” in reference to WW II, when in fact the bulk of German combatants were decent, honourable men fighting for their country just as their opponents were. The Nazis were in political power, but many of those dying in German uniforms were no more politically in favour than their enemies.

Let us remember.

Remember the fallen. All the fallen.

Remember that it was politicians who sent them to die and continue to do so.

Remember that it is power, greed and money that drives the decisions to conquer and invade, and for others to fight back in defence.

But remember also that many are oppressed by their own politicians and struggle to find tools other than weapons to resist.

Remember the solitary figure that stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, and caused it to stop. A tank!

Remember how Gandhi sat and spun cotton… and evicted the British from India.

Remember that a gun is just an elaborate machine… that requires a human hand to turn it into a weapon. The same hand that can turn a cricket bat – designed for fun – into a weapon.

Remember we are the problem. Only we can be the solution.

Remember to choose.



7 responses

11 11 2013

I miss my times back in high school when they took the time to explain to us what Remembrance Day really was for, and after 3 years of university, it’s become pretty evident that a lot of people seem to just take it for a day off school. Of course, poppies are worn, but I think a lot of the meaning is lost.

Like reading this post because it helped to let it sink in. Wish Canada planted millions of poppies too. It sounds beautiful.

11 11 2013
Quieter Elephant

Thanks Karen. I debated long and hard whether to hit send… glad at least one person read it!

12 11 2013

Well I’m glad you settled on the send side. It’s a great post. Important points expressed excellently. I couldn’t agree more.

12 11 2013
Quieter Elephant

Thanks Lance. I’ve not posted in a while, and it seemed an appropriate day for a rambling discourse on things both trivial and profound. My concern was that I might offend a reader who misunderstood my thoughts. I certainly believe a nation should support its veterans as much as remembering those who fell. But I think we’re losing something of the original meaning of Remembrance Day. WW I, “the great war”, was supposed to end all wars, it was felt to be so horrific. Instead… it showed us the true potential of mechanised, industrialised war.

15 11 2013

“I think we’re losing something of the original meaning of Remembrance Day”

To be honest mate I think that’s, sadly, inevitable. As time moves on the strength of the connection to WWI fades. Harry Patch died in 2009. Soon those that learnt of the horror secondhand from their parents will die. And eventually those that were told by their grandparents will die and so on and so forth. It’s a sad fact, but it’s inevitable. That, of course, doesn’t mean we should give up and forget about it entirely. We should always try to remember the lesson for as long as possible. As you say, it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. But we need to be realistic. In five years time there will be adults not even born in the same century as WWI (as crazy as that sounds now that I’ve typed it). So it’s never going to have the same impact and relevance. Much like I’m sure Waterloo didn’t have as much relevance for those that fought in the trenches as it did for their grandparents.

12 11 2013

I completely agree, except for with this: “Remember that it is power, greed and money that drives the decisions to conquer and invade, and for others to fight back in defence.”

It’s just as often about religion and an inability to tolerate people whose religious beliefs don’t align with yours. And perhaps that is scarier, because the willingness to die has nothing to do with a willingness to live, but with the glorification of martyrdom. How do you fight people who have nothing to lose/everything to gain by their own death?

12 11 2013
Quieter Elephant

Fair point Sheriji. I have long separated “faith” (a deeply personal set of beliefs) from “organised religion” (a set of rules and ceremonies centrally designed and occasionally enforced to tell one HOW to express one’s faith.) To me, organised religion (as opposed to one’s faith) is just politics. It is about wielding control and power. Clearly defining “us” so that we feel superior to “them”. We get to go to heaven… they have to go to hell, unless they convert. For an army to goad its supporters into fighting “them”, it needs to dehumanise them. It’s harder to kill a man than a monster. Organised religions are powerful land owners and control much wealth and conventional political power.
Northern Ireland and the recent “Muslim terrorism” threats are no more about faith and what we generally think of as “religion” than drinking fine wine is about quenching one’s thirst. It is about finding a standard behind which you can gather support for political ends. WW II saw Kamikaze pilots attacking shipping in the Pacific – martyrdom? Politics. Persuasion. Marketing. Us and them. The crusades were just as much “religious terrorism” on the part of the Western church at the time. Politics. Wealth. Greed. Control. I think your examples are a nuance of my main point. But then… I’m often wrong! 🙂

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