In Plato’s opinion, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman’s opinion was even more famously blunt: “War is hell.” And in every age, in every part of the world, in every society war has wreaked its ghastly, brutal work.
War is indeed hellish. War is not glorious; it is violent and brutal. I no longer wonder why veterans speak so little of their experiences – how can they? Unless one has felt the terror, seen the horror, smelt the death, how can one understand?
So on Remembrance Day, what exactly are we remembering? Many of us have never experienced war (be thankful). The worst we’ve seen are the images (ghastly and horrifying) on social media and the news. But if we have no direct experience, what and how do we remember?
We remember those who did not come home: brothers, friends, spouses, grandparents. We remember so that they will not simply become ghosts haunting old battlefields, yellowing pictures in a trunk, names inscribed on a cenotaph.
Pierre Berton wrote in Marching As to War regarding WWI: “The statistics are as appalling as they are meaningless. Ten million casualties? Who can conceive of such an army of ghosts? Ten million mothers, crying into their pillows. Ten million children, unborn or fatherless. Ten million young men, broken by battle, ground into the swamps of Flanders until they were one with the mud, or seared in the cauldron of Verdun, torn into fragments by cannon and grenade, or frozen lifeless on the Russian steppes.”
And if you add to this the awful toll of Canadian dead and wounded in WWII, Korea, Afghanistan, and in peacekeeping operations, we also remember so that those who did come home may not feel so alone and so isolated in and by their memories. We also remember so that the families of those who did not come home know that they are held in a community of strength, that the loss of their loved ones is sacred to all of us. Those we left behind on distant battlefields are not the only casualties of war.
And finally, we remember because the peace we often so blithely enjoy comes at a shocking price. The peace which we enjoy – the absence of air strikes on our homes, the quiet where no artillery thuds in the distance, the hospitals empty of victims of bombings – this peace is absent for millions around the world. So I feel constrained today to lay a burden concerning them on all our hearts. Spare a moment for the victims of today’s conflicts. Pray for peace.
Soldiers, sailors, and aviators volunteer, train, and deploy to the field of war, places of disaster, and in the uncomfortable and dangerous ‘in-between’ places. Remember their courage, their dedication, and the dedication of their families.
Let us remember and remember always.