Remembrance Day is almost upon us. It still strikes me how completely changed the day is from when I was growing up. Back then, it was about very old veterans in their navy polyester blazers and ill-fitting berets, laying dusty, cheap wreaths that appeared to be made from recycled artificial turf. When I heard their stories, I pictured them in black and white, just like all the old documentaries on their exploits from so long ago.
From the moment we took our first casualties in 2002, Remembrance Day changed. Suddenly there were new veterans; the pictures and videos were in full colour. After serving overseas and losing friends, it became very personal. When I visit the Beechwood National Military Cemetery in Ottawa (Canada’s equivalent to Arlington) there are graves of people I knew and served with.
There is a demand for veterans to speak at schools and events, and increasingly it is the new veterans of my generation who are picking up the torch and speaking of the experience of war. This is an important task, and not one to be taken lightly. Even though the Afghan war ended for Canada with the close out of our contribution to the training mission in 2014, it was never that close to home for most Canadians.
There are memorials and cenotaphs in even the smallest villages throughout the country, a legacy from the First World War that saw 650,000 Canadians (and Newfoundlanders, Newfoundland being an independent colony at the time) in uniform, and the country suffered 66,000 dead and 172,000 wounded, with uncounted numbers more suffering what was termed “shell shock.” For a country of just eight million, it was a significant toll with virtually no family unaffected.
Now, the vast majority of Canadians have no direct experience of war. Most bases are far from the urban centres that most Canadians call home, and although the reserves and militia maintain a footprint there, it is an exceedingly light one. There was very little asked of Canadians to contribute to the Afghan conflict, not even an expansion of the Canadian Armed Forces. They went along with their lives completely unaffected while we trudged in the heat. While most were aware of the conflict, it was mostly when casualties were announced that they shifted their attention to what was going on. This isn’t a criticism; it’s simply how it is these days. It certainly isn’t a lack of care or concern as was made quite clear when ordinary Canadians lined the Highway of Heroes, no matter what the weather, to pay tribute to the fallen and their families as they were repatriated from Trenton to Toronto. They care very deeply.
The funny thing is, even though there is more information on war than ever before, from books to movies, from YouTube videos to blogs, ignorance of the experience is as high as it’s ever been. This is where the modern veteran has an opportunity and a duty to speak if he can. It can be a minefield if you’re not careful, but if we don’t speak, our silence will be filled by someone else completely unequipped to pay proper tribute to the experience.
If you are asked or volunteer to speak, I will offer some careful words of advice. Ensure you educate and don’t alienate. You’re not speaking at the mess, you’re not recruiting, and you’re not glorifying. Believe it or not, one nameless and still-serving veteran opened up his presentation with YouTube videos of gun camera videos at an elementary school, and more or less treated the rest of the presentation like a group therapy session. I wasn’t there, but civilian friends of mine were and they were horrified. Think carefully, not just of what you will say, but what people will hear. This isn’t a time for politics, and nothing will drive Canadians away from their veterans faster than trying to bring politics into what should be a sombre occasion.
By all means speak of your experience and what it meant to you—the good, the bad, and the ugly—just stay in your lane and keep it personal. No one wants to hear yet another dude drone on like he’s reading from the Wikipedia page on the war. Tell them of the brotherhood, what got you through, what and who you are there to remember and honour. Stay away from the political or armchair-general breakdowns. I know it seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially if you start getting asked questions. Most people are genuinely curious, and in my experience, very few, if any, are intentionally disrespectful.
It is an honour and an opportunity to pay tribute to the ones who didn’t come back. To tell civilians of what the best of us are capable of. That real heroism still exists. It’s time for us to pick up the torch.
(Featured image courtesy of thestar.com)