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The names of alumni, students, and faculty who served and died in the Second World War are engraved on The Soldiers’ Tower at the University of Toronto campus. Top left, the tower is one of the greatest of Canada’s war memorials.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

It seems strange at first glance that a huge monument to dead warriors could be hiding in plain sight.

The Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto is one of the greatest of Canada's war memorials, if grandeur and beauty are anything to go by. The stylish Collegiate Gothic pinnacles that soar elegantly into the sky, providing a lofty perch for the red-tailed hawks that contemplate the campus, are the iconic image of the urban university and a symbolic link with ancient Oxford's dreaming spires.

But a century after the Great War began, the monuments originally designed to honour the country's 60,000 dead don't always represent what we think remembrance should look like. From the perspective of 2014, as veterans from the conflict in Afghanistan re-enter a society that is much further removed from the realities of war, what's the point of a beautiful tower?

"Its significance tends to be overlooked," observes Yolen Bollo-Kamara, president of the University of Toronto Students' Union, who walked past the structure's arches for two years before she started paying attention to the carefully engraved names of the university's war dead that border the tower. "In speaking to students, I've realized that my experience was by no means atypical. Many don't even know the name of the tower, let alone its function as a war memorial."

In an attempt to modernize the messaging and make war's monuments more relevant to a generation far removed from the Great War, the charity Canada Company recently announced a program to provide battle-tested light armoured vehicles to communities that wish to honour Canadian veterans of Afghanistan.

The eye-catching directness of the LAV-III is unmissable. And maybe the need to jar the Canadian public into attentiveness through military hardware is appropriate to the detached spirit of the times. But the people who created Soldiers' Tower at a very different and more difficult point in the country's military history had other thoughts in mind.

In a university that then enrolled only a few thousand students, 628 people died in the Great War (another 557 were lost in the Second World War). The sense of grief was potent for years afterward and the immediacy of compassion within a tight community was undeniable – there was hardly a need to belabour the connection with battle or death.

"You had an entire country that was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," says John Plumpton, a retired school superintendent who teaches history at Ryerson University's Life Institute. "When they built monuments, they tried to find some meaning and consolation for what had been lost."

The dead had been buried where they fell, or simply lost forever in the muck of war. Monuments in Canada, like the grief they tried to resolve, became collective and necessarily abstract.

Before the First World War, memorials generally took the form of a statue or a sculpture. But the scale of the war's carnage – where every town, business and school had suffered a loss that needed commemoration – prompted a rethinking of a country's duty to its dead.

"You had a debate about whether a memorial should be aesthetic or utilitarian," says Jonathan Vance, a history professor at Western University. "One side argued that if you built your memorial in the form of a hockey rink, this cheapened its meaning – it was just a way to capitalize on public sentiment to get something built. But the other side said, if you end up with something useful that adds to the community, surely that's better than a lump of rock sitting in the park."

The university's goal almost from the day of the armistice in 1918 was to craft something beautiful – with the tacit understanding that a soaring tower could both perpetuate memory and give a growing university a stronger, more unified identity. The Peace Tower in Ottawa is a similar structure, a war memorial that expanded its role beyond the original intentions.

The shift happened surprisingly quickly with Soldiers' Tower. As early as 1929, 10 years after its cornerstone was laid by the Duke of Devonshire, five years after the massive sandstone and limestone structure was finally completed, two years after a clock and carillon were added, the tower's recognizable image featured as the backdrop for an Eaton's ad offering "tailored clothes for college men."

Maybe that flexibility of purpose isn't a bad thing in a memorial that serves the happy distractions of peace as well as the horrors of war. "The whole assumption behind a monument is that it asks you to think," says Prof. Vance. "In the most basic sense, it's a memory aid." For better and not just for worse.

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