Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Today we remember those whom we sent into war on our behalf, and who gave everything they had. They gave their lives. I want to think about that sacrifice, and what our remembering should inspire us to do. For it does no good to feel sad about those who died in war if our remembrance ends with those feelings. Our duty is not only to remember what the fallen soldiers have done for us, but also to act so that their deaths will have meaning.
I am old enough to remember the last year of the war and its aftermath. When someone of my age refers to The War, it means the Second World War, the one that started on the German-Polish border in September 1939 and ended in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Just how many people died in that war will never be known for sure. The best estimates average out at about 23 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. That's more than twice today's population of Canada.
But those are mere statistics. If you want to know what war is like, talk with those who lived through it. Soldiers who saw combat very rarely talk about it. But you can see how their memories affect them when you watch their faces as they stand at attention at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. My father talked about it once only, when he thought the time was ripe for his grandchildren to learn something of what to them was only history in books.
Those who didn't see combat are more likely to tell stories, but they too avoid talking about the fighting that they knew indirectly, through the death and wounding of their friends. The civilians who endured bombing, flight from the front, refugee camps, starvation, invasion and counter invasion, the oppression of occupation and foreign rule, they sometimes talk about it. But they leave out a lot.
I don't remember much. We lived in a small town by a lake, far from the battle fronts. Bombers flew over on their way to bomb the cities and the railway yards. The sun glinted on them, they were like little silver fish high up in the blue air. The sound of their engines came from everywhere, from one side of the sky to the other. When the bombs fell on the railway yards ten kilometres away, we felt it in our bellies and the soles of our feet. A few times I saw black mushrooms grow on the horizon. Most of the time, the air-raid sirens chased us into the cellar, where we were dressed in several layers of clothing. It was a guarantee that we would have something to wear if the house was destroyed. The woolly underwear itched. There was a candle lit, and others ready to be lit if the power went out. When the bombs fell, we heard a dull thump, very far away, and dust trickled down from the ceiling. We crowded close to Mummy, and felt safe.
I hate war. I can't tell you how much I hate it. And yet I know that war will come again. It will come because we fear those who are different, and that gives an opening to those who want to exploit that fear for their own ends. It will come because those who have power and wealth want to wage war for their own purposes. It will come because we leave too much up to the politicians that we elect to do the boring business of government for us. It will come because as long as we have something like a good life, we leave things up to the experts. It’s too much bother to take time to understand the problems that face us, let alone make an effort to participate in solving them.
It's not pleasant to think about these things.
It's not pleasant to think about war, or the poor, or the damage we're doing to our planet.
It's not pleasant because it reminds us that we, each of us and all together, have a responsibility.
But today, on Remembrance Day, we have before us the example of those whom we sent to war, who placed their bodies between us and the enemy, who gave everything they had. I know and you know that they had many different reasons for putting on the uniform. But whatever their reasons, they went.
And too many of them died.
We owe them.
The last stanza of In Flanders Fields calls us to this duty:
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, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The foe is not the enemy soldier. He died as our soldiers died, his family grieved as our families grieved. Those who survived suffered the rest of their lives. The memories of war cannot be erased.
No, the foe is us. We are the ones who wage war. The soldier is merely an instrument of war. He's just another weapon that we, the wagers of war, use to fight our battles.
We must change our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts. We must replace fear with hope, hate with love, indifference with caring. It sounds like tall order, but it can be done.
If you look at the advice that the religious leaders have given us, one thing stands out: they don't talk about systems. They don't talk about governments, or politics, or businesses, or enterprises, or organisations. They don't talk about methods or processes or procedures. They don't talk about checklists, or seven habits of successful people, or how to make every minute count.
They talk about forgiveness. They talk about faith. They talk about love.
By what rule should we live our lives? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most ancient religious texts give us this rule. It’s the rule given by Jesus, by the Buddha, by Confucius, by Muhammad. Jesus expands on it: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself.
In short, we must change. We must change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. We must think of all humans as being People Like Us. We must feel that every person we meet is a member of our family. We must do whatever we can to make life better for other people, just as we do whatever we can to make life better for ourselves.
A tall order indeed. It means giving up the notion that we are the centre of the universe. It means giving up what makes us comfortable. It means giving up our lives in service. It means sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that we remember today.