I have never been a soldier, nor have I ever been to war. The closest I have come personally to warfare is having an uncle in the navy during the Korean War. He rarely talked about it during his lifetime.
Yet, each year when I can on Nov. 11, I go to the nearest cenotaph to remember all those who died in those wars involving Canada, most notably the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The veterans of those wars are almost completely gone, but we add a few more every now and again through our participation in international peacekeeping and the occasional regional war such as Afghanistan.
It sounds strange, but I love the mournful sounds of Last Post played at the end of the Remembrance Day rituals. More than the prayers and reflections, more than the laying of wreaths, more than the worn faces of the aging veterans, the Last Post brings home to me the great sense of loss over the deaths of so many young people.
Wars are staggeringly devastating, as we know. Canadians know this: in the First World War, 61,000 Canadians died; in the Second, 42,000; and 1,558 in the Korean War.
I don’t spend a lot of time pondering why they died, whether their deaths were noble or pathetic, necessary or wasted. I think rather about the loss. I think about the family members left behind and their desperate grief, about the children these warriors will never know, about the sheer massive destruction of modern warfare.
And I think about our connection with their souls. In a way this secular ritual fits seamlessly into our Christian reflection on death and the dead during this month of November. As Catholics, we believe in the Communion of Saints. We believe in life everlasting and our membership in an eternal family of those who have gone before us, those with whom we share the present on this earth, and those who will come after us.
This is a comforting thought. We can pray to our dead relatives and ask for their intercession. We can lay flowers at their graves to remind ourselves that we are a member of something far greater than our tiny individual lives suggest. We are part of a great continuum of life, of a story without beginning or end, bigger than we can imagine and, yet, in which we play a necessary part. We have a responsibility to make our contribution to this story with deliberation and care.
This responsibility extends also to all those not blood relatives. On Remembrance Day, we recall how earlier generations strived, in the messy imperfection of human existence, to do their duty. We do not have to admire war to admire their devotion, or their love of those they believed they were fighting for.
More importantly, however, Remembrance Day should remind us that the past is not yet past. Wars have not ended, just changed. The increasingly stark evidence of the impact of climate change presents a different battlefield, just as powerful a threat to planetary existence as nuclear weapons. We have to take up our burden, which likely does not involve guns and tanks, but can in its own way help to make the world a better place.
In that sense, Remembrance Day paradoxically fills me with hope. Humans have done terrible things to each other and to this planet. But on this day, I can only pray and hope we can learn from our mistakes.
–Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director, Novalis