November 11: Are we trying to remember or trying to forget?

Dad in the navy

My dad was a story-telling man who served in World War II, and who told no stories about the war. Save one. The topic of conversation was actually about how hard-hearted some people can be, and he was using the story as an example. When he finished, I understood a lot more about why he didn’t like to talk about the war.

The ship he was on had torpedoed a German vessel. As it sank, German sailors were in the water and the captain of Dad’s ship ordered that the lifeboats be lowered to pick the sailors up. They’d become prisoners of war. But as German sailors clung onto both sides of Dad’s life raft, a few of the crew in the lifeboat picked up their oars and, one-by-one, cracked them down so hard on the drowning men’s hands, their hands broke and they had to let go of the side.

It’s easy to be eloquent about the sacrifice of others, to talk about the emotions, heartfelt or proxy, as we gaze at the sepia photos of relations we were close to, and the ones we’ve never met.

It is useful to some to recite a poem like John McRae’s 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) as a political cradlesong to entrenched warfare, instead of the scream of anguish it most certainly was as one man buried another in the stinking trenches after the Battle of Ypres in 1915, only one year into the first world war, when there was still a sense that something more than a nightmare was at play.

It’s comforting to lose oneself in lip service on this day, a day where a particularly heady form of slacktivism promotes misty-eyed nostalgia. A day when history might deem it more appropriate for each of us to don an Opus-Dei inspired sackcloth to remember how malevolent human beings can be, on every side of the battlefield and in our own living rooms. But then, it’s a lot easier to memorialize the dead than it is to face how they ended up dead in the first place.

Because that might mean we need to face what really happened in the past and what is really happening today. And among the many war-related issues at hand is the Canadian government’s plan to bring to Canada 25,000 of the four million refugees fleeing their own Battle of Ypres.

It is an ambitious project to be sure. Yet the response to the government’s attempt to get this done before the end of the year is taking on, in some quarters, a malevolent hectoring—a double-dare, reality show quality where we, as spectators, exist to only to give a Cheeto’s dust covered thumbs up or thumbs down on the efforts of others.

Yet we have a chance to support the right thing here. According to iPolitics this morning, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said the Liberal government’s move to resettle Syrian refugees through humanitarian admission programmes by the end of 2015, “is a huge gesture of solidarity with the Syrian people and the countries neighbouring Syria … [who are] bearing the brunt of this crisis.”

Commemorating the war dead is easy. Facing our own hard-heartedness in the now is a much bigger effort.

 

Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, and is Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. She also writes about baseball and F1 racing.

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