Lest We Forget to Remember

It’s a law of Canadian nature: once the Halloween candy has been eaten and the weather has turned the kind of ugly only November can produce, red felt poppies bloom on left-side lapels nationwide. As I check and re-check to make sure mine hasn’t fallen off, I take note of who else is wearing their poppy today, who else is being patriotic and respectful. There are a lot of us. And it’s a beautiful gesture. But it isn’t nearly enough.

55E845F5BFECA4CC69881FF42DFD6_h243_w430_m2_q80_cEYBSqidjA cursory search on Google Images assures me that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also been sporting his poppy lately. It’s nice that he has the option to pay tribute to our veterans with this photogenic little accessory, since dropping a quarter in a Canadian Legion box and picking up a poppy on a pin is a heck of a lot cheaper than supporting our surviving veterans through the Veterans Affairs Offices. Which is probably why nine of these offices are closing and elderly veterans in need of assistance are instead being directed to call 1-800 numbers and line up at Service Canada counters. CBC media personality Rick Mercer speaks very eloquently and passionately about this issue in his latest Rick’s Rant and his piece absolutely forms a large part of the context for this post:

I sometimes wonder if it’s all my fault. Like many people my age, I’m impatient with the older generations: Get out of the way, I think, I’m coming through! Give me your jobs and your electoral clout! The future is now, and it’s all for the young! With less and less surviving veterans in our midst every year, Canadian politicians can focus on that big juicy voting demographic they all love to court: middle-class families. Out of our way, grandpa! Yeah, you lost your friends and your youth and maybe your arm on the battlefield, but we want lower cellphone fees and roaming charges! (If you don’t believe lowering cellphone fees are one of our country’s top priorities, just take a look at the 2013 Throne Speech. Yes, “Supporting Our Armed Forces” is also one of the items mentioned, but it seems that our government has equated “support” with “we’ll ask you to do a lot of things for us in the Arctic and in return we’ll give you some new equipment to do things for us with”.)

When I was about 16 or so, I heard that an acquaintance and her high school choir had been permitted to perform Edwin Starr’s “War (What Is It Good For?)” at the school’s Remembrance Day function. I remember thinking at the time that that was so damn cool. I mean, WAR. Huh. What IS it good for?! ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’!  War is stupid, and dying just because someone told you to is stupid, and killing people just because someone told you to is stupid. My friend and I used to crank the stereo in her parents’ car and just rock out. I love that song, and for the most part, I agree with its message. War means senseless death.

And yet…people fought anyways. My parents’ fathers fought anyways. Our veterans and their families probably don’t need a hit Motown song to tell them that war is a heart breaker, friend only to the undertaker (especially during a Remembrance Day ceremony, good god). They saw it. They know. And they did what they believed they had to do. Nowadays, we may be so privileged that we can’t understand this mindset (unless, of course, we are serving in Canada’s military or have loved ones who are), but that doesn’t mean we should rub this privilege in their faces. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t spare the money for the little bit of bureaucratic dignity that is their right.

Before I go any further, I should disclose the following:

  1. I cannot imagine a situation in which I would ever choose to see battle, to put myself in danger of being killed, or be required to kill another person.
  2. I would never want a loved one to join the Canadian Armed Forces because I don’t want them to kill people, and I don’t want them to die.

These two things being said, I still want and expect Canada’s military to protect me and my family, and to participate in conflicts overseas in a peacekeeping capacity. It is because I feel the way I do about my own participation in any kind of armed conflict that I feel anyone who does or did join up deserves so much respect–they did something I would never want to do, something I would never want a person I love to do (it’s also why I cry like a baby every November when I see the Silver Cross Mother on CBC). Was what happened to these men and women glorious? Was it honourable? It’s not for me to say, though in my personal belief system war is neither of those things. But our veterans (and the men and women currently serving) endured it anyways.

And now some of them are old. Very old. Over the years, they have seen friends and comrades pass away, and watched as society has quietly pushed them aside to make way for the things we want right now: tax breaks and lower monthly cellphone bills. We already know Canada’s greying population is going to cost us all a lot of money going forward–magazines like Maclean’s print dire warnings about it all the time. Dying is expensive. Dying with some shreds of your dignity still intact even more so. But a human being does not stop being a human being just because they are old and no longer drive the economic engine. A citizen does not stop being a citizen because they are no longer paying income taxes. And a veteran doesn’t stop being a hero just because there are fewer and fewer people alive who remember their sacrifices.

Remembrance Day is as good a time as any to remember that “remembering” is not passive, and wearing a poppy doesn’t cut it. Truly remembering another person’s sacrifice is an active way of being. It might mean our taxes are a little higher because we have the luxury to whine about roaming fees instead of living in fear that our child, sibling, spouse, or parent might not come home. It might mean our taxes are a little higher because we don’t have to worry that our government will put us in harm’s way to be a cog in some grand scheme happening on the other side of the ocean.

This Remembrance Day, instead of just showing up and receiving salutes, I would like our Prime Minister to encourage Canadians to actively remember the sacrifices of our veterans, and to trust that we want our veterans to spend their last years with the dignity they deserve, whatever the cost. You can’t put a price on human life, and we’ve already asked so many people to give up theirs.