It was a century ago that “The war to end all wars” came to an end …
Squeezed between the ghoulish craziness that has become Halloween, and the commercial frenzy that is Christmas, sits our annual effort to remember those who put themselves on the line for the freedoms we take for granted today. This year is particularly significant, as it was 100 years ago this November 11th that the Armistice to end World War I was signed and the ritual of “Remembrance Day” began. This is an event worthy of pondering in this day and age of populist politics that are disrupting the international status quo, and that are pandering to the same intolerance that emerged after World War I. Isolation, xenophobia, racism and disparity were on the rise prior to World War II, as they are today.
Millions of Canadians have answered the call to serve, with well over 100,000 of these citizen soldiers never returning home from World War I and II and the Korean conflict. Over 125,000 Canadians have served in peacekeeping missions in more than 35 countries, while approximately 130 died in these efforts overseas. Tens of thousands of Canadians signed up to fight wars in Spain and Vietnam without recognition by our government, to do what they thought was right. In this century, thousands of part- and full-time members of the Canadian military were deployed in the lengthy engagement in Afghanistan, with over 150 of them being killed in that conflict. Currently we have hundreds of troops in the Baltic states keeping an eye on Mr. Putin, hundreds stationed in Mali trying to maintain some shred of stability in sub-Sahara Africa and ships stationed off of Somalia fighting piracy. We are lucky in that we have not known conflict at home since the war of 1812, but we have sent our military all over the world to execute our national will.
Every year millions of veterans, students and citizens assemble to commemorate Remembrance Day. This solemn event is replicated coast to coast; at cenotaphs, in school gymnasiums, at grand monuments and in the hundreds of cemeteries where Canada’s fallen are interred. In Canada alone the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 2,855 cemeteries where one or more members of our armed forces are buried. In France, there are 39,708 headstones remembering our soldiers who died in World War I alone – some on their own surrounded by other Commonwealth graves, others in huge numbers like the 11,153 in and around the Vimy Memorial. Tens of thousands of other Canadian soldiers lie in cemeteries in many countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Korea, Hong Kong and even South Africa.
In spite of the gap in time and distance that continues to exist between these global conflicts and the here and now, Canadians seem to be embracing the need to pause and reflect on the kind of Canada we enjoy today. Though we have committed our military to most major conflicts over the last century, our young people have fought elsewhere, permitting the rest of us to live in peace even during these wars. More and more of us are starting to recognize how fortunate we are relative to so many others, and to acknowledge that this privileged position came at a cost.
It was a century ago that the “war to end all wars” came to an end, at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, yet the world has not known a peaceful moment since then. Observing some patterns today it seems history may be doomed to repeat itself: when our media is littered with hateful rhetoric, when fascism is on the rise, when fundamental principles of democracy are threatened by those who claim to lead.
Perhaps now it is more important than ever to remember those who fought against these very trends and who made the ultimate sacrifice while so doing.