Tomorrow is Remembrance Day in Canada. In many ways, it is the most Canadian of all the statutory holidays we have here — more heartfelt than Thanksgiving, more widely observed than Canada Day, more essential to the deep strain of honor in the Canadian character than — well, any day we celebrate up here.
Most Canadian cities have permanent spaces designed specifically for Remembrance Day exercises. Even small towns boast a downtown park dominated by a tall and stately stone cenotaph, a memorial obelisk that is the centerpiece of the day’s events. On November 11, these parks are full to the edges, because nobody, no matter how anti-war, misses the event. (In 2006, the CBC reported the dismal news that only two-thirds of Canadians had attend some kind of Remembrance Day exercises. The horror.)
And it’s a show worth showing up for. Brass and bagpipe bands march. The Mounties turn out in their scarlet coats. Old men stand a bit straighter in their regimental jackets and kilts, their chests full of medals, to receive their nation’s honor once again. Brilliant red poppies bloom on the lapel of every dark coat as the poem “In Flanders Fields” (written by Canadian officer John McCrae, and inscribed in the memory of every Canadian schoolchild) is read aloud. Families come together, and go out for lunch after. Every civic group and church comes forward to present a wreath in memory of Canada’s fallen soldiers, in a procession that can last well into the afternoon and ends with enormous piles of greenery and poppies banking the monument. And at 11:00 sharp, the entire country — in streets, in stores, everywhere — comes to a dead halt, observing a full two minutes of national silence honoring the moment that the Armistice began, and World War I came to an end.
The high pomp and circumstance is largely due to the transformative role the war played in Canadian history. Though the country had been independent of England since 1867, by the early 20th century, there still wasn’t much in the way of a Canadian national identity — a sense that they were one people with a shared destiny. The Great War was the first time Maritime fishermen, Ukrainian farmers from Saskatchewan, urban Torontonians, Calgary cowboys, Japanese farmers, and self-sufficient Scots loggers from the forests of BC were brought together in battle, under one flag, wearing one uniform. They were often assigned the most hopeless battles by the British and American generals; and as a result, they took catastrophic casualties at places with names like Somme, Ypres, and Vimy Ridge. Out of a population of seven million, 67,000 were killed and 173,000 were wounded. Every Anglo-Canadian family I know was touched by this, and can recount the roles their grandfathers and great-grandfathers played with quiet pride. It was the event that catalyzed the identity of the nation — the moment Canada really became itself.
(The war also ripped open a historical breach between English and French Canada that has yet to heal. Quebec didn’t appreciate the prospect of sending its sons to a war that they felt only advanced British interests; and that resistance fueled the Quebec separatist movement that persists to this day.)
Tomorrow, as the city falls silent at 11 am, I will marvel — as I do every year — at the fullness with which peaceable Canadians embrace the sacrifices of war, and the unconflictedness of their feelings toward their veterans. This is the country that is known, more than any other, as the world’s peacekeepers. Their whole culture is built around conflict avoidance; that scrupulous gentleness and politeness goes bone-deep, and there is no doubt in most of their minds that war usually entails far more mindless waste than it does noble and worthy sacrifice. And yet, there they are, standing for hours in the November wind and rain, coming out once again to honor those who fought in a war that wasn’t even really their own. At first, this seemed like a massive contradiction. But last year, during that long quiet minute, I finally understood.
It is not a contradiction. In fact, Remembrance Day and Canadian pacifism are two essential parts of one consistent whole. Canadians believe in peace in no small part because they make a point of stopping, once every year, to truly ponder the cost of war — to look their veterans in the eyes, and take in the damage, and thank them. And, perhaps, to ask forgiveness for asking so much. They gather at the cenotaphs to remind themselves and their children of what is lost, and how precious life is, and how very important it is not to allow those kinds of conflicts to get started in the first place. It is that annual willingness to come back, year after year, and unflinchingly take stock of the prices paid that drives their determination to pursue peace. If they failed to remember, to open their hearts to their grief as thoroughly as they do, their commitment to peace might not be so strong. Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
On this issue, as with so many others, Americans are mired in willful amnesia. I remember from the depths of my 1960s childhood that we used to have an almost identical holiday, also on November 11, which we called Veterans’ Day. In my youngest years, this was also an American statutory holiday, when we got the day off school to go downtown for parades. I have a fond memory of winning the fourth grade poster contest and having my Veterans’ Day poster on display in a business window downtown; and veterans’ groups coming to school to talk to the classes and sell paper crepe poppies for a quarter. We pinned them proudly on our winter coats. (I hadn’t seen a poppy in decades by the time I moved to Canada; but here, they still bloom everywhere promptly on November 1.)
That holiday all but went away for a long time after Vietnam. There came a time in the late 70s when it wasn’t even a school holiday any more. We were so conflicted about that war that any holiday about war did more to divide us than it did to bring us together. As we moved into the Reagan years, the observances that remained were captured by pro-military groups, and voices promoting peace were shut out of the discussion. While it’s still an important holiday among veterans, the vast majority of Americans observe Veterans’ Day by going about their business as usual. There’s nothing here to celebrate.
And I think that’s a loss. I suspect there’s a direct relationship between the near-invisibility of Veterans’ Day and the near-invisibility of our support for our veterans — or our awareness of the true costs of our current wars. It’s a lot easier on our corporate masters if we spend the day shopping the Veterans’ Day sales at the mall, rather than spending it standing out on Main Street listening to our veterans’ stories and confronting the actual flesh-and-blood consequences of our leaders’ decisions. The devaluation of Veterans’ Day is of a piece with the way the Bush Administration brings fallen soldiers home in the dead of night, or embeds reporters, or cheats veterans out of their benefits. It’s all a distraction, another inducement to look the other way. For all the talk of “supporting our troops,” the last thing they want is for us to gather by the thousands in the park, and be sobered into silence once again by the magnitude of the sacrifice these men and women are making.
My Canadian experience suggests that a heartfelt willingness to stop, remember, and honestly reckon the cost can bring tremendous moral gravity and authenticity to progressive arguments for reason, diplomacy, and peace. Beyond that, it’s a lot harder to ignore the needs of our veterans when you see their proud faces out there, every November 11, accepting the nation’s thanks. You’re forced to realize that once a year isn’t enough; that they are part of your community, and their day-to-day care is a community responsibility. The “thanks” rings hollow if you’re not backing up the words with real and constant support. If we stopped the country for a full day just to look at all that, as the Canadians do, I think the things we’d see would change the terms of our conversation about war forever.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
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.
— John McCrae