Some of the many questions that I have had to face since returning home to Canada following service in the British Army have revolved around determining an appropriate way to reflect on war and honour those who perished over the past decade of conflict.
As we approach Remembrance Day, these questions and similar others become poignant, particularly to a nation whose encounter with war is largely through the lens of a variety of media streams that create a unique but largely incomplete perspective. Moreover, our contemporary moral relativism means that the certainty that our grandparents possessed as they deployed overseas to combat the Axis has largely faded. Of course, this is further complicated by our involvement in Afghanistan whose justification has been poorly explained to civilians.
All this is to say that Remembrance Day in 2013 is a much more confusing and ambiguous event than those held in the decades following the end of the Second World War. So how do we do it? How do we approach Remembrance Day with the appropriate dignity and solemnity?
In the days leading up to Remembrance Day, we should not be tempted to glorify war. This is not to say that we should ignore heroic feats, but the jingoism and propaganda which leads to truth being the first casualty of war must be resisted. Remembrance Day is not the occasion for political grandstanding or opportunistic photo shoots with an injured or elderly veteran; this sort of exploitation is bereft of integrity.
Likewise, Remembrance Day does not present those who object to war with the occasion to protest. As General MacArthur so accurately stated, “the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” Once the macho jockeying of youth recedes, I have yet to meet a soldier who relishes the responsibility of exercising his trade.
On Remembrance Day, we must reflect on those civilians caught up in war’s brutality; those individuals who, through no fault of their own, were drawn into conflict, perished, were displaced, or lost loved ones. We must learn from this national tragedy so that we do not repeat those mistakes. Remembrance Day must be the foil to the sabre rattling of war mongering hawks; war is such a destructive and awful force that we cannot lose sight of its true character.
But ultimately, Remembrance Day belongs to the soldier. It is a day of quiet dignity, when hard men unashamedly shed tears. Those of us who have deployed will never forget the heat of battle, the quiet lulls, or the searing pain of loss of a colleague or friend. No matter how hard we try, we will never forget and those memories remain as vivid now as the day in which they were first etched on our hearts and minds.
On Remembrance Day, we remember and honour the dead – those who died on the battlefield or those who succumbed to their wounds once back home. We can try to make sense of their deaths, we can try to attach meaning by consoling ourselves that they died for a reason and with purpose and reassure ourselves that their deaths were not meaningless or in vain.
But the sober truth is that they are dead and nothing that we do or say will change that fact; my men are dead and they will never return home. They will never again greet their wives, children, siblings, or parents. Not a day goes by that I do not remember them, that I do not reflect on their lives and what was lost. On November 11, my thoughts will be squarely with my men who perished, those who went before, and those who will sadly follow. For me, every day is a day of remembrance, but on Remembrance Day I will stand with my comrades in arms as we collectively whisper, “please, never again.”
David Mack, born and raised in Canada, was a captain in the British Army and served in the Black Watch in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.