NP View: On Nov. 11th we remember their sacrifice. If only we remembered every day

When the guns fell silent all along the Western Front 100 years ago, one horrific thing came to an end. Four years of grinding, bloody slaughter were finally concluded. A shattered continent, littered with ruined towns, broken bodies and collapsing empires, could finally take stock of what had been gained and what had been lost.

The gains were few and far between, but you could find them if you looked. As noted elsewhere in these pages today, Canada was among the few countries to at least benefit in one way from the war — our 60,000 dead were the horrific price we paid for our emergence onto the world stage as a more fully independent nation. But it was the losses that loomed large. The war left millions dead, millions more maimed. An entire generation was hollowed out, never to be replaced. An era had ended.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, of course, we know that that ending was a new beginning. These new beginnings were not all benign. The devastation of the old order and the old empires unleashed massive changes across Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Totalitarian ideologies, communism and fascism, shaped the rest of the 20th century, and at horrific human and material cost. It took another, even deadlier war to bring some peace to Europe. Russia remains an economic backwater today, spending every penny its corruption-hobbled economy can generate to sustain a faint echo of its former military strength. The continuing chaos in the Middle East needs no recapping here. History matters. Consequences persist.

But one thing that has endured truly has left us better off. This Sunday, across Canada and so many other spots around the world, people will gather at the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, in groups large and small, to remember. Most of them will not be there to remember an empire that fell or a politician who ruled or even a battle that was fought and won and lost. They will gather to remember a person. Someone that they loved and who loved them. A person who was, to them, someone special: a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a grandparent.

Or perhaps someone who was something more, to all of us: a veteran.

A Canadian Armed Forces sentry stands guard after poppies and photographs were placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge, on April 9, 2017.

Not every veteran has a hero story. Many served their time, in times of war or peace, honourably and dutifully, spared from the carnage that war is most vividly known for. But they all accepted the risks of that carnage, and in Canada, virtually every veteran alive today volunteered for that risk. Of the 100 years since the end of the Great War, we have been fortunate to have a more peaceful and prosperous latter half than the former. Entire generations have been raised in peace and plenty, and whole military careers served without major conflict.

Still, we honour them, all, even those who never directly faced the enemy. We honour those who served on the home front during conflicts, working on farms and in factories to provide the fighting men (and more recently, women) with the tools they needed to face the foe. We honour the families who never served, but suffered still, when someone they love was either lost to war or destroyed by it, returned to them broken, sometimes irreparably.

Canada is a country that knows little of its history, and cares about it less. Our continued observance of Remembrance Day is a rare and welcome exception to that sad reality. It serves in many ways as the sad counterweight to the celebration that Canadians seek (and normally find) on Canada Day, perhaps the only other day that unites us all. It is right that such a balance exists — that the carefree entertainment of a day in July is set against the solemn reflections of much colder days in the fall. A day of celebrating our freedom is, in time, answered with a day when we recall its price.

Sadly, the day of remembrance is often just that: one day. Canadians tolerate appalling levels of neglect of our armed forces and veterans. Partisans always accuse those on the other side of causing the problem, but the failure is more basic. The military and veterans are often ignored by politicians because the public doesn’t care enough to be truly outraged by it. A country that cared as much for its fighting men and women every day of the year as it does on November 11th wouldn’t permit the forces to go without modern equipment, or veterans to go without needed treatments and services for their bodily and spiritual wounds. But we don’t. So the neglect persists.

People place poppies over lettering in the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2016.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Canadians intuitively understand how much they owe the soldier, the sailor and the airman. That’s why we gather together each November 11th to give thanks and reflect. That sense of gratitude can and should extend throughout the year. It remains a grim irony that it would be harder to neglect our military if it had not, when needed, done its job so well. A country too used to peace does not routinely recall the sacrifices of war. Not all peoples are so lucky with their history. Not every country can be so removed from danger to often forget that danger ever existed.

But this weekend, we will recall those horrors of war, and especially those who endured them on Canada’s behalf. At the 11th hour, as we always should at the setting of the sun, we will remember them.

 

 

 

 

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