I remember waking up in my bunk to the first volley from the artillery guns just across the motorcade from where we slept. The entire old school building would shake, and dust from the concrete ceiling came down in trickles.
I remember jumping out of the slowly moving vehicle on Route Brown, watching where we stepped as we set up ambushes in the grape fields, hoping the ground wouldn’t blow up beneath us.
I remember the entire body of troops, hundreds of men and women in the desert uniform, our hands pinned rigidly in the long salute as the sun set over Kandahar Airfield. To the wail of the bagpipes the flag-draped casket was carried slowly up the ramp of the C-17 Globemaster.
Most Canadians will never have seen it, but a handful will never forget it.
Every year the schoolkids write essays describing what Remembrance Day means to them. But the truth is, to a large number of Canadian adults Remembrance Day doesn’t hold a lot of meaning. To many It’s a day off: a day off school or work, a Day of the Pillow, a Day of the Remote (while carefully avoiding the CBC). It’s kind of sadly ironic that so many people forget about what is supposed to be our day of remembrance.
Granted, we have to be realistic: the reasons for remembering aren’t in the common experience. In a quiet country like Canada, where most people will apologize to someone who has just stepped on their foot, it is easy to file war and sacrifice in the bottom drawer. There are so few people left who fought during the Great Wars and Korea. Everyone knows about peacekeeping missions in general, but very few Canadians could describe what ?peacekeeping? really means. Perhaps we have a vague image of men in blue helmets outlined against bombed-out Bosnian towns?or a dusty television clip?but for most people, that is as far it goes.
What about the conflict in Afghanistan? Most people know there is a war going on somewhere, but judging from the number of people who’ve looked me in the eye and said that in their opinion Canada should get out of Iraq, most of them are both unconcerned and uninformed. Unfortunately this applies particularly to my own generation?the next leaders of the country.
My parents emigrated from the neutral country of Sweden in 1973. They had very little idea what Remembrance Day was all about until one October morning, when their son got on the grey-painted military airliner and flew off to Afghanistan. What I had been trying to explain since the start of my cadet years was suddenly at the front of their minds. Every day for the next six months they would stop for a minute and wonder, ?Is he dead now and I don’t know it yet?? The same question has been asked by many households in this country, and sometimes the parents haven’t been so lucky.
Furthermore, it is not just the dead we must remember. Countless Canadians have been permanently injured in the service. Enter any Canadian Forces base, from Edmonton to Gagetown, and you will see men in their 20s working to rebuild their lives on the running track with their new prosthetic limbs. You might see someone rolling up to the mess hall by use of the wheelchair ramps.
But how can the average person relate? If you don’t know any soldiers, or don’t have relatives who once fought, how do you get a sense of all those faceless people? Perhaps parachute flares and crimson tracer bullets will never light up the night sky above your head, but everyone aged 15 and older remembers where they were when the Twin Towers went down. Do you know a police officer or firefighter? This is their day as well: whether we know the specifics or not, we all owe something to the people who patrol our streets and wait for the fires that may break out in our homes. Some perish in the line of duty, too?like the four RCMP officers who were killed near Mayerthorpe, Alberta in the spring of 2005.
This year is an important time in the annals of the Canadian Forces: it is the beginning of the end of Canada’s nearly decade-long mission in Afghanistan. While a smaller body of personnel will stay behind to train local police and military, the time of actively routing Taliban fighters is running out as far as Canadian troops are concerned. Already there is a new mission in Libya, although how big it will get or how long it will draw itself out is yet to be determined. As veterans from the old times depart, new ones take their place. But even if someday there are no visible symbols of war and sacrifice, Remembrance Day must never stop.
On this day, 11/11/11, go downtown, to the cenotaph, or the stadium and join with the others who have decided that today will not be a Day of the Pillow. It is a day to hear the guns fire in salute and to hear the bagpipes of the local reserve regiment. It is a time to get together as a community. It is not a day for politics. It is not a day of fear-mongering or propaganda. If anything it is a day of peace, a day when everyone from every corner of the country, from Cape Spear in Newfoundland to Masset, Haida Gwaii, comes together to be thankful and mournful at the same time.