Remembering in the right way

I’m not a fan of Remembrance Day. I have been presented with a lot of war propaganda in my short lifetime, and one of these sources is the Remembrance Day ceremony that I was subjected to every year in public school and high school. I say “subjected” because that is how I view it.

When I think of Remembrance Day, I think of duty, respect, and gratitude, concepts that I did not understand as a child, nor fully understand as an adult. During the ceremonies, my teachers and the speakers told me that I should be appreciative of the sacrifice that the veterans had made for me, that it was my duty to look at them, smile, and say, “Thank you” (in my head, of course). But to this day I struggle with the concepts of duty, respect, and gratitude because they do not seem palpable to me. How can I be dutiful, respectful, and grateful to people who I have never met or who have reportedly saved me from something I have never been aware of being saved from?

I am only aware that there are veterans around me on Remembrance Day. When the day is over, I know that they will put away their elegant starched uniforms and blend back into society. I see the veterans and hear the bagpipers. I try to focus on the duty, respect, and gratitude that I did not truly feel for them. Then I forget again.

However, my perspective on these concepts was altered when I took two whole English courses on war last winter. During those classes, I thought about war quite frequently as I explored various topics in WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War. The experiences I had while in these classes has motivated me to look at Remembrance Day more closely.

In particular, my exploration into war literature has encouraged me to question why society feels the need to make such fanfare of war. Why do we need the parade, the music, and the uniforms? Why do we need the fake flowers? I seriously doubt the significance of Remembrance Day. It fails to help me remember. But you know what does? Learning about war two days out of every week.

When I was in those classes, talking and listening about the conditions of the trenches, the letters the writers sent to their loved ones, the recorded memories of a friend who was killed, that was when I sensed that the concepts of duty, respect, and gratitude were becoming more tangible. This happened because I came to love these men through their words. I felt like a part of me could relate to and get to know them. Owen, Sassoon, Sorley, Powers; these men never stood before me with half of an armour plate of medals pinned to their jackets. They did not salute, lips pressed while music blared behind them. Most importantly, they did not disappear when the day was over. Instead they remain in my textbooks, my binder, and my brain.

I want to feel for all soldiers what I feel for these writers. And, while I sense that desire may be wishful thinking, maybe I will be able to at least use my experiences in the classes I took last winter to remind myself to look at the veterans and see them not as one-day-a-year heroes, solid in their stiff, clean uniforms, but as people who lived or who are living like me, dirty and breakable. Maybe then I can do my duty, go up to them, and say in a respectful and grateful tone, “Thank you.” 

Amber O’Brien
4A Arts