Thoughts of a Pacifist on Remembrance Day

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The bagpipes lead the crowd of several hundred to the cenotaph for the wreath laying. Children are shushed, hoods pulled over ears as the zero degree temperatures cause minds to entertain indoor coffee options by the fire. But for a half hour wreathes are placed in honour of those from this area that lost their lives in battle. A wise-for-his- years middle schooler poet reads his Remembrance Day poem and thanks those who have given their lives for our freedom. Tears frost in the corner of my eyes, as I feel the pain of mothers who have lost sons; these lost in combat.

While a high school student reads In Flanders Fields, I stumble on the challenge, to Take up the quarrel with the foe. Haven’t enough quarrels been taken up, and passed on? Who is our foe? (My mind asks if it could be faux pas on our part?) The very definition of foe keeps changing, as the nature of conflict is revised. Philosophical debates about war are easy, when battle zones are far removed. Daily the media gives images of some foe that brings terror to peace; all viewed from the comfort of my armchair, with a remote to help keep it removed from my life.IMG_6765

Two years ago I visited the American Battle monument in Carthage, on North African soil. I had no idea that 2, 841 soldiers were buried there, row on row. Overwhelmed I viewed the white crosses, while my heart sighed a collective sorrow for all the mothers grieving the loss of these sons. I wonder if this generation of mothers wants to take up the quarrel with the foe? Or is the foe the idea that peace cannot be achieved without war? I am not a militant activist or pacifist, but I wonder about the high cost of conflict.

And the possibility of peace, especially as we begin the season of Peace on earth, Goodwill towards men.  Oh that it would be so. How does the song line go?

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

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A Pacifist at Remembrance Day

imagesThe Pacifist at a Remembrance Day Ceremony

For once she arrived on time to an already packed out gym, standing room only as hundreds of townsfolk came to the Remembrance Day service; not a poppy-less coat in the crowd, thanks to the young girl guides handing out programs and poppies, camouflage garb mixed with the stiff jodhpurs of the RCMP.

Her Mennonite hometown never had this large a turn out. Apparently Mennonites don’t dance and they don’t go to war. …  Only after my father had died, I found out that he had wanted to join the Canadian Air Force as a young man during the Second World War. His father would have none of it, as the church did not allow for going to war; it believed in the call to peace. And in a not so peaceful manner my father fought with his father, but obeyed. Very likely the departure of a dream.  Because conscription was the law, my father was given the option to become a conscientious objector (CO) and was assigned to work at the CO camp at Clear Lake Mb. Many Mennonite boys were allowed to stay at home and continued to work in the farms, a few defied their churches and signed up to become soldiers for Canada’s army, experiencing the rejection of their communities for their choice.

This day she came as an observer, to honour those who had died for her country’s freedom. “Freedom is not free,” she heard. Veterans of any war were asked to stand, she quickly tried to count the number, at least eighty, possibly a hundred. The bag-pipe and drum band led the procession of young cadets, aging vets, and current military recruits. Next to the men in kilts, white plumed hats and elegant capes bobbed, representing the British pomp and ceremony.

John Cotton who had fought in the Korean War, spoke with the authority and cadence of  a BBC radio announcer as he told his story …. “the Chinese came over the crest, wave after wave of men—I had never seen so many men. We engaged them we cut them down, they retreated we advanced,” words devoid of emotion, “our grenades were better than their grenades. We kept our machine guns going until they became so hot, we had to change the barrels … round after round. They outnumbered us seven to one, but we cut them down.” He did not glorify the war, he did not justify it, he gave us his description in neutral blood free terms. The war was fought sixty years ago, and he remembers it every day, and his final strong words to the crowd: “I shall never forget these men as long as I live, and I hope to God you won’t forget either.”

A processional led the throng down the hill to the town’s cenotaph, for the 11 am silence,  followed by the laying down of the wreaths. Two red and white planes circled overhead. The observers were invited to add their poppies to the wreaths. She waited her turn. Two young cadets stood in position, at either side of the cenotaph, large rifles pointed down, their eyes fixed above the crowd. She had lost a son the age of these recruits, and she knew the pain. She may be a pacifist, but she recognized the sacrifice others had made.

The sad reality hit her—many of the casualties of war are still alive.