Afghan war gives Remembrance Day new context

First published:
Nov. 7, 2001

As residents from across Northumberland County gather at the various cenotaphs to pay their respects on Remembrance Day, it will be done under a unique set of circumstances. Unlike recent years, this one will take place with the dark cloud of war sitting on the horizon.

As silence falls at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – the exact moment the armistice came into effect to end World War I – the joint forces of the United States and Britain will continue their war against terrorism in Afghanistan with the full support of Canada.

But World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was the Great War, in which mankind learned its lessons. That is why we have marked this day since November 1919.

Since that time, Canadians have found themselves on the frontlines as military servicemen and women have fought in a number of major wars. In the First World War, 628,736 Canadians served.  Of those, 66,573 died and 138,166 were wounded. There were 2,818 people who were taken as prisoners of war and 175 merchant seamen died by enemy action.

In World War II 1,031,902 Canadian men and 49,963 Canadian women served. Of those, 44,927 died and 43,145 were wounded. There were 8,271 taken as prisoners of war and 1,146 merchant seamen died by enemy action.

In Korea 26,791 Canadians served, of which 516 died and 1,558 were wounded. There were 33 prisoners of war. And finally, in the Gulf War 3,837 Canadian men and 237 Canadian women served. Thankfully, there were no Canadian casualties or prisoners.

None of those figures include the Canadians who signed up with the American Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. Nor does it recognize those 125,000 people who served in peacekeeping missions, let alone those who are killed in the line of duty during peace times.

This Remembrance Day falls on a Sunday. Many people may find themselves at church or in some other kind of weekend activity. School children, who normally attend this event as part of class, will not be participating in the usual way. So it will be important for people to make a special effort to honour the event. Parents should bring children to the ceremonies. Those who do not have family or friends who are directly involved should also attend. Here is why.

This day is set aside for all Canadian to remember those people who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to assure us of our freedom and liberty. This happens each year. This Sunday will be different because we will also remember those who died in the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.

In thinking about these innocent victims, we are reminded that our world has drastically changed. We no longer live in a safe haven in North America, far from the unsettling threats of violence elsewhere in the world. We realize our vulnerability to terrorism. The simple act of opening an envelope has many people on edge. We hear a plane fly over and a pit forms in our stomach. We watch our American neighbours to the south as they face regular alerts warning of possible further terrorist attacks. We wonder if Canada will be next.

Remembrance Day is a means of demonstrating our respect for those that fought and died in war. It is a time to reflect on the privileges we enjoy because someone gave their life to protect ours.

It is also a time to contemplate the horrors of war. We must take a moment to picture what took place at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Normandy, Chail-li, among other battles involving Canadians. The loss of life is difficult to imagine for those who were not present.  Inside this solemn moment of thought we should wish never to repeat the past. At least that is the ideal.

We find ourselves far from our objective. Canadian naval officers set sail last month enroute to the Middle East to assist in the war on terrorism. So far, there has not been any loss of life. But certainly these brave men and women are in harm’s way. Soon they will be joined by an air force contingent.

We might also take a moment to think of the families left behind by our soldiers. These men, women and children bear a special burden during these tense times.

We cannot forget the faces of Afghan children who have suffered during the recent bombings over the past five weeks. We must also see in our mind’s eye, the terrified men and women who have fled the country to seek shelter in squalid refugee camps as they wait to see how fate plays out.

The suffering is immense.

All these images – warriors, battles, innocent victims, the dead, family and friends – become the pieces of a quilt sitting on our experience. We should think about the pattern and remember the lessons learned. Lest we forget.

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