When I was in Washington, D.C. a couple of weekends ago for a conference, I had the pleasure of doing an impromptu monument walk at night with some friends. As typical tourists, we saw the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Second World War Memorial. By the time we arrived at the latter two places it was already dark, which only made the haunting effect of its beauty and history that much more chilling. Perhaps one of the most moving experiences I’ve had was walking around the ovular Second World War Memorial at night, trying to understand the immensity of the losses faced, and feeling absolutely daunted and humbled by the terror and the sadness that this beautiful, sacred place held. While this was an American monument, I couldn’t help but recall days spent studying the World Wars in my Canadian history class, trips to war museums and memorials in Ottawa, and hearing stories of friends, family members, and teachers about their connection to these great world tragedies.
While we walked a friend of mine and I agreed that we were both partial to memorials over monuments. If monuments are all about bravery, heroism, and success then memorials are all about grieving, sacrifice, and vulnerability.
When I think about moving forward on Remembrance Day, it is not the characteristics of the monuments that capture me, but rather those of the memorials. History and remembrance to me is not about celebrating our triumphs: I feel that we do that enough, and the construction of our national identity seems to focus largely on the good. Rather, Remembrance Day is a time of lessons.
But what can we learn? We can learn the value of diplomacy through examining the staggering repercussions when it fails. We can learn about the hardships of war not through examining medals and commendations, but rather through remembering those who fell in the fight, particularly those who were as young as, and younger than, me at age 18.
In my favourite poem by Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History”, he laments that history is often constructed around great men and great conquests, while the people who were the building blocks of success and defeat are often ignored. There are “so many particulars, so many questions” because there is so much forgotten. When it comes to moving forward, I believe that Canada – our diplomatic service, our military and our people – need to examine particulars and ask questions, not just in the past, but in the present.
Canada’s declining role as a peacekeeper, mediator, and global diplomatic leader under the Harper government is a loss that most Canadians do not fully realize the significance of. The horrors of war, of genocide, and of cruelty are far from gone in our world, and if we truly care about remembering the past we have to show that we have learnt from it. Wearing a red poppy for a couple of weeks in November is not enough. Our moment of silence has turned into years of silence on the international stage, of irrelevance, of apathy. I truly believe that Canadian Pearsonian diplomacy was the perfect example of what it means to be Canadian internationally. Somewhere along the way the Conservative Party has lost that – we as Canadians have lost that.
This Remembrance Day I will not just mourn the struggles of our soldiers long since fallen, I will mourn the misuse of our country’s resources today and our lack of particulars and questions.