As we enter Veterans’ Week we remember them all. From Vimy Ridge to Normandy. From the Korean hilltops to the sands of the Sinai. From the fetid marshes of the Balkans to the bomb-laden roads of Afghanistan. We remember the legacy of the best of us. The legacy of the bold and the brave. But sometimes, one story mirrors the memory and witness of all.
John Gallagher, once served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He left Canada at the end of April 2015 to fight alongside Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. He then travelled over the border into Syria in July, to take up arms with the Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Some ten days later he was killed in a firefight with ISIS.
But John Gallagher wasn’t just a fighter. He was also a writer. He kept a journal because he wanted all Canadians to understand why he did what he did and the importance of this country being involved in mankind’s struggles for redemptive change. The following is his last entry.
“Our war is not just about theocracy; it is between those who still believe in the enlightenment, that self-determination is the most basic and most crucial of all human rights, that the first duty of every man in society is to defend the mechanisms by which we make ourselves free; and those who ultimately lack the capacity to believe in anything. To teach young people anything different is a criminal act of intellectual violence.”
“A criminal act of intellectual violence.” Amen!
In this millennium Canada has lost more of its bravest and boldest in foreign fields than it has in a long time. As we remember — and pay tribute to — those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, we need to reflect on exactly what that sacrifice was for. What is at stake when a horrible evil is loose in the world and must be subdued. How our fate is tied up with others around the globe fighting the same fight. Gallagher understood. He understood that 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 week and this year. Strive for personal reflection on memory and witness.
Strive to share the sentiments of so many veterans. And remember their mixed emotions as they recall the courage and the sacrifice of their brothers and sisters.
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. Join them at Remembrance ceremonies taking part all over our communities from this weekend through Monday’s Remembrance Day.
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.
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.
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.
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.