Remembering – Seventy Years On
A speech given at the Army Navy and Air Force Veterans’ Associaton (#283)
“The days of our age are threescore years and ten, or, if men be so strong, they may come to fourscore years; Yet is their pride but labour and sorrow: so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.”
– Psalm 90:vv.10 & 11 (Book of Common Prayer)
These lines, from the Bible’s Psalm 90, as translated by Miles Coverdale around 1540, are a delightfully archaic expression of the shortness and uncertainty of human life.
A “score” is the number twenty. Three score is sixty. “Three score years and ten” is, therefore, seventy years.
So this verse, when expressed in modern English, says, “human beings can usually expect to live seventy years, though some are strong enough to live to eighty,”
... and in this day and age, we might add, “to ninety and even one hundred.”
But seventy is still considered a normal lifetime.
And World War II ended seventy years ago – a lifetime ago.
There are still many people alive who can remember something of the last world war, but they are fewer and fewer. The day will soon be here when nobody is alive who remembers.
And yet, you and I know that it is exceedingly important to keep Remembrance Day going – even in an era when the world wars of the early twentieth Century are no longer a living memory for anyone.
This talk, therefore, is transitional. I want to examine what it is that we are doing on this day. What it is that we are noting, and celebrating, and remembering. And what it is that our children and grandchildren should continue to note and celebrate, even if they do not exactly “remember.”
It has been, at least for us here in Canada, seventy years of unbroken peace.
But in the world as a whole, these past seventy years have been continuously punctuated by brutality
– Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, and ISIS... the list of brutal conflict and misery is long, and depressing...
The primary hope of that first Armistice Day in 1918, was that the first World War would have been “the war to end all wars,” and (to quote the prophet Micah in the Bible) that people would “... beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” 1
Unfortunately, almost 100 years after 1918, that hope is still a distant dream.
Soldiers are still dying, or coming home disabled in mind or in body.
What may have changed on the world stage is that conflicts are no longer global, and they don’t involve massed armies.... No longer do thousands of young men jump wet and cold out of trenches, only to be butchered in a blasted and devastated no man’s land. No nuclear bombs have been dropped in military hostility in these last seventy years.
But war itself has not stopped.
It has, however, changed – it’s become smaller, more intimate, and it causes more civilian suffering than military.
A UNICEF website has this to say: “Modern warfare is often less a matter of confrontation between professional armies than one of grinding struggles between military and civilians in the same country, or between hostile groups of armed civilians. More and more wars are essentially low-intensity internal conflicts, and they are lasting longer.... Today, wars are fought from apartment windows and in the lanes of villages and suburbs, where distinctions between combatant and non-combatant quickly melt away. Civilian fatalities in wartime climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.” 2
And there are more displaced people in the world today (almost 60 million – twice the entire population of Canada) than there were at the end of WWII.
So, what exactly are we doing on this Remembrance Day? What exactly do we want our children to continue to do?
First of all, we must never forget that war is a terrible and terrifying thing, that should never be resorted to except in the face of palpable evil.
As well, I suggest that we can, and should, be thankful. Thankful that the last great brutal and global military conflict is now a lifetime ago.
And we can also be thankful that young men and women are still enlisting in the armed forces, offering themselves to help put an end to the brutality that continues to flare up all around the world.
We can be thankful for these seventy years of unbroken peace... even if it is only in this country and in a few other countries of the developed world.
And we can be thankful for the freedom that the citizens of this country have enjoyed throughout this seventy-year lifetime. A freedom bought by the dedication and willing self-sacrifice of military members, particularly in the horrifying global conflicts of WWI and WWII.
But we must also be careful when we speak about this hard-won freedom.
Yes, people gave their lives for our freedom... first and foremost, for our freedom from global conquest by an evil and totalitarian regime; freedom from having to live in constant fear of government agents, who might arrest you, or make you “disappear” just for expressing a political opinion opposed to that of the government; and best of all, this freedom:
in the recent Canadian General Election, no matter whether you voted Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green, or anything else, no one can deny that you, and I, and all other Canadians were free to choose whomever we wished to elect, and that we all were safe from goons and harassment at the polling stations.
That is what the soldiers, sailors and pilots fought and died for in WWII. And that is the privilege and luxury we have had for seventy peaceful years in this wonderful land.
But here I must inject a note of caution: The word “freedom” can be also be badly misused in the context of Remembrance Day.
I’m thinking of two recent public controversies: The niqab debate, 3 and the furore over the timing of Christmas decorations.
First, the niqab:
Some people who agree that a Muslim woman may veil her face during a citizenship ceremony, have argued that “our soldiers fought for her freedom to wear whatever she likes!” This is false.
Let me hasten to add that I personally can accept that a citizenship oath may legitimately be taken while wearing a veil, because Immigration officials have verified, before the ceremony begins, that the person under that veil is who she says she is. As well, in Canada we are a law-abiding people, and if the Courts have said it’s okay, then it’s okay. And, because under the present government that decision is unlikely to be appealed, then the matter is settled.
The freedom bought by our soldiers, sailors and airmen is not a licence to do whatever I like.
Similarly with the arguments currently raging about putting out Christmas home decorations and store displays before Remembrance Day. I have heard an argument by someone who decorates her home for Christmas as early as November 1, that the “freedom” to do so is “what our soldiers fought and died for.”
Decorations are a fairly silly and harmless thing, but it is not correct to say that people died so that we can do any old thing we like, whether with decorations or with niqabs, or with anything else.
Sometimes freedom means NOT doing whatever we like, in order to live in a courteous and respectful manner with our neighbours. In fact, we are free – and this is important – to give up our personal preferences in favour of the greater good of our community as a whole.
After all, isn’t that precisely what the young men and women signing up for active duty have done and continue to do? They are giving up their private lives, they are giving up comfort and ease, they are giving up doing whatever they like, in order to serve the community of Canada.
On Remembrance Day I honour the people who were willing to give up everything, so that you and I can live together peacefully and respectfully, and where we, too, willingly give up our own little preferences in order to ensure that this country remains a land of peace and harmony, freely choosing its leaders and obeying laws that have been fairly and democratically enacted.
I pray that the day may come when war itself shall be no more, and (to make reference to the Bible passage I read earlier), because swords are no longer available to be converted into ploughshares, then on that day, may armoured land vehicles be turned into combines, fighter jets into passenger aircraft, and battleships into cruise ships.
And in the meantime, I will be thankful for the men and women who sign up for military duty, giving up their own freedom, and risking their bodies and their sanity to protect friends, loved ones, and this peaceful country, from being overrun by the continued brutality of the human species.
© 2016, Tony Harwood-Jones
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1 Micah 4:3 – second part of the verse.
3 A niqab is a cloth that covers the face as a part of sartorial hijab in Islam. It is worn by some Muslim women in public areas and in front of men who are not their close relatives. See Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niqab (accessed 11 November, 2016). In 2015, a major controversy erupted in Canada, when a Musim woman sought the right to take her citizenship oath wearing a Niqab. See www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/10/09/woman-at-heart-of-niqab-debate-becomes-canadian-citizen.html (accessed 11 November, 2016)