Today is Rememberance Day. It commemerates the armistice signed between the Allied powers and Germany to end hostilities on the Western front of the First World War. The armistice came into effect on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" and so, each year at that time we (in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) observe two minutes of silence to remember those who have died in war.
From November 1 to November 11, many of us will wear a poppy as part of our rememberance. This tradition comes from a poem, written by a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, entitled "In Flanders Fields". The flowers grow there in fields that saw many of the worst battles of the First World War and their blood-red colour makes them an apt symbol of rememberance for those who have fallen. In Canada, this poem is always read during our Rememberance Day services, such as those I attended on occasion at the Legion Hall back in my home town. It is a powerful and touching poem.
The poem became even more powerful to me when I learned, as a teenager, that my great-uncle, my paternal grandfather's older brother, died in Flanders fields. My grandfather immigrated to Canada from Germany between the two wars and my great-uncle died in Flanders fields fighting in the German Imperial Army.
Learning this was the first time that the reality of war truly hit home. Not because I knew my great-uncle (obviously), but because it is so easy, when we think of wars, to think of our forces as "the good guys" and the enemies' forces as "the bad guys". But was my great-uncle a "bad guy"? I did not know him, but I knew his brother - my grandfather - perhaps one of the greatest, and humblest, men I have ever been priviledge to know.
When I learned this story, it taught me to remember something bigger on Rememberance Day than those who have died for my country. Rather, to remember the noble tragedy that is war. That those who died did so while fighting their brothers. That whenever we go to war, even when our cause is just, we go to war against our brothers and sisters. Protecting our brothers and sisters in our country is noble and we must remember those who gave their lives to do so. But their is no escaping the tragic reality that they are protecting us from people who are also our brothers, and killing and being killed to do so.
Soldiers from my country are currently killing and being killed in Afghanistan. Soldiers from my wife's country are there too, as well as in Iraq. We should stand by them, and for those who fall we must always remember them.
But as we shed our tears for them, let us also shed a tear for those, our brothers and sisters, who fall in fields without poppies or poems, who are now our "enemies", but are still our family.
Let us remember.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae