It is fitting to write this blog’s inaugural post on Remembrance Day. For the past several years I have been a student of international relations, war, and conflict. The academic study of these subjects is pragmatic and so the horrors of war are often pushed out of view in favour of utilitarian analyses of tactics and strategy. This isn’t a bad thing. Until such point that war is eradicated (and you’ll have to forgive my cynical opinion that such a point isn’t exactly imminent) it will be necessary to think and strategize about war and the way it is conducted.
However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the human element of war. Remembrance Day provides us with an opportunity to remember that it is human beings – our friends, families, and fellow citizens – that are charged with the task of executing the policies and strategies devised by others. In most cases these men and women are asked to risk their lives in order to carry out their duties. In many cases they pay the ultimate sacrifice.
The human element of war extends to the other side of conflict as well. The asymmetrical nature of 21st century conflicts means that civilians consistently bear the brunt of violence. Those who study war from a distance, like myself, have the good fortune of examining the consequences of warfare without living them. It can become too easy to think in terms of collateral damage, in terms of outcomes. Remembrance Day offers the chance to reflect on the experience of war as best we can.
This year I am thinking of three things in particular:
The fact that without the brave members of World War II’s Allied Forces, and the Canadian Forces specifically, I would not be here today. My grandparents lived in the Netherlands and their hometown of Nijmegen is situated close to the German border. It was the first Dutch city to fall under occupation. My Oma still has the small notebook in which she collected the signatures of the soldiers who stayed at her father’s inn after they had liberated her city and her country. They immigrated to Canada in 1952 and my mother was born a Canadian citizen. So was I, and so was my brother and my sister.
Photos below of Oma and Opa, 1947.
I am thinking of the families of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and how peculiar this Remembrance Day must feel to them.
And I am reciting in my head In Flanders Fields. We had to memorize this poem in elementary school and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s beautiful and haunting. I do, however, have one disagreement with the author. One line reads “to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.” This line has never sat well with me. With all due respect to Major John McCrae, I do not think the hands that he describes have failed. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to accept the torch and never forget.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Major John McCrae, May 1915
[Updated November 11, 2014: added photographs.]