What am I remembering? Nov. 11 more than ceremony and feeling

What does Remembrance Day teach us about war, peace and history, Sara Arenson asks.

Sara Arenson asks what Remembrance Day teaches us about war, peace and history

A Remembrance Day ceremony is held at Elmwood Cemetery in Winnipeg for schoolchildren on Nov. 10. What do such occasions teach Canadians, Sara Arenson wonders. (Michel Saba / CBC)

As crumpled leaves blow across abandoned gardens, there is still one flower blooming. The familiar red poppy once again graces store counters and shirt collars, invoking the spirit of Remembrance Day. But what is this spirit, and what does it teach us about war, peace and history?

Remembrance Day, held on the date when First World War hostilities ended in 1918, is an occasion to honour our country's sacrifices in war. Unlike the jubilation of Canada Day, this holiday is solemn and thoughtful, combining moments of reflection with the pomp of military parades, choirs and ceremonies.

Gratitude is the overwhelming imperative of Remembrance Day. Surging with pride of country and family, Canadians flock to ceremonies to pay their respects. Military personnel march in handsome, clean uniforms. The camera pans across elderly men with legion caps and tears in their eyes. Families speak of their grandfather who served in the Second World War or their great-uncle who never came back.

The meaning of Remembrance Day seems clear. Brave Canadians travelled across the sea to protect our values and freedoms that were threatened. Through their heroism, we were saved, and through these just and necessary wars, we will one day have peace.

Obscured by the feelings brought on by uniforms, trumpets, flags and poppies, this assumption is unquestioned. Wars lead to peace. Wars lead to the protection of Canadian values. Otherwise our sacrifices are meaningless.

Are all wars necessary?

But is this true? Are all wars both necessary and just? Is sacrifice only meaningful if it leads to peace?

To answer these questions, we must examine history.

Take for example the First World War, the conflict that led to Remembrance Day. After the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, it was by no means clear that this would lead to war. It was only after Serbia failed to concede to all the demands in an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum that Austria-Hungary declared war. Germany, as its ally, followed suit. Soon, like falling dominoes, the world powers and their colonies all joined the conflict, along the lines of their alliances.

Nine million to 10 million soldiers died in the First World War; 20 million more were wounded. There were 6 million to 10 million civilian deaths.

Close to 61,000 Canadians died while another 172,000 were wounded.

Deeper holiday

Was a diplomatic solution possible? How did a local dispute between two countries grow into a war consuming the major world empires and their colonies? Did 20 million people really have to die?

And did the First World War lead to peace, if we had the Second World War only 20 years later?

If we asked historical questions, Remembrance Day would be a deeper holiday. We would see that sometimes wars are just and necessary, as when fighting a great evil that could destroy or enslave the free world. But at other times, wars destroy more than they create, bringing unnecessary death and devastation. Only by knowing history can we distinguish the two.

Some people have a problem with Remembrance Day because they feel it glorifies war. They might choose to wear a white poppy as a symbol of their pacifism. Some have accused pacifists of disloyalty to their country or dishonouring the troops. But one can still honour bravery and sacrifice without believing that every war is just.

Soldiers step up to serve because they believe in protecting their countries. They go through hell for these ideals. They've endured exhaustion, starvation, disease, vermin, extreme weather, combat, explosions and loss of dear friends.

Make day memorable

Sadly, the generation that lived through the First World War is gone now, but their memories live on in words and photographs. For one glimpse into that era, you can catch the film Testament of Youth, playing until Nov. 14 at Winnipeg's Cinematheque theatre. Based on the bestselling memoir of Vera Brittain, the movie depicts the war with grim realism. Explosions over muddy trenches. An officer gunned down while fixing barbed-wire fence. Nurses sponging off maimed and bloody bodies. Women scanning newspaper listings of the dead. The dreaded telegram and father's cries. These years led Brittain to become a lifelong pacifist.

John McCrae was a doctor in those same French trenches when he wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields. But now, the people who have embraced his poppy no longer know the words to the poem. An Ipsos poll recently revealed that only 30 per cent of Canadians could correctly identify the first verse of In Flanders Fields.

Feelings can only take us so far. This year, as you spear your shirt with a poppy, ask yourself, "What am I remembering?" Read. Watch documentaries. Talk with friends and family. Make Remembrance Day truly memorable.

Sara Arenson is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and radio broadcaster.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.