Today is Remembrance Day, if you're a Canadian-type person.
For a long time I had a sort of ambivalence towards Remembrance Day. Probably due, at least in part, to the fact that I grew up in a Mennonite (and thus pacifist) family. We didn't really emphasize war or fighting, and I don't have any descendants who served. Then in high school I was a pretty stubborn, "damn the man, save the empire" type youth who liked to be anti-establishment with my beliefs, which definitely played a part.
At our Remembrance Day assemblies in school, I felt little to no connection with the aged veterans who would come and sit at the front of the room. It all felt so far away. Yes, during the moment of silence I would feel some sense of sadness or honouring of the people who died, but their sacrifice seemed, honestly, like a given. Perhaps it's just because in a sense it was - it had happened, there was no longer any question of that. It was a part of history. I didn't see their turmoil, their question, or the circumstances that lead them to choose to enlist, nor the sadness or sacrifice in those they left behind.
Another factor were the movies, where war was often presented as a time of swing dancing, cool music, and smartly-dressed people swilling whiskey while they decided to get married or have sex for the first time. The men in the movies were confident about what they were doing, they weren't afraid or conflicted. They were young and cocky and their brides (or gals) expressed confident pride in their fellah's actions. Some of the men didn't come back, but of course that was part of the perfectly arced tragedy. It was a story.
Then, when I was in high school, the war in Afghanistan began. That's when I went to protests for peace and defiantly chose not to wear a poppy so as not to be part of the "war machine". I didn't wish ill of the troops, but considered them as more or less objects of sympathy. People who, for whatever reason, had life circumstances that made them think enlisting was their only option. People who believed they were doing good, and thus obviously had less independent thought than I did. I certainly wanted them all to come home alive, but I mostly wanted them all to come home, period.
After a while I grew up some, I realized that war is more complex than all of that. That people who served and fight deserve more than just my sympathy, and that being a cheeky brat about poppies was a) not changing anything and b) really insulting.
I also realized that my grandparents met in Ottawa, far away from their prairie homes, because they were giving alternative forms of service to the war effort. They were pacifists, so they didn't fight, but they didn't neglect their country in its time of need. My other grandpa actually tried to enlist but was rejected due to his eyesight.
That shook me enough to help me step back from my militant anti-military stance. I stopped spouting so much insensitive mumbo-jumbo and started being much more thoughtful around what Remembrance Day could actually mean. I still felt a strong disconnect from the wars of times gone by and my life now (or, rather, then), however.
The big change happened when I met some veterans. Just like how, upon attending university and making friends with gay people, I learned that they aren't all on the non-stop sextravaganza-bound-for-hell that my youth group had lead me to believe, I also learned that I couldn't really "type" those who chose to fight in the army, nor what military life was like.
First of all, it was a bit of a head trip for me to apply the term "veteran" to someone who wasn't over 80 years old. These guys are young, younger than me, in fact, and they are veterans of war. They went to Afghanistan, fought, and came home. Yikes. That's pretty huge.
The second thing I learned was that people who join the army are not all brainwashed goons who have no personality or subtlety of thought, and who are kind of unnecessarily aggressive all the time. These guys are funny, intelligent, and quippy. We bonded over a mutual love for Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and games nights, for Pete's sake!
The Canadian military is also not quite the brainwashed masses we hear about all the time, at least not the branches my friends were a part of. It was explained to me that everyone out there knows what their supervisor's objective is, as well as their supervisor's supervisor's objective, and so on up to four levels. They are supposed to follow orders, yes, but if the poo hits the fan and those orders don't apply to the situation anymore, they are supposed to use their brains and the knowledge they have of what's going on around them, and try to achieve that objective.
My third lesson was that there is a lot of variation in what it means to serve overseas. They aren't all running around with big guns shooting the bad guys, and maybe some innocents, in between high fives. There are a host of different jobs and positions a person can have and they are jobs that require skill and intelligence. They take a lot of training, and not just the jumping-through-tires-crawling-under-wires type, although that's important too.
The fourth thing I learned (and perhaps this war is different from WWI and WWII in this regard because of how the war is generally perceived in society) is that these guys aren't swashbuckling young so-and-so's who come back bragging of their exploits overseas. They rarely, if ever, discuss what they did or went through over there. I presume because they don't really want to. And, I'm sure in some cases, aren't allowed to.
Sure, apparently most young bucks who come back from the war think their uniform is a free pass to get some booty, and are quite let down then they realize it isn't so. I'm also sure that when they all get together the war stories get rolling, because it's a good thing to be with a group of people who have been through what you've been through and share your experiences.
I've heard relatively few stories from the war, and mostly what you might consider the "blooper reel" - you know, the time someone fell down a sand dune in full gear and looked like an idiot in front of some troop they wanted to impress or what-have-you. They don't use their daring exploits as fodder for parties, and I can only assume that's because they don't really want to. Or maybe because they know that a lot of people here aren't so into the whole "war stories" thing because there's a lot of people who aren't fans of this current war. Either people like me,or people like how I used to be. People who (and I am actually quoting someone I know here) think they should all go "fuck off an die." Yikes.
Which brings me to "the thing": when they came back, they needed support. They had some huge experiences that changed them and the way they saw the world. They needed to figure out how to have a life at home, how to get work, make new friends, and just how to live, in Canada.
Veterans need support. Whatever reason they went to fight, whatever state they come home in, they need help now and they need to know that their home nation doesn't think they're a bunch of jackasses who did something only worth feeling kind of sorry for.
I still believe in peace. I still want all those folk to come home because every single life lost is a tragedy, whether it's lost to the grave or because of an experience they can't recover from. Deep down, I feel there must be a better way, a better story that we can tell of humanity than killing each other.
I also now consider Remembrance Day and everything that goes along with it a part of that belief. Peace is about seeing people for who they really are, honouring that, and, if they need it, helping them. It's about doing your part, whatever that part is, to promote healing. It's not about banding together with people who share your views or making loud, protesty statements. That's what war is about.
So to any other pacifists out there who are unsure about participating in Remembrance Day, who want to wear white poppies or no poppies in protest, or who want to shout from the rooftops that war is not the way: today is not the day. Today is about people, and if you think all human life should be honoured, then spend today honouring every human life, including those who made different choices than you.