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What Do We Remember?

First I tweeted, then I thought.

Typical.

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except --

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except —

I retweeted sharp, moving, bitterly lovely and earnest images: helmet and bayonet, Canadian flag, grey beret-wearing veteran among poppies in remembrance of long-lost ever-youthful brothers in arms. It’s only natural: I’m touched by the loss of “my guys”. They’re mine because even though nearly all Canadian war dead fought under a different flag than the one I’ve lived my life under, they came from places I’ve been, or want to. I’ve recited the poems, sung the songs, seen the films. I used to have McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” by heart (the poppies blow), yes, and McGee’s “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings…”, and a long time ago I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars like I was in one.

(Well, I know. John Gillespie McGee was American, but his “High Flight” poem celebrated his epiphany as a soaring fighter pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was dead, at age 19, not long after he wrote how he “wheeled and soared and swung / High in the sunlit silence”. It was a training accident. He hadn’t even had the chance to fight for honour, freedom or anything.)

A British man named Laurence Binyon wrote “For the Fallen” as the Great War was swinging into high gear in the late summer of 1914. It had seven verses, the most famous of which are these:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.  

Lest we forget, we often repeat as a coda to these rhymes. Binyon was referring to the young men of the British Expeditionary Force, most of whom couldn’t possibly have imagined the horror and carnage they’d face in a mechanized, modern world war. These lines are recited all over the world by people wanting to honour their soldiers, to pay tribute to any human sacrifice in a cause considered good. Mainly, these involve foreign wars.

This somber cartoon, by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald's Bruce MacKinnon: fallen soldiers of another, distant conflict help a youngster to join their unforgotten ranks.

This somber cartoon, by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald’s Bruce MacKinnon: fallen soldiers of another, distant conflict help a youngster to join their unforgotten ranks.

In Ottawa, this morning, a more recent and, for comparatively sheltered Canadians, a shockingly local sacrifice will be on everyone’s mind who gathers at the war memorial near Parliament Hill. It’s just weeks since two Canadian soldiers were killed in uncoordinated and bitterly random attacks, one of them a young reservist doing a ceremonial, unarmed duty. Nathan Cirillo stood guard by the statue of the unnamed dead of Canada’s military past. Our remembrance, this morning, will have more urgency. Our hearts will be more alive to the sacrifice that is occasioned by the bloody whirlwind of war. There are so many wars.

I haven’t withdrawn my retweeted Canada-centric images. They are good-hearted. They represent one of the few days of the modern year that is not dedicated to forgetfulness and distraction. They honour youth, used up nobly or cynically or callously or purposefully – in any case, tragically – in war. They tug at my heart. As I remember today, though, I don’t want to limit my sorrow to maple leaf dead. I will try to remember all the humans lost in all the wars (on all the sides), and renew my homely little commitment to the cause of peace. Lest we forget, war is the enemy, the Dark Lord. Fellowship, justice and compassion dispel the darkness, lighting our way to peace.

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