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War And Remembrance

by Maureen Stephenson

Today, just like every other Nov. 11th, there is a Remembrance Day ceremony downtown. It’s usually a sparse gathering of brave souls huddled against the damp, cold winds blowing off the harbour. Each year, the ranks of aging veterans have grown smaller here in Victoria and elsewhere.

But this morning, people have converged on the memorial from every direction. All around the legislative buildings, streets are closed to traffic. There’s no parking for blocks. A huge crowd has gathered around the cenotaph and spreads over the lawns and up the stone steps of the buildings.

Until the navy band begins the anthem, the atmosphere is almost festive. People carry umbrellas and skateboards. They trot behind baby buggies and dogs on leashes. Children are hoisted on shoulders to see the uniformed ranks drilled across the lawns. Close to the memorial, people press in tight. Old men with medals pinned to their jackets sit on folding chairs. A Mountie stands with his red sleeves crossed, his face hidden by the tilted brim of his hat.

Everyone sings O Canada, dutifully following the dirge-like tempo of the band. When the song is finally over, a disembodied voice echoes around the crowd through the loudspeakers set up on the grass: someone recites scripture about a time when nations will not war. There must be people in the crowd from every faith, but the service sticks to traditional Christian prayers.

I can see only the shapes of those close beside me. Overhead, the bronze soldier with his rifle and bayonet is poised against the sky. Directly in front of me are two young recruits from nearby Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. They wear civilian clothes but their military haircuts give them away. It’s November 2002 and ships have been leaving the base, heading for a war against terrorism. It’s difficult to tell how far away this war really is. Here on Vancouver Island, we’re accustomed to a slight isolation and insulation from the rest of the world.

Victoria is no metropolis. The city follows the ebb and flow of the tourists, who come for the gardens and the natural scenery. At this time of year, when the days are dark at 4 p.m. and the sidewalks are slippery with sodden leaves, most of the visitors have gone. In the gardens, the blossoms and seeds fold back under the spongy earth. Life seems to shrink. We retreat indoors where the world takes on the dimensions of a television screen. Like a stone dropped in the sea, the unfolding acts of war in another place send out ripples that make a wave, even here.

A trumpeter begins the Last Post and everyone grows silent. The final melancholy note is left hanging high in the air. Above our heads the flag is slowly lowered. In the two minutes that follow, the only sounds are the treble voices of children and fussing babies, and the cries of the gulls.

How confined we all seem, and how vulnerable; hope for our collective lot left hanging in the air. A small woman next to me, who looks to be from El Salvador or Guatemala, is quietly crying. There are probably many in this crowd who came to Victoria carrying their memories of war and searching for a certain peace. In a gathering like this, you have to think about how you’re lucky to be alive. You think about the ones who aren’t. And wherever people gather, there is the spectre of the mad bomber, the zealot bringing death in our midst. We learn once again that peace, though possible, is never certain.

The cannon begins firing its salute, sending a flock of pigeons fluttering high into the air. With each explosion you can see the smoke rising before hearing the boom. A soldier from World War I once wrote about standing on Vimy Ridge and seeing the flash of gunfire below before hearing the shots.

My grandfather, Arthur Abbott, was only 16 when he left his home in Chorley, England, to join the Great War. He fought in an infantry regiment, surviving the bloody battles at Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. When the war was over, he left the old country for Canada’s West Coast, where he created an ordered life, raising a family and working for the post office.

Grandpa suffered for the rest of his life from bad circulation in his legs, apparently as a result of the constricting puttees that were part of his army uniform. But he was contented, hobbling over the beach collecting firewood in the mornings; putting the aluminum boat in the water at dusk to catch the evening bite.

He had a bayonet just like the bronze soldier. It was thrown in his tool shed along with the shovels and pitchforks. My brother and I wished he would tell us about that bayonet: stories of adventure and daring. But like so many of those surviving soldiers, he never spoke of the war.

I wonder what he thought about his firstborn son joining up for WW II. Maybe Grandpa advised him it was better to choose the sky over the mud. My Dad, Robert, enlisted in the air force and ended up stationed at Alliford Bay in the Queen Charlotte Islands. His war experience was very different from that of his father’s. He worked as a mechanic on the Stranraer spotting planes that patrolled the northwest coast looking for incendiary balloons. The balloons, sent from Japan, were meant to ignite forest fires in North America and create panic in the general population. Luckily, few of the devices reached their destination, but authorities at the time recognized the destabilizing effects of a fearful public and actively censored information about the balloons.

It’s easy to imagine how quickly fear creates a whole new atmosphere. A whole year after Sept. 11th, 2001, my neighbour–like many others–still had a heightened sense of danger. He told me he’s not letting his kids eat their Halloween candy until a few weeks have passed and any anthrax contaminations have surfaced.

I wonder who will be the best leaders these days, the ones who will speak what we need to hear. We are not children who’ll be happy with an adventure story that skirts the truth. Big guns and cowboy heroes will never be enough for us now. Will we listen to voices out of the past? Martin Luther King said: “We must learn to live as brothers, or we will perish as fools.” Mahatma Ghandi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We know the world is finally too small for a war like the old ones.

A command is shouted, followed by the sound of many feet slapping the concrete. Through the crowd I can glimpse the uniforms filing by. There is an unearthly gathering of sound, like giants sighing, and a bagpiper begins a lament. We are caught up in the drone and wail and then abruptly left in silence, the life of the song suddenly cut off. I’ve heard that during WW I, the German soldiers referred to the Scottish regiments as the Ladies from Hell, so terrifying were the sound and sight of the men in kilts. Countries fight with what they’ve got: bagpipes, bayonets and rifles, or missiles.

In WW II, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima presented modern technology to the world, changing everything. Technology has since shown us that from outer space the Earth looks like a living, pulsing organism. Modern science reveals that our very bodies are collections of communities of organisms, all containing the common threads of shared life. No matter what abstractions we come to love, we are clearly part of nature’s great web. We can’t fight in the old ways anymore. Our survival as a species depends on solidarity on a global scale. We can only effectively fight the reckless and the insane with caution and reason.

The Remembrance Day crowd gradually drifts away. The younger ones help the old folks, taking them by the elbow and guiding them into waiting cars. I climb on the bus and we roll through town. The driver is on his last shift of the day and he’s heading for the terminal like a horse to the barn. For the moment, all of us riders are content with the simple pleasure of being warm and moving. Alive.

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