The witnesses are gone.
With the death of the last British veteran this year, no one is alive who took part in the war to end all wars, who can testify to the horrors and heroics that most of us are barely capable of comprehending nearly a century after the First World War.
Memory, even the collective memory of a far-off global war, begins with the personal experience. When we try to remember at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, and fill that imposing two-minute void with an understanding appropriate to the occasion, we are reaching out to voices that are no longer there.
Silence. There will be no more oral histories of the conflict that produced this annual obligation to remember through its unparalleled carnage and grief. The vital precision of those witnesses is gone, and in its place we’re left with an uncertain and perhaps uncomfortable detachment.
Silence, meaningful silence, is hard to find in our world. So the deep reflection that Remembrance Day offers should be more than just a two-minute drill for the harried modern mind.
But the profundity of silence is also an emptiness. We’re taken away from our present-day obsessions and sent back into that ever-elusive past – what if there’s nothing there?
In a way, that is appropriate to the magnitude and immensity of war. The central edifice of many Remembrance Day ceremonies is the Cenotaph, which is an empty tomb, a symbol of loss and sacrifice designed to focus disparate thoughts and allegiances.
That emptiness is huge, once you’re committed to thinking about it. This is a memorial for the dead – 60,000 alone in the First World War, when Canada’s population was only eight million. An abstract representation of death runs the risk of being impersonal or idealized. But in the provocative silence of Remembrance Day, the faceless emptiness urges you to look for a connection – the grandfather who told me boyhood stories of the shell that killed the lad he’d been chatting with a second before; the cousin who won a Victoria Cross by singlehandedly capturing a German machine-gun nest only to die in a later act of valour; the aunt who took down precious oral histories from the nursing sisters of the two world wars; the uncle who landed in Normandy.
One can resist war and its advocates and still find a personal place in this act of memory. But the deeper you dig into history, the more powerful this sense of connection becomes. By 1918, everyone knew someone who had been killed. The personal and the public realms were inseparable. There could be no convenient sense of closure after the First World War, a traumatic conflict that compelled official remembrance among people unable and unwilling to let go of their memories.
“The war memorials of the First World War were intended to be a substitute grave,” says Jonathan Vance, a historian at Western University. “Most people could not visit the graves of their loved ones. So these structures allowed people to feel that personal connection while at the same time providing a national funeral – which evolved into our more generalized sense of remembrance.”
When Prof. Vance comes across students who may feel cynical about these official observances – because of the way the military has been politicized, or because the sacrifices of the past haven’t prevented future sacrifices as promised, or simply because cynicism is a default position of unsentimental modernity – he tries to take them back to 1914. The point of remembrance for him is to capture the willingness of so many people to risk their lives in defence of shared values.
“To regard Remembrance Day cynically is to make it about us, not them,” he says.
It can be argued that Remembrance Day has always been about us, at least in part. The veterans told their stories, perhaps, but the ceremonials and memorials bent to the prevailing needs and desires on the home front.
For Dean Oliver, director of research and exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum, the memory of war and the uses to which it is put are in constant flux. In the two decades following the First World War, remembrance produced first unbearable grief, and then an urge to memorialize, a desire to make meaning of the sacrifice, no end of finger-pointing at those who got war wrong or profited from it, a movement to acknowledge the futility of all wars, and finally a kind of rebound effect, as Germany turned belligerent and 1939 approached.
“The memory of war was repurposed as a call to arms,” he says. “We may have failed the first time, but never again.”
All those never-agains begin to wear you down. The powerful feelings of First World War grief can no longer be repeated, even if they can be recollected, in an age that knows the complications history has imposed on the sincerity of individual experiences.
The interpretation of war is always going to be contentious, given the conflicted motives of public memory and myth-making. And that’s where personal testimony can add so much value: It doesn’t pretend to be substantial or strive to be persuasive. This is war, take it or leave it.
So now diligent students go to local war memorials and find a name. And then they take advantage of their hard-won modernity and access all the Internet archives that reveal the story of a single soldier.
“The past is a foreign country,” says James Stewart, who teaches history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. “Something so long ago can be pretty remote for students. But when they find a soldier’s death notice in the newspapers, that builds an intimacy. They understand war and remembrance on a different scale.”
At the individual level, that soldier could be anyone – hero, deserter, cannon fodder, average guy. As in life, as in death, it’s sometimes random, the luck of the draw. Does it make sense of war? No. But then war, we remember, is not supposed to make sense.