Remember…

At a war cemetery
I remember once riding through Vlaanderen (Flanders, Belgium) as a boy, and the sense of awe I felt seeing the green hills roll by. I closed my eyes and tried to picture how, merely decades ago,  the very pretty scenery outside the window could be the setting of many brutal battles. I was reminded of what I once read in History class. Even today, when the fields are plowed, remnants of bombshells and human remains are still being unearthed.

At the mass cemetery for fallen soldiers,  quietly I tread on the path and gazed into the distance. Before me, rows and rows and rows of white  crosses and the occasional Star of David stood in honour of the countless men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, names are all that remain, even though some plaques bear no name. Names, and dates that at times are too close together. Flags fluttered at half-mast, while a flame blew in the strong North Sea wind but never dimmed.

Soldiers marching
Soldiers marching on Maisonneuve

After the bloodshed, the falling bombs,  after the cries from damp trenches filled with rats,  corpses and agony, poppies were the first flowers to bloom. Small and red, they would blossom wildly every Spring by themselves, and cover entire fields like a carpet. Red, almost blood-like,  poppies today are closely associated to the annual Remembrance Day, which officially falls “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”.

On the field of McGill’s downtown campus today, a crowd slowly gathered. Flags flew at half mast, a tribute to those from the McGill community who took part in the war effort. Soldiers, in pressed uniforms and in kilts, armed with rifles or musical instruments, proudly marched on black, polished boots down Montreal’s busy streets. They flowed into neat columns on the field, lined up and stood tall to inspire and awe the people that had gathered all around them. It was a glorious day, and the sun flooded the ceremony with bright light. But it was a sombre event, with poetry recitals and prayers for the  hero(in)es who, despite their invisibility and silence, have shaped, and continue to shape, the fates of nations and peoples. From the “Great” War to the Second World War, from Korea to Vietnam, from the Gulf to Afghanistan, the bravery and commitment of countless military personnel and peace-keepers, past and present, deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

The firing of the cannon as part of a 21 gun salute made many in the crowd jump. Thick smoke trickled down the hill and eerily blanketed the skyscrapers temporarily. The loud roar from the low flyby of two military helicopters filled the surroundings with the sound of rotor blades slicing through the air. Faces grimaced in discomfort at the unexpected explosion and resounding din. Luckily, all this is part of the ceremony, but to most who are not used to the deafening sounds and nerve-jittering shocks of war, it was too much to bear.

Flag at half mast on McGill Campus
Flag at half mast on McGill Campus
I have been fortunate to come from and live in societies that are free from war and conflict. So I can only imagine the destruction and  atrocity of it all from scenes depicted on the printed page and by shaking recordings of “embedded” journalists. Without a doubt, the reality of war is many, many times worse than what you and I can possibly imagine or see. Despite lofty promises to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war“, despite complex laws and customs that actually regulate the conduct of warfare and degree of suffering that can be inflicted, war continues to rage and breakout across the world.

I, like many university students, can loudly protest the insanity and question the (f)utility of war, but throughout history and till this very day war has been a part of history. And as long as there is war or conflict, there will be those who are sent to fight, and who sacrifice themselves in the defence of the very freedoms and rights we hold dear. Sadly, this is a society that worships movie stars in epic war movies more than veterans who have passed away, or returned crippled or scarred by real wars.

In a corner of the field, stood a group of veterans wearing long black trenchcoats. Poppies adorning their left lapel, close to their hearts, seemed to shine bright red against their dark coats. The wrinkles on their faces, the trickle of their thin white hair, the trickle of tears down some of their eyes bear memories of distant places, of comrades lost long, long ago. With the passing of time, fewer and fewer veterans from wars gone by will be standing there.

“Thank you,” I said, deep down, as the wail of the bagpipe broke the two minute silence. For your courage, for your wounds, for your sacrifices.

Lest we one day forget, may we always remember.

Remembrance Day 2010
Remembrance Day 2010 coin

“Red and White”— a song dedicated to past and present Canadian soldiers.

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