The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—tomorrow is Remembrance Day, and let us once again stop to think about this important commemoration.
Canadians of long standing all carry family memories of the great wars of the 20th century. My own grandfather fought in the First, my father in the Second World War; many a little younger had fathers in Korea.
When we put on the red poppy, it is not only a patriotic gesture; it is something personal. The dead, the maimed, but also, those who came home in one piece, after witnessing horrible things—each carried losses to his own death. “The dead bury their dead.” And even in those still living, there is a place of deathly silence that we join at the 11th hour.
Our losses in Afghanistan have brought this heritage to date: of the fallen, and those who loved them. Small children are again among the survivors. That our whole nation should show and feel solidarity with these, can almost go without saying, for they have made their sacrifice for us.
We remember “all souls” fallen in all wars fought for freedom and the dignity of man. And far from celebrating “peace” we are bound to remember that such wars are necessary.
There is, as it is written in Ecclesiastes, a time to live and let live; and a time for confrontation. “A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” And where the alternative is the appeasement of great evil, there is even, as the Preacher said, “a time to kill.”
Behind those who fought overseas, were those who manned and woman’d the home front, who kept the home fires burning, and stoked the forges of war. Soldiers need weapons, lest we forget the huge sacrifices that were made, in putting our entire economy on military duty. So let us remember those magnificent words: “No price too high!”
Canada herself was not invaded. But my own heart continues to lift, when I think of the speed with which former generations of Canadians, from Ottawa to the most distant outpost, twice came to the aid of Britain and France. They—“we” as Canadians—discerned immediately where honour lay; and we played no minor role, in either conflict.
This is a very hard word, “honour.”
It can be used, of course, in many senses; some ironical, satirical, even cruel. We live today under the crushing weight of an irony enforced by “political correctness.” The concept of honour has itself been so long under attack, in our public schools and elsewhere, that some readers may be conditioned to flinch from the word.
There is nothing for that, but recovery: “To you, with dying hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep.”
It is this often disregarded concluding stanza of John McCrae’s famous rondeau that I must emphasize. We have listened too long to the argument against honour, expressed for instance in explicit condemnation of the words I quoted, as “recruiting-poster rhetoric” and the like.
That war is barbaric, everyone concedes. That war should be avoided, when it can be avoided, is the opinion of every sane man. It does not follow that only the insane are willing to fight, when war can’t be avoided.
“Take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words, in that instance, could be taken to refer to the Germans, for they were the proximate enemy in the eastern part of the Ypres salient, where the 1st Canadian Division made its stand. And the body of McCrae’s dear friend, Alexis Helmer—the immediate inspiration for the poem—was blown to bits by an artillery shell, not by some philosophical abstraction.
Yet the quarrel remains in every generation. So long as we live in freedom on this Earth, we must confront those who would enslave us; and when we cease, our freedom also ceases.
“Honour” is hard because ease is not necessarily compatible with justice, nor peace with freedom. By comparison, wearing a white poppy is easy, and calling for peace from a position of safety is incomparably glib. It is a very easy thing, to spit on the grave of a dead soldier.
Our soldiers, in this generation, unfortunately know this. The “Vietnam syndrome” has not yet passed, in which we send soldiers to fight and die for a noble cause, change our minds once we have sent them, then bring them home in defeat. Finally, we despise the veterans themselves, as symbols of our own dishonour.
Let this not happen, ever again. Do not break faith with them who die.