In Remembrance, a Shared Identity

Written on November 6, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strøm-Olsen

This year, on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (more prosaically, next Tuesday), marks the 90th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought the Great War to a close. This is Remembrance (or Armistice or Poppy) Day, on which nations around the globe pause to pay homage to their soldiers who have been killed in conflict.

About a week before Remembrance Day, in Great Britain and many of her former colonies, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, large numbers of people suddenly start sporting on their lapels a bright red replica of a poppy, a practice that often sparks some confusion and incomprehension from foreign visitors. At first glance, it is perhaps an improbable gesture.

The reason, as most any schoolchild from the UK, Canada, Australia, etc… will be able to provide, derives from a 1915 poem written by John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian medic who fought in World War I. After witnessing the burial of a friend killed on the battlefield, he wrote a short poem whose first lines have become part of the lingua franca of Anglophone culture.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Ninety years on, the devastation of the Great War and even those of World War Two, are fading from living memory, preserved instead by the ritual and symbolism of McCrae’s poppy. It is an important national gesture. As Debra Marshall (“Making sense of remembrance,” Social & Cultural Geography, 5:1 (2004)) observes, “the wearing of poppies and the sight of war memorials garlanded with blood-red poppies every November is a reminder that remembrance is still a significant national ritual.” In Britain, more than 30 million poppies are sold each year; in Canada, I suspect the number, adjusted for population, is similar.

The carnage of both World Wars was epochal, laying waste to an entire generation. The gears of the Great War chewed through so much of the national soldiery that the women left behind formed what has been called the spinster-generation – women who never married because so many men of marriageable age had been slaughtered. As the event fades from a living to a ritualised memory, it becomes increasingly difficult to conceptualise the extent of this kind of destruction.

Commemoration helps. I can provide a personal example. The Montreal high school I attended was founded in 1908. About half the boys from its first graduating classes died in the Great War. Every year, my school holds a memorial service in which the names of these long-extinguished former students are read out. Mere names, yes, but it is an emotional and sombre experience, capable even of subduing (mostly) the misbehaviour and general rowdiness of hundreds of boys, in part because it inspires you to imagine half the faces you see around you simply disappearing.

VietnamveteransmemorialThe kind of small ceremony that we used to mount annually at my school is important – it helps reduce the monumental loss to a scale that is measurable and comprehensible. It has something of the same impact as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, which cannot be grasped by the visitor in its totality, but rather (as intended) as a vast sea of inscribed names in which only a few hundred are distinguishable from any given point; the sense of loss is overwhelming. The sobriety of such events or memorials that on Remembrance Day we pause to observe is certainly well earned for those who can make some kind of a connection to the event such as through the modest ceremony of the kind at my old school.

I have been in Toronto for much of the last month, and I am struck by the degree to which the city marks this ceremonial moment. That may seem an odd remark, but Toronto is a city like practically no other for its veritable goulash of ethnicities, races, identities, languages, and religions. Simply taking the subway in Toronto is a crash course in cross-cultural studies as hordes of people from all over the globe cram into the rail cars: Tamils, Greeks, Chinese and Vietnamese, Poles, Afghans, Portuguese and Lebanese, Jamaicans, Italians, Sikhs and Persians, Dominicans, Pathans, Mohawks and Letts, not to mention countless and bewildering cross-combinations. The Canada of perhaps 8 million people that went to war in 1914 and again in 1939 was clearly distinguishable: predominantly white, Protestant and English speaking (since French-speaking Quebec was exempted from conscription). The country of 33 million that looks back today is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic blur.

Yet look back we do. Immigrants to this country from all corners of the globe are just as likely to wear a poppy in their lapel as the white, Anglo-Saxon descendants of those generations who went off to fight and die, even though the commemorative stake of this symbol, from the perspective of a recent-arrival, is likely to be at best distant and in many cases simply non-existent. What makes, I wonder, the grandmother who grew up in the rural fields of China pin a red poppy on her lapel? What makes the recently arrived Algerian mother fix a red poppy onto the backpack of her child? Why do Canadians of Indian or Ukrainian or Brazilian descent mark the ceremonial moment of conflicts that this country fought, almost entirely, as a result of its umbilical connection to Great Britain?

In a post I wrote last year, I cited a column from the New York Times that described Barack Obama as a post-modern politician, a term intended to encapsulate the unlikely background of (I am very happy to say) America’s next president. Walking around Toronto, watching such an ethnically variegated nation collectively commemorate Remembrance Day, I wonder if this same description may be apt. Canada today is defined by people from all corners of the globe who have recently arrived and continue to arrive in this country. The wars that this country fought may not be their wars, the culture that this country represented then may not be the culture now, but the country has its ceremonies and it is their country. Even as Remembrance Day reflects fixed moments in the past, even if those moments are culturally and politically alien to so many of the people who live here now, Remembrance Day also exists in our changing present. For the majority of the people who live here, most of whom have lived as “Canadians” for no more than a generation and have no connection whatsoever with the wars and gravesites of the dead from two or three generations ago, for many of these Canadians nonetheless, the ritual of national memory is clearly important.

I take some heart in that. Canada’s war dead lie mostly under the fallows of Europe, under the sands of Normandy, under rebuilt houses in the Netherlands, under repaved streets in Germany and under fields in Belgium. Canada’s most moving and vivid war memorial is not in Toronto, nor in Montreal, nor in Ottawa, but 5,000 kilometres away in Ypres, a small Belgian town that most Canadians will never visit. These dead, who a century ago “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,” were felled by conflicts driven by shallow jingoism and ingrained national and ethnic hatred. So I take some heart in the fact that ninety years later, the impossibly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural plurality of modern Canada can look back to remember these men, collectively, as one nation, commemorating through ritual a past that, even if it is uncommon, can still be shared.


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