Remembrance Day isn’t easy

Remembrance Day always brings conflicting thoughts. It’s not an easy day.

Not easy because I will not be ungrateful for the sacrifices made in war, but I’m also convinced that wars do not make for peace, that peace secured by war is temporary and ultimately illusory. That violence “over there” and “back then” still prescribes our collective thoughts and actions.

Not easy because I’m a patriotic Canadian, but I believe that planning for war, building bigger and better weapons, does not achieve the security and freedom we crave, but instead opposes freedom. Militarization spawns government secrecy and the invasion and curtailment of personal privacy—which we pay for. The only winner here is the arms industry.

Not easy because I respect Remembrance Day and its place in our culture, but I know there was no “great war.” There will never be a “war that ends all wars,” unless it’s the war that ends planetary existence…calling to mind that blackest of ironies: peace through mutually assured destruction.

poppyNot easy because I’m proud to be Canadian but my government’s high moral condemnation of other nation-states who rush to gain the technology for superior weapons, while rushing to gain the same, at home and through strategic alignments, requires a particular kind of blindness.

Not easy because while I honour and celebrate our (qualified) peace, I see that the things that make for peace still evade us. We have had in the past century at least two authentic examples of peace through nonviolence. The success that ML King and Gandhi had should have spurred some desire to find alternatives to peace through violence. And yet, has any government ever considered to seek peace through peaceful means? Has there ever been a discussion about what a policy of non-retaliation would look like? And as for diplomacy, when has it not been backed by the threat of some form of violence?

Not easy because I’m truly thankful that I was not called upon to fight, or to ration, or to move, or to lose much of anything through war, but I hope I’m also careful that in remembering, after calling to mind “our” soldiers, to call to mind all victims of war. For it seems to me, if we only remember “our dead,” the things that make for peace stay hidden, and war is glorified. It seems, as I’ve witnessed in some past Remembrance Day ceremonies, a very short distance from remembering to glorification.

Not easy because it’s not easy to receive and be grateful for this provisional peace without giving into the lie of redemptive violence. Not easy to always recall that, as King said,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.

Not easy because outside of a few aberrations like Jesus, St. Francis, Gandhi, Bacha Khan, King, Mandella, it seems we’ll never be able to give up on the seemingly pragmatic use of violence. Even though something tells us our refusal to renounce it will end in our own demise.

Not easy because while we remember, we refuse to renounce: For example, we rightfully abhor domestic violence and child abuse of any kind. Yet, do we stay silent at our nation’s participation in drones strikes that inevitably kill children? Does this show how far we’ve been formed by a culture of war and violence—the nature of which we keep wilfully hidden from ourselves?

Not easy because as Thomas Merton says,

Peace is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

And so before going on about anything, I must again examine my own heart—my own resentments and passivewhiteandredpoppies aggressive attitudes. For wisdom understands that violence begins in our own beating breasts. Personal peace starts peace.

Not easy because intentionally remembering war, so that we can in some way dispel it—so that violence can be named and thwarted—can be, and often is, an act of good faith. To hope that in the naming, in the remembering, something like grace and peace may appear, is a spiritual act. It’s “foolish” and courageous, but as I see it, this is really what “Lest we forget” is all about.

But it’s not easy because,

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them (Flannery O’Connor).

It’s possible, as in O’Connor’s fiction, that violence can act as the cudgel to awaken the sleeping (that’s us) to the reality of something beyond, like an intrusion of grace.

However, it’s not easy because at the same time it must be remembered that war, or any form of violence, is never the cause of grace (or peace). All it can do, in view of its great distortions of social solidarity, (I’m thinking of everything from office cliques to neo-nationalism) is reflect back to us our own propensity toward envy, rivalry and redemptive violence. And in this revealing, allow us the grace of seeing ourselves as we are—and so call us to where we should truly be. If this happens, it’s an occasion of mercy.

Not easy, but this uncovering may remind us, even as we take this day to remember, of an ancient example.

Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace… -Jesus, according to Luke.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and honest reflection on war, peace and Remembrance Day. You have captured well my own struggles with this day and Canada’s approach to war and its glorification. It is unfortunate in my view, that any discussion of this sort is criticized as ingratitude to soldiers killed or hurt in past wars. “Lest we forget” is as much about what war has taught us over the centuries as it is remembering the dead. Well done Stephen!

  2. Yes, Steve. So convincing and convicting! “Not easy. . . to understand “the particular kind of blindness”. . . that slips “a very short distance from remembering to glorification” of violence, overriding all that we teach our children about interpersonal behavior and influence; all that the science of psychology has confirmed; and all that history has demonstrated about the folly of war. WW1 did not “end all wars”, nor did WW2 “make the world safe for democracy”. Both failed causes, leaving us vulnerable to glorifying imagined victory to assuage our failures.

  3. 3 unconnected observations:

    A Jewish rabbi at the National War Memorial today said “Freedom without Peace is agony, Peace without Freedom is slavery”. I’d add a world without Jesus as a visible, present King will always lack complete peace and freedom.

    I do not struggle with Remembrance Day perhaps because I keep it confined to remembering the sacrifices of current and past soldiers, police, firefighters and EMS.

    When I was a kid the messaging at my school’s Remembrance Day services was “Never Again” while in more recent years it is “Never Forget”, acknowledging the reality Canada was at war in Afghanistan and now in Iraq.

  4. My neighbor, a Vet in poor health, had the bumper sticker IF YOU LOVE FREEDOM THANK A VET. Seeing him outside on Nov. 11 I shook his hand and said “Thank you.” He had the bumper sticker for years and my thank you was the first in his experience. It is in deed not easy: freedom to celebrate by offering special sales? freedom to bolster economy with the sale of military equipment? It has been amply demonstrated that war does not bring peace. It is not easy to thank my neighbour who is collateral damage of war knowing of the collateral damage to persons termed the enemy. The emotion with which my neighbour thanked his anti war neighbour provided some release to the “not” easy” of November 11 for me. Knowing the person makes a difference.

  5. I love your thoughts and your presentation of the challenges inherent in honouring the people and sacrifices represented by Remembrance Day services. Pushes the edges of our thoughts out a bit to think more deeply, more soulfully, more…humanly, I guess is a good term. Not EASY indeed, though Peace is certainly something devoutly to be wished.

    The challenge for me is to keep hope alive, keep faith that we can accomplish Peace meaningfully, or in a timely fashion, or if ever.

    I have lived in Nepal, Indonesia, Iran, Swaziland, Kenya. I have traveled to many other countries. There are good people everywhere, and the people of the world deserve peace. We positively flourish in peaceful conditions, I have seen that time and again. But other things I have seen suggest that Peace is not something that will be achieved by peaceful methods. There are too many people who do not care for peace, who choose violence in everything they do, from the leaders of a nation right down to the vendor on the street corner…. Survival mechanics? Perhaps. Some cultures and religions have become embroiled in circumstances over time that have made them synonymous with violence, but I think there are very few religions or cultures exempt from that association, historically speaking. There are few among us culturally or religiously speaking who could cast that first stone, metaphorically. Most have in fact enthusiastically cast the literal first stone often enough I would say.

    I don’t know the answer. Other than to keep trying. But it is difficult to persevere when apart from a couple of bright spots mentioned above in thousands of years there hasn’t been much progress. We may consider our sometimes peaceful society a product of waging or responding to war, with the dubious distinction that brings to that state of peace. I wonder how very different our world might be had we socially, culturally, chosen peaceful responses in the face of, well, let me call them countless incidences of violence over the years. “Worse” might be a best case scenario. I try not to engage in “what ifs” but What If there were no safe haven anywhere for the concept of Peace to flourish?

    It doesn’t have a ready home in China. In India. In Africa. In Russia. In the Middle East. In South or Central America. In Mexico. Not all absolutes of course, but the bulk of the planet’s population lies within territory that doesn’t really have Peace on the To Do list. Even perceived bastions of so-called peaceful and orderly society have significant trials and tribulations, be it North America, Western Europe, or the other odd nugget of relative peace scattered sparsely around the world.

    I think as a species we have all the tools, all the pieces, all the right rules to follow to achieve success. The problem is that most do not subscribe to them, or even to that way of thinking. Most cannot, for it means going against the established order and they will perish if they do. It is a terrible irony that they will likely perish anyway, but everyone must make the attempt to survive however they may. Fundamentally we don’t face those choice at the survival level, though we can certainly find parallels or analog experiences on a lesser scale. We don’t live in an ivory tower, but then again we live in an ivory tower. Whatever that might symbolize or represent or come to symbolize or represent, the fact that we have had the opportunity to live for a time in a society that had the opportunity to take the time to build that tower at all is a salient thought. We earned that time at least in part though force of arms defending others and by doing so ourselves. We Remember, and those who we defended far away, Remember. We must Never Forget, though, that the time when drawing a line in the sand to mark the battlefield has long since passed us by. Can Peace be achieved without the sacrifice of battle? I don’t know. I do know that it must not be getting any better. People are fleeing in droves, knocking on our Ivory Towers, seeking solace and refuge. What must it take to drive a person from their home, their land, their heritage, their history? How can we help, truly?

    You mentioned that Remembrance Day isn’t easy, and I must say judging by my tears and the heartbreak and the pride and respect that all commingle and join together in a swirl of emotions that whelm me every time, that I feel the same way, but hadn’t really thought about why. You have started me thinking about it a bit, and that has to be a Good Thing.

  6. Ray, thank you so much for sharing that. And how very important that you offered a thank you. Knowing the person does indeed make a difference. And…how many wars would not be waged if we came to know each other? “Enemies” remain enemies at a distance.

  7. Tyler, thank you! You have made so many important points, with obvious personal investment.

    The fact that there is a reasonably safe haven for the concept of peace to flourish is tremendously important. This is the “bright spot” of our provisional peace, arguably achieved by war. It’s possible that without this (evolution), we could not imagine or yearn for a truly peaceful world. Perhaps that is the horrendously earned, yet good gift of our times.

    It does appear, as you say, that we have all the pieces for peace, but I wonder if those tools and rules (outside of the Golden Rule?) are still of an old order, built on violence, maintained by force, until the next round of reciprocal violence. But if that’s true, what would a “new” order look like? That’s the question that hounds. And in view of history, it’s still a recent question. A question unthinkable outside of the rise of empathy for victims. That is, before we caught a glimpse of ourselves as victimizers, as “scapegoaters.” This revelation of ourselves is indispensable should we want to answer the question.

    It seems that for the first time in history, and here I paraphrase the anthropologist Rene Girard, we, as humans, are faced with the choice of renouncing violence or perishing in a final escalation of reciprocal violence. On this plane it doesn’t seem remotely possible that we would renounce violence. But then, I wonder what it was that drove people like King and Gandhi. I can only think that it was the complete conviction that there existed a new kind of order. Is it possible that they were not aberrations but harbingers? People who were transformed by a vision of something like a new order of love, something coming but for them something already mysteriously here.

    Well, there is, as always, much to reflect on, and more to say. But perhaps the best we can do now, as you are doing, is to “battle” to keep hope alive. Thank you again.

  8. …not easy because for every slain boy-man there are the unknown graves of a score of women and children (is war gendered?).

    …not easy because Remembrance Day brings us together at an appointed time around official monuments to share well-worn platitudes, while some kind of deep-seated collective yearning and need for each other’s presence go unexpressed.

  9. Myrna, thank you! These are critical additions to the list. Yes. Inexpressibly “yearning for each other’s presence” is a kind of human constant, but most profoundly felt at these commemorations of immense loss. And yes! War has been, no doubt is still, acutely gendered. Consider most any war movie, documentary, were women, at best, are acknowledged for a supportive role in something called the “war effort”. But most often, women are overlooked, forgotten, unmarked, unremarked…. So important that you pointed this out.

  10. Someone asked me what WWI was about, and I realized I didn’t know. WWII is easier – stop the Nazis. But WWI? So I googled – and found a list of contributing causes – mostly summarized by national hubris, fear and greed – and a definite glorification of war.

    Watching my two grandchildren play – the little boy wanted something from his older sister that she didn’t want to share, so he hit her.

    The coming election will see three parties competing for the support of something called “the middle class”. Our support will be curried by fear of what might happen if the other parties gain power. Hubris, fear and greed….

    At least we must remember that war is hell.

  11. I am a Veteran [1953-1956 and a bit] simply because I have enough days in uniform to qualify. Even though I was in Egypt during the Suez Crisis… I have never been fired at….or for that matter, fired at anyone else.

    But when we talk of war and want to make peace…I think of the film The Mission… where some of the priests did not want to fight and some that did… they all died.

    Armistice or Remembrance who gives a care?Armistice or Remembrance who gives a care?

    (Written in time for the 2006 Remembrance Day)

    One, two, three or four,
    No, try fifteen, sixteen or more…
    Seventeen is the total, of men lost…(in one wider family)
    So, to war there is no cost?

    1914-18 the war to end all wars…
    1939-45 well, so there was need for more…what a bore!
    Korea, Peace Keeping, Afghanistan all in a row,
    All keeping men and women caught in the flow…

    So you think remembering the wars with all the old Vets.
    Is something to be ignored, that we have no debts?
    No goose-stepping hordes, no raid in the night…
    No breaking glass or concentration camp plight…

    So on the eleventh remember with pride,
    The men and women who have died….
    Without their sacrifice it is plain to see…
    That their sacrifice did bring victory!!

    It’s not the war we gloat about;
    War brings so few things about which to shout.
    It is about men and women and young people too,
    Who gave their all for me and you!

    ‘Lest we forget’

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