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It's Veterans Day, remember? Saturday, November 11, 2006

Russell Carter salutes as the flag is raised at precisely 11 o'clock during Veterans Day ceremonies in Portland, Ore. Carter served in the European theater in World War II.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row/That mark our place ...

When I was growing up, November 11 always seemed to be a big de
al. At the beginning of November, white boxes full of little plastic poppies appear in the stores, and people would bring them around to our classes. For a donation of a few cents, you too could pin a red flower with a green center to your jacket just like all the grownups. Or you could fold them in half, stick them between your lips and pretend you were wearing lipstick, which is what we usually did. Even if you decided to wear it, they kept falling off your jacket, so you had to make another donation every few days.

The first few years I was in school, Remembrance Day (as it is known in Canada) was a holiday. Later, they kept us in school so that we could learn more about the meaning of the date, which invariably meant assemblies, and poetry/essay/poster contests. I never won.

... and in the sky/the larks still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I was a Beaver/Cub/Scout throughout my childhood, so on the Saturday nearest Nov. 11 we got to be in the parade. As well as the Scouts and Guides, there was the Acton Citizens Band, the high school band, a pipe band,
the air cadets, and as many legionnaires as figured they could make the walk through town on a snowy November day. The parade always ended at the local cenotaph where someone would read off the names, they'd play Taps, and we'd have a minute of silence to remember the dead. I didn't know anyone who had died in any wars, so I'd try to figure out what I was supposed to think about, and make sure I didn't cough, sneeze, or giggle when someone else did. Eventually they would play Reveille and we could breathe again. Once they had played Abide With Me, it was time to go home.

We are the dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved and now we lie/In Flanders fields.

Beside his wife, Beatrice, Robert D. Maxwell bows his head as his citation for bravery is read during Veterans Day ceremonies in Portland, Ore. On Sept. 7, 1944, Maxwell threw himself on a grenade as he and three other soldiers defended their observation post against a full platoon of enemy soldiers. Maxwell was permanently injured by the explosion, but his action saved the lives of his comrades and earned him the Medal of Honor. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient living in Oregon.

I think this was the first Veterans Day ceremony I've attended since I moved to the United States. In Portland, it was marked with a small parade and an hour-long ceremony in the Hollywood district. It wasn't really that different than the ceremonies I grew up with. A piper played Amazing Grace; a trio sang God Bless America and America the Beautiful; the Grant High School band played the Star Spangled Banner as the flag was raised; and the Legion Honor Guard fired a 12-gun salute. (You couldn't see the Air Force jets that made a fly-by right at 11 o'clock due to the mostly-cloudy skies, but there weren't too many complaints; most people were happy that it wasn't raining.)

Because I was busy photographing the event, I wasn't thinking too much about its content. But when they started reading John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," I was suddenly taken back to Acton as I mouthed the words that every Canadian schoolchild learns.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high ...

It wasn't until I got home that I realized how much I missed the moment of silence that I've always associated with November 11, and remembered the words at the bottom of every cenotaph: "Lest we forget." It's probably
something that goes better with Memorial Day here. Still, perhaps we would do well to repeat it twice a year. That induction is meant to remind us of the sacrifice that those men and women made on our behalf.

If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.

What, though, of the sacrifice that our families and nations made in sending generations of young men (and now, young women) to fight. Even those who come back with all of their body parts intact are mentally and emotionally scarred. In a day where the threats and enemies are becoming more and more impalpable, one can't help wonder whether the incredible levels of resources--physical, financial, and organizational--dedicated to fighting them couldn't be better applied elsewhere.

The American Legion Honor Guard fires off a round in salute during Veterans Day ceremonies in Portland, Ore.

One of the biggest differences I have noticed, living in the United States instead of Canada, is that in this country, it seems like everyone has served in the armed forces. In Canada, I knew only a handful of people in the reserves, none of whom had seen active duty in a war zone. Here, every family is directly connected to someone who is or was in the military. If they didn't themself serve, their brother, sister, spouse or children did. I've never been in combat--and never wish to be--but by all accounts it's a horrible experience. It's a huge sacrifice to make.

As Americans and Canadians, we enjoy a wonderful standard of living and a huge degree of freedom in our lives. There is no doubt that that freedom is worth defending. And no one doubts the courage or skill of the soldiers charged with doing so. It seems to me, though, that the "threats" we face today (e.g. Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and even al Qaeda) are caused more by people that feel threatened by us rather than people who want to make us subservient to them (as was the case through the Cold War). But what was our response? To threaten them more explicitly--"We're going to come to your country and impose our system of government so you can see how much better it is. And you will thank us for it. Or else."

Does it not make more sense to wait for other people to ask us for advice or assistance, rather than unilaterally telling them how we're going to make their lives better? Freedom on the march, indeed.

They say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Both Canada and the United States have made huge sacrifices in the theater of war in the past. Perhaps we need to take another minute of silence to think about that. Lest we forget.


Unknown said...

Thank you for helping me to remember to take a moment....

And it wasn't too political. In fact, it was most eloquent and very well timed.

Thank you!

Matthew said...

I just started writing, and that's what came out. It is a bit more "editorial" than my usual postings, though.