Veterans’ Memories Another Casualty of War

By Jason Menard

Forget a day off; what we really need on Remembrance Day is a mass-crash course on what it is we’re supposed to remember.

There are glimmers of hope here and there. In the wake of numerous poppy box thefts in Southwestern Ontario, Londoners are stepping up and have more than recouped the lost funds by donating at a local radio station, CJBK – including one man who contributed $500 to the cause.

And the concept of veteran was tossed around in vain by both sides of the Occupy London protest. Some arguing the squatters’ rights being exercised by the protesters were exactly what the veterans were fighting for; others claiming their presence was an affront to everything that the veterans stood for.

Of course, it seemed like no one bothered to ask a veteran. And, in many cases, we’re running out of opportunities to do so. Upon the death of John Babcock in February 2010 (who, himself, did not consider himself a veteran as he did not see combat), Canadais without any surviving World War 1 veterans. In 2009, the Toronto Star ran an article on WW2 veterans – at the time over 160,000 were alive, but were dying at a rate of 400 per week.

Thankfully, there are ventures like The Memory Project, which will help preserve these stories before they’re lost forever. But is it enough?

There are those who argue that Remembrance Day should be a national holiday. And while some provinces (and pretty much all government entities and banks) do recognize it, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec do not. But would it make a difference if we did?

How many people would take the time to visit a cenotaph or participate in a Remembrance Day memorial service? How many would observe a moment of silence, or would this turn into just another three-day weekend, with 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11 month blowing by with nary a glance – maybe just a slightly regretful, “Oh, I guess I forgot” moment.

I’ve attended a few November 11th memorial services both in London and Montreal and they’re disheartening spectacles. A handful of people gathered around an ever-dwindling number of veterans. And kids are few and far between.

I suppose, in a way, it’s a good sign that our generations are so removed from the experience of war that they can ignore it. My maternal grandfather was in the navy during the Second World War, but he passed away when I was five. My paternal grandfather served too, but I never met him and he died in my teens. My memories of the former are few and fuzzy and the stories are all secondary or tertiary; my memories of the latter are non-existent.

Fortunately, for my kids, war is something they see only on the TV. Sadly, we’re still creating veterans thanks to conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. But today’s kids struggle with understanding why we wear the poppy (and, obviously, there are some bottom-feeders who struggle with the understanding of why stealing a poppy box is right up there amongst the most disrespectful crimes), or why we play Taps.

I’m all in favour of making Remembrance Day a national holiday if we use that time to educate. And that responsibility falls on us, as parents and community members. We need to do a better job of explaining our past to a generation for whom conflict is like a video game. We need to share the stories of those who actually saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes instead of killing by remote control or from a distance. But how do you accurately express the horrors of trench warfare or storming a beach amongst a hail of machine-gun fire to a generation that’s quote-unquote experienced it from behind the safety of a controller or a box of popcorn?

We need to figure out a way. After all, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Is a holiday the solution? Not if we treat it the same way we do with most – as just a welcome respite from the work week or an excuse for a three-day weekend.

Lest we forget? In many cases, we’ve already forgotten. And for a group of veterans who have already lived through so much, their memories are rapidly becoming yet another casualty of war.

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