As we approach the 11th of November we remember with awe that it is now a century since on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the “War to End All Wars” came to an end. We remember the service and sacrifice of so many. A young Canada that sent more of its sons and daughters into uniform than even the United States as a percentage of population. We remember also the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on whose harrowing cliffs this young nation and diverse people found maturity.
We remember that the struggles and the heroism that came after as well. That our best progress as a people has always been realized when we shouldered our fair share of the burden to assure the survival and success of liberty. Whether on the beaches of Normandy, or in the chilling winters of Korea, or on the burning sands of the Sinai, or in the fetid marshes of the Balkans or the seemingly unconquerable landscapes of Afghanistan. Our proudest boast was that we were ready to meet the challenges of the open sea and were not content to rest smugly at harbor. If we fail to recognize those challenges from abroad today, we will inevitably continue to face the consequences of that failure at home, as we have learned so bitterly.
Too often in our smug, self-absorption we think that the world beyond our borders has little to do with us. We don’t feel it viscerally enough. Try to feel more this year. Strive for personal reflection on memory and witness. Strive to understand that it is the long, green line of our best and brightest that protects us from the destruction and devastation so much of the world has succumbed to. And at the same time that we celebrate courage and service and sacrifice, let us leave room in our hearts to empathize with the families and friends of the fallen whose hearts well up with feelings of despair. Try to help them with their cries and searing pain.
Our vets understand the importance of memory and witness. For that too is part of the soldier’s creed. So often they are the first to glimpse a preview of hell. And after the tears, and after the mourning, comes the awesome realization that despite the numbing questions of “Why did I survive?” and “What can I believe?” we must all strive forward. But that can only begin with remembrance. We must never cease speaking these truths clearly and candidly. It is important to tell it straight. For in an ungracious age, it is more important to be hard and relentless than genteel and unobtrusive.
But this week brings another searing memory. Particularly after Pittsburgh. Friday is the 80th commemoration of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken of Glass” — the Nazi pogrom against the Jews of Germany that resulted in the burning of some 150 synagogues, the destruction of thousands of Jewish-owned homes and businesses and the murder and maiming of over 10,000 Jews. It was the beginning of the Holocaust.
The juxtaposition of these days are metaphors for our time. They teach us that even amidst commemorations of victory and celebrations of courage, we need to be vigilant in our resolve that unspeakably evil events that require unfathomable pain to repulse, never recur again. Soldiers’ courage must always be accompanied by an engaged citizenry conscious of the responsibilities of freedom. A citizenry that is aware of the fragility of liberty.
The World Wars and the Cold War may be over, but the tactic that incited and sustained the enemies of freedom then—the tactic of the Big Lie—is still very much in evidence and in use today. That tactic perverts truth, radicalizes many to terror and nullifies the innocent. All is not right in this world. Yes, we should join in the commemorations of courage, but let us never forget that Kristallnacht did not start with bullets but with words.
The sonorous drumbeat of history goes on. And the antidote to the words of hate, of exclusiveness, of nullification is not more law. It is individual vigilance. Individual responsibility. Individual service and sacrifice to defend the just; promote the truth and eradicate evil. The words today may be more nuanced, more subtle, clothed in perverted legalisms, but they are just as deadly in their impact. The pendulum of history seems to rest too long — and in too many places — in the shattered glass strewn in the streets of Germany of 80 years ago and whose echoes were heard in Pittsburgh some ten days ago.
Let us lead our lives rejecting the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope that characterizes so much of our era. Let us reignite the sparks of the bold and the resolute and keep faith with those who swore allegiance to the civilized doctrines of man. Our testament to the fallen must be a dedication to never let justice be compromised by timidity, or honour be cheapened by expediency or promise mortgaged to avarice. That is the living remembrance we must manifest not just at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but all through each and every day we breathe.
In these Days of Drums, let us remember that it has been said that as each new day dawns we always have two choices. We can live from fear or we can live from courage. Therefore, choose courage.