What we remember

'We can and must hope for a more peaceful world. We should also understand that there are times when peace, and freedom, must be fought for'

This morning, my wife and I took our daughter to the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. My daughter is 18 months old, and this is the second time she’s been. I will continue to take her until she’s old enough to decide on her own whether she wants to attend, and I hope she will continue to come after that.

On Wellington Street, just before Parliament Hill, we ran into one of my wife’s colleagues who had just come from a ceremony at her son’s school. She said it was moving. Some parents cried as their children sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “One Tin Soldier,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and “Imagine.”

I wasn’t at the ceremony, and perhaps there was much more to it than that. I’m sure the kids sounded beautiful. Nevertheless, featuring four mostly vacuous Vietnam era anti-war songs on Remembrance Day reflects a profound ignorance of what the day is about.

War is a horrible, nasty business. It is natural and proper that we are repulsed by it. But this is precisely why on Remembrance Day we honour those who went to wars, and recall with gratitude the men and women who died fighting them. They understood that, as terrible as war is, there are times when avoiding it is a greater sin. There was nothing honourable or just about pacifism during the Second World War. Refusing to fight the Nazis in practice meant helping them. Neutrality is an attractive concept, but it is an ugly code to live by.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s and realize that I was extraordinarily fortunate not to have experienced war – at least until I was an adult and covered it as a journalist. But I was also lucky as a boy to have known relatives who took part in the cataclysmic conflicts between freedom and totalitarianism that marked the 20th century. It fueled in me an appreciation for what they and millions of others accomplished, and a drive to learn more about the wars they fought. I recall that Remembrance Day ceremonies at my public school involved reciting John McCrae’s brilliant and evocative poem, “In Flanders Fields,” and listening to veterans who came to share their memories. I think that even as a 10 year old I would have recognized that something didn’t smell right singing a song that asked of these men: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

Today, sadly, a new generation of Canadian children is growing up with a much more direct experience of their loved ones going to war, and sometimes not coming back. It would be fitting if these children could attend Remembrance Day ceremonies at their schools that celebrated the bravery and commemorated the sacrifice of their parents, rather than digging up hippie anthems that stress the futility and foolishness of what soldiers do. Imagining a world where there is “nothing to kill or die for” doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t the world we live in. We can and must hope for a more peaceful world. We should also understand that there are times when peace, and freedom, must be fought for.

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