It’s quite a bargain, this deal we’ve struck. Any social contract is a trade-off, giving something to get something. Nobody ever thinks about it, this amazing exchange, because it’s almost totally invisible, unless someone shines light on it, as they do at certain times of year.
Today is a day when people may seem to reflect on that social contract, even if the language is indirect. November 11th is Remembrance Day, a celebration of the lives of those in various arms of the service.
The participation of Canadians in world wars has been one of the benchmarks measuring the progress of the country on the world stage.
- Our sons enlisted on behalf of Britain in the Great War, 1914-1918, with conscription invoked in 1917
- Our sons & daughters enlisted in the Second World War, with conscription finally invoked in 1944.
- Canadians fought in Korea, 1950-52
- In the 1960s and in the decades that followed, our military took on a new gentler role, largely shaped by Lester Pearson’s idea of peace-keeping forces.
For over three quarters of a century we’ve had volunteer armed forces. Most tours of duty over that time were not lethal, although that changed a little over a decade ago, when volunteer forces often found themselves in hostile places such as Afghanistan.
Whatever sort of service –conscripted or volunteer, lethal or peace-keeping–we celebrate in services held on or around November 11th. At any of those services one finds a few common elements:
- Poems such as In Flanders Fields and High Flight are read
- Honour roles of names are read. In my high school we read the names of students who had died in service during one of the wars. In my church we hear of those who fell and those who served.
- Testimonials from those who were there, which becomes a bigger challenge with every veteran who passes away
- A poetic evocation of the battlefield in the playing of “The Last Post” and “Reveille”. While this ritual is done in many different configurations I believe the most meaningful was the one I first experienced at UTS, where a two-minute silence would be observed between the two trumpet calls. Stuart Bull, a UTS teacher who served in the war, explained the meaning of this ritual very powerfully to me and the other boys in my school. He spoke of the genuine fear one might have going to bed, that one might not awake, that this trumpet call telling us to go to bed suggested darkness & night, followed by the restoring call of Reveille. In the moments of silence in between we could contemplate those who did not awake and be thankful for our own morning after. If I may add a parenthetical remark, any Remembrance Day ritual that puts something other than silence between the Last Post and Reveille is a kind of ritualistic mixed metaphor.
- Hymns such as “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” and “Eternal Father Strong To Save” are sung.
When I was younger I distinctly remember feeling guilty, as someone who lived in a time of peace. Yet as I’ve grown older, with every year I am more and more grateful for the example of those such as Stuart Bull, who passed many years ago now. What did I know then?
I only know that I feel fortunate to be in this country, a place where I am not facing the dangers I see regularly on the news. They don’t ask much of me in this place where I was born. If you work you’re expected to pay taxes. If you see a red light, you stop. If you see crime being committed you report it, if you don’t have the nerve or wherewithal to jump into the middle of it to put a stop to it.
I’m not asked to go to war, nor was I ever asked to serve. Others have generously done that for me. While I pay my taxes, that’s an easy process, compared to sitting in a plane as it flies into flak, sitting in a tank as it drives across a minefield or under artillery, walking towards enemy fire, riding a landing craft across the English Channel to invade…
It is truly the least I can do to observe those sacrifices, to shed tears for those who did not hold back. It’s part of the deal, and it’s truly a good deal.
To close, the best anthem i know, written in the darkest hours of war as an inspiration, mentioning a sword & a chariot but invoking mental fight rather than real bloodshed.