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SarahHampson310 (Peter Power/Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)
SarahHampson310 (Peter Power/Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson

Our fleeting glimpses of war Add to ...

Push Jon and Kate Gosselin - and Octomom, for that matter - to the fringes today. We may be a culture obsessed with knowing about the "reality" of others - the more extreme their situations, the better. But it's a lazy, disingenuous interest. Fed, spoon-like, by reveal-all episodes, it's limited, too. We consume the content of lives we chose to focus on only for as long as it entertains us.

Remembrance Day, by contrast, is a welcome opportunity. We can imagine - not see - the in extremis experience of others. Or at least we can try to understand it. This day is an invitation for empathy. As spectators of its particular cultural parade, we will never fully know what soldiers and veterans feel, think or know. They do not display their experience. Nor do they talk about it - sometimes because they can't.

Like many Canadians, my relationship to war is sustained by fleeting glimpses of it: images of flag-draped coffins being brought home; a field of white gravestones at Dieppe; decorated veterans at church, their wrinkled faces in a mask of tearful pride and grief.

As a child, I remember seeing a black German helmet with gilded plate and a tall spike on top (the Pickelhaube, as I later learned) that my great-grandfather had picked up off the battlefield in France during the First World War. He hung it on the wall in his book-lined den. He died long before I was born, but it was still there when we visited his daughter (my maternal grandmother) in the same house.

My great-grandfather never talked about his war experience, despite his Distinguished Service Order for valour on Vimy Ridge. He grew angry if any of his grandchildren tried on the helmet. And he had a chronic cough as a result of inhaling mustard gas.

Those are the pieces of his story, passed down through time, like the family silver.

My grandmother's husband, son and grandchild, my cousin, all served in the Black Watch, the oldest highland regiment in Canada. I heard stories about a great-uncle who died in the Great War following the Battle of the Somme. And I saw my cousin return home after he had served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia. My three boys, then all under 10, were enthralled with Army John, as they called him. But I could tell he had seen things he could not describe. After an attempt at civilian life, he returned to the Canadian Forces and did a tour in Afghanistan.

It's interesting - and not surprising - that the most powerful documentaries about conflict feature people remembering it, not living it. As the audience, we imagine it through the pain of a memory, and are deeply moved.

War lives in myth, memory and imagination. On Remembrance Day, we all move to that life of the mind. But there's still a delicate tension between those who know what it was like and those who do not - the experiences of each world touching like two soap bubbles.

And it's best that way, I think. If we all knew war intimately, would we see the loftier purpose of its horror and death? Would we be able to allow for the attention, respect, glory even, that their sacrifices, however useless we may consider them, deserve?

There will always be war - it's in our nature - and so is the desire for peace. Even if we don't agree with the impulse to do either, we can't stop it.

Which is why Remembrance Day is the only calendar day I make a point of going to church to observe. It's in abstraction that ideals of courage, hope, freedom and peace - things that so often falter in real life - thrive. And it's in the silent room of our minds that we can make ourselves think about something we can't, and never will, truly know.

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