Perhaps unusually for an early millennial, I often imagine being young in July of 1914. Would I have fought in the Great War?
I might have enlisted because of an omnipresent social pressure — one surely exceeding that which surrounds mask-wearing in 2020. But I think it more likely that I’d have willingly volunteered to fight. I easily envision handing myself over to a sensation more consuming than my own wants and needs. Not because I believed in war, but because I belonged with my neighbors, friends, and fellows.
There haven’t been any events during my lifetime capable of putting this theory to the test. The basis for the thought experiment instead rests almost entirely on my experiences of Remembrance Day.
I grew up in a community in southern Ontario that remembered World War I, the Armistice, the fallen, and the horror of war with a troubled yet thankful reverence. Our 11 o’clock circles of silence emphasized recognizing the toll shouldered by individuals both named and nameless. We read aloud excerpts from Wildred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, and Timothy Findley’s The Wars. In my mind, “Lest we forget” had a singular meaning: This commemoration exists to acknowledge the pain of those touched by war.
Any link between Remembrance Day and triumph, victory, or admirable sacrifice was lost on me. Like all Canadians, I can count the generations of my Canadian ancestors on one hand. My maternal forebears fought for the Allies, my paternal ones for the Central Powers. My classmates and teachers had multinational backgrounds as well. Our German school librarian had been a pilot and prisoner of war who was shot on a World War II battlefield. On November 11th, when we spoke into the silence of “froth-corrupted lungs” and “the old lie” that it’s sweet and fitting to die for your country, there was no right side of war.
This isn’t the tone of all remembrance ceremonies. Although I imagine that my victorless, sorrowful version of Remembrance Day is more common than not in Canada, I have no way to prove it. The advent of the white poppy pin — an alternative to the iconic red poppy intended to recognize not just soldiers but all victims of war — indicates that celebrants disagree on what remembrance entails.
In my experience of living in the United States, there is less disagreement about the country’s Remembrance Day equivalents, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. They unambiguously honor all American soldiers who’ve fought in any war and given their lives for America. Both days bear a sense of solemnity but not of regret. They celebrate gain much more than they contemplate loss.
Last November 11th, I was living in New York City. I wore a red poppy I brought from Ontario especially for the occasion. Ninety-nine percent of the American colleagues, peers, and subway companions that I encountered throughout the day had no idea what either my pin or Remembrance Day was. My singular British friend alone said “Nice poppy!” She described the slightly different design of those worn in England and lamented that she forgot hers.
In Flanders Fields, the 1915 poem by Guelph, Ontario-soldier John McCrae that elevated the poppy as a symbol of remembrance throughout the Commonwealth, hints more at aggression than peace. Speaking in the voice of fallen Allied soldiers buried near the French-Belgian border, McCrae writes: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep.”
Keep fighting to make our sacrifice worthwhile, he seems to say.
But he says more than that. “We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved.” For McCrae, these are the signifiers of life, and their absences those of death. They’re what war irreversibly snuffs.
This year, without the possibility of safely congregating, perhaps I’ll take a moment of silence alone on my morning walk. Or recite something among the trees of my local ravine. I’ll try to glimpse the nearest cenotaph. As always, I’ll remember the Dead’s courage, not in waging war but in living life, feeling dawn, beholding sunsets, loving, and being loved, in spite of war.
Most of all, I’ll remember their implicit willingness to confront nebulous mortal perils from which, as their descendant by blood and culture, I’m privileged enough to draw wisdom.