This year was different. How could it be otherwise.
As a nation gathered to renew again our pledge never to forget their service and sacrifice, this year is different.
We gathered as a nation around the monument, as before. Words were spoken, ceremonies performed, and silence observed, as before. But this year was different.
Yes, this was the first time we could see armed snipers on rooftops. But it was more than that.
We saw it in the cheers erupting from our usually stoic Canadian crowd. In the atypical civic pride as we added our voices to the national anthem. It was seen in the CF-18 fly-past, reminding us that even now, our forces are far away, reducing genocidal cowards to a fine red mist.
The soldier interred in our War Memorial’s base — his name known only to God — fell in battle a century ago. This alone might be enough for our secular nation to hold this site as sacred. But with recent events, the meaning is heightened. Short steps from the tomb is the spot where the honour guard joined the ranks of the fallen.
Instantly, that shifted from a place where far-away sacrifices are merely remembered. It become one where sacrifices had actually been made.
This year’s difference? We are resolute. With Parliament’s bullet-holes still fresh, national sentiment is at high tide. We have always said we will never forget. This year — for the moment — we mean it. This raises questions as relevant to my American readers as my Canuck neighbours.
We’ve pledged to remember our veterans properly. How do we do it? How can we honour their sacrifice?
First, is the retelling of their story. So far, we’ve done pretty well at this. We’ve recorded their names. Preserved their letters. Poems and songs are written in their honour. Poppies are worn. Ceremonies are performed.
In my own church, scant blocks away from that same monument, we observed a moment of silence. The walls record the names of dozens of parishioners. They died in uniform, far away, in the two World Wars.
But however good our intentions are of personally remembering each name, it just doesn’t work that way. The pain of our losses becomes blunted over time. Memory of past events — however significant, gets crowded out by other things.
We know this is true. We’ve seen it ourselves. How passionate were we after 9/11? And a year later? A decade later? We’ve since come to a place where we’re unwilling to even say the word “terrorist” anymore. It’s been sanitized and downgraded to “militant”.
For whatever reason, horrible events lose their sting over time. We get distracted. We forget. Individual tragedy or loss, is not remembered very well. But there are other things that we can remember.
We are better at remembering concepts, and ideals. When marking such anniversaries, it’s easier to identify with “Valour”, “Self-Sacrifice”, “Courage”, “Honour” than the individual names of soldiers and conflicts.
This is why it is good to have ceremonies for commemorating such events. But there is another way we can give due honour to their memories.
None of them died with the objective of just dying. They gave their lives in the service of some great ideal they believed in. In today’s world of (dys)functional moral relativism, some still believe in virtue. More than that, these veterans pledged to defend it with their lives. Virtues like the ones we just listed: Honour, Courage, Self-Sacrifice.
As noble as they are, even these virtues don’t stand alone. Pledged to service of the wrong cause, even great courage or self-sacrifice can become treacherous. (History does not remember Genghis Kahn, for example, mainly for his courage.) Virtues become truly great when employed in the service of things like Justice, or Freedom.
So how do we keep our pledge to remember?
First: Look at the virtues they thought worth living for: Honour, Valour, Courage, Sacrifice — and pass those virtues to the generations that follow. Embrace them ourselves. Teach them to others.
Second: Link those virtues to great causes, both in ourselves, and the minds of others. Reject the shallow Celebrity worship of today’s pop culture. Save your praise for people who live for something greater than themselves. Equip our children to truly understand Kennedy’s idea: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
If they died defending virtue, let us honour them by perpetuating those values in the generations that follow.