It’s Remembrance Day.
Today our nation pauses to remember, honour, and be thankful for those who risked everything to defend our way of life. At cenotaphs across Canada there are stooped, grey-haired veterans who understand that idea better than we do.
Recently I saw a haunting black and white picture that had been taken in the First World War. It showed a teenage soldier being hugged by another beside him as they sat in a mucky, filthy trench, bodies listing to one side in exhaustion. The dirty face of the subject was twisted in unspeakable horror, distressed by something only he could see…
Lest we forget, that snapshot was from “the war to end all wars” more than a century ago.
It didn’t work.
I am struck by the irony as the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse unfolds in a televised courtroom on the west coast. Rittenhouse was the teenage boy who carried his AR-15 to a demonstration in the summer of 2020 with the pretence of protecting the city. He is charged with shooting and killing two people.
He wept in court yesterday – maybe real tears, perhaps not. The more unsettling fact is that a teenager was allowed to enter history as a self-proclaimed warrior, carrying a military style weapon in full view through the streets of an American city. This isn’t an indictment on Rittenhouse – I don’t know his level of guilt – but at the very least he is a victim of a militaristic culture that sees weapons and aggression as the heroic way.
Lest we forget that heroes don’t invent their own wars or fight their own battles. Rather, they commit all they have to the common good: decency, safety, freedom, humanity. We shouldn’t remember warriors by how anxious they were to fight but by their bravery in spite of reluctance.
Lest we forget.
Forgetting usually ends in losing everything worth having.
Lest we forget that war is not glorious.
Lest we forget that these were not people who wore camouflage and toted weapons in the streets but they were youth in their prime who entered manhood surrounded by death.
Lest we forget that it wan’t techno-garbed professionals who fought, but factory workers, shop keepers, mechanics, accountants, and the like.
Lest we forget that they weren’t all square-jawed men with wide shoulders but average men whose bravery birthed heroism.
Lest we forget that some heroes were not soldiers. Food, equipment, intelligence were produced by men and women working long, unseen hours.
Lest we forget we were at war because of a common enemy – dictators and fascists whose only thought was power at any cost.
Lest we forget there were soldiers who died in training, from friendly fire, at their first step on the beach, in prison camps, and even after the war ended.
Lest we forget there were many like Cheryl’s grandfather, who refused to kill but nevertheless risked his life to save others as a medic on the battlefield.
Lest we forget the military horses, livestock, trees, fields, architecture, historical artfacts that were lost forever.
Lest we forget the mothers, wives, children who lost a child, spouse, parent.
Lest we forget the women and children who died as innocent collateral of war.
Lest we forget the soldiers who were never physically or emotionally whole again.
Lest we forget the enduring scars and renewed hatred.
Lest we forget that nothing touched by war can ever be the same.
Lest we forget that war is indeed, hell.
Lest we forget.
Does carrying a gun make a hero? Do heroes think of themselves as such? Does a self-conjured idea of battle deserve remembrance?
No, heroes don’t have a selfish cause, but a moral one. True heroes are reluctant but faithful. Those worthy of remembrance don’t seek conflict, they are lovers of peace.
An elderly war veteran was in the news a couple weeks ago. His message was that we too easily use Remembrance Day to make war heroes but he reminded us that it’s main purpose is to keep us from suffering the evils of war again.
We must remember.
Lest we forget.