What Passing-Bells: Why I Remember

Local news sites are reporting that only 10% of Torontonians are wearing their poppies this year. Canadian designers are proposing new twists on the old red design that appeal more to young people, arguing that Remembrance Day risks being “lost” in a society where Gen Y apparently can’t identify with its purpose. There are fewer and fewer veterans from World Wars I and II every year to serve as a visual reminder of our military past (and present). Has Remembrance Day run its course?

This question was brought up in my presence recently, and I surprised myself with the vehemence of my reply: no. It is a very real and very necessary act of reflecting on our national history – but has implications for the present as well.

I am admittedly sentimental. I am in favour of more reflection in general about where we’ve come from and how it influences where we’re going, as nations and as individuals. And I find myself drawn to the turn-of-the-century age of our history more than most – the Ralph Vaughan Williams hymns, the neo-Gothic wrought iron and stone architecture, the sense of old boy imperial camaraderie, the Rupert Brooke poetry, and so on. But Remembrance Day is about much more than that.

With two global wars in which our nation’s soldiers are fighting, several others in which they are keeping the peace, and an untold number of skirmishes appearing daily in the news, war is an ever-present concern, not a ‘memory.’ Though many of the veterans of the First and Second World Wars have now died, there are new veterans every year, and they are physical reminders of how important it is to call attention to their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families, even if only once a year.

This is especially true in a country like Canada, which has relatively recently styled itself a peace-loving, liberal refuge – a national self-image quite different from what it was 100 or even 50 years ago. It is necessary sometimes to call attention to the gritty underside of democracy, and the constant vigilance it requires to create and uphold, a struggle we see play out daily on the other side of the world. We are too comfortable assuming it has no relevance to us, that we were born free and needn’t concern ourselves with anyone else’s chains.

Some people oppose what they see as a militaristic strain in the ceremonies that celebrates war. I see Remembrance Day as the opposite: a sad commentary on the continuing tragedy begot by national hubris. Nations at the end of the nineteenth century were trumped-up on their own importance, caught in a feedback loop that emphasized their own moral and military superiority and desperate to prove themselves the greatest of all peoples. There are loud echoes down to today. War is as much about pride as it is about land and resources. At a time when economies and cultures are cloistering themselves in robes of protectionism and the comfort of historically-derived principles at the expense of dialogue and cooperation, the sharp reminder of the destruction of insularity and war is particularly potent.

I usually attend the University service because it is a sad reminder that many of those who fought – and died – were men and women younger than I am. The newspapers refer to them as a generation that had to grow up quickly. No doubt. Most of us never have to come face-to-face with our most basic values surrounding life and death. Most of us never have to choose between killing someone else and being killed. Most of us don’t face adjusting to life after combat, the surreal juxtaposition of normalcy at home and the violence of memory. But in war these decisions and adjustments are made every day.

History can often seem removed, and the further back it is the less we are able to empathize with and understand those who lived it.  Its personages seem to stride in, fully formed, painted in bold colours as heroes and villains. We need Remembrance Day to show us that these heroes were made, not born. They were as much the architects of their lives and destinies as we are. They were – and are – us.

We live physically and morally comfortable lives. They died, often in agony and discomfort, so we could continue to do so. We promised we would remember. It’s the very least we can do.

MARGINALIA:

  1. OpenFile is a local news source that reports on what readers request. Their special feature on Remembrance Day includes articles and interactive features about Toronto’s military history and veterans, including a Google map overlaid with poppies representing Toronto’s fallen soldiers from WWII and where they lived. It’s worth a look. (thanks, Gareth.)
  2. For those who are literarily inclined, or who were wondering where the first three words of this post’s title originated, I have linked below to some of my favourite war poems:

(I would welcome additional links to your favourites in the comments section below.)

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4 Responses to What Passing-Bells: Why I Remember

  1. neilt says:

    Great post kathryn,

    Count me amongst those who don’t wear a poppy. I know it’s not rational, but I cannot shake the feeling that wearing one means I implicitly celebrate/condone World War I, and I don’t – it was an unnecessary pissing contest that was paid for with the blood of millions. Remembrance Day for me is overwhelmingly sad and depressing, I don’t get the stoic, stiff upper lip thing that I think I’m supposed to.

    Of course I know that it’s a multi-faceted symbol, that it can encapsulate both those meanings, and many more. But still, it makes me uneasy. I guess I like my nationalism to be about things a little less important…maybe something in a hockey or a world cup, or an olympics 🙂

    p.s. Thanks for linking to Dulce et Decorum Est – it’s one of my favourites

    p.p.s I see now where I lifted “marginalia” from…sorry!

    • Kathryn Exon Smith says:

      Neil, I appreciate the honest comment…the trouble with nationalism is that it always ends up revolving around the things that we feel most deeply about: life/death, love/pride, anger/superiority. It’s how we define ourselves…nobody wants to be associated with a terrible national image. So we defend them and our way of life and people die.

      Maybe you don’t need that deeply-felt emotionalism to connect with your national history. I suspect you share the pre-WWI tingly history excitement that I feel when discussing this stuff. So good.

      PS – No worries. Maybe I’ll steal something from your blog one day. 🙂

    • Duncan Exon Smith says:

      If we stop remembering war, then it will be easier to glorify it. David Miller quoted Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Lecture in his speech today at Toronto’s Old City Hall:

      War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.

      Without something like Remembrance Day, I fear we would forget how horrible war really is.

  2. Clair Duff says:

    Bravo, Kathryn, well said. You may wish to add this from Sir Walter Scott.

    Breathes there the man with soul so dead
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
    As home his footsteps he hath turned
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
    For him no minstrel raptures swell;
    High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

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