Lest We Forget

Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

from “In Flanders fields,” John McRae

I was twenty-five years old before I heard of Remembrance Day.

It came up when I was teaching Canadian history, and my colleague Jill told me in passing that she’d ordered the poppies for this year’s observance.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“For Remembrance Day,” Jill replied.

“For… what poppies?”

She then explained that since I was new she thought I probably wouldn’t know that the Canadian Legion would gladly send poppy pins to Canadians living abroad, which they would then wear for the week leading up to Remembrance Day, their observance of the European Armistice Day, which recognized the end of World War I. A few weeks later, she produced an envelope full of red and black poppies, to be affixed with long, curiously bent silver pins.

This first Remembrance Day led me deep into research regarding history of this holiday and the typical observance of it. I was eager to teach my students what it meant to be Canadian, and this was clearly an important part of it. That whole year, actually, I came to realize that World War I held an important place in the imaginations and memories of Canadians and Europeans, who traditionally pause for one minute at 11:00 AM, as the fighting ceased at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Even those ten Canadian high school students, who’d mostly grown up outside of Canada, could tell me of the causes, effects and key moments of the Great War, at least as it pertained to Canadians. I got the sense that they’d been hearing these stories all their lives, playing with these poppy pins during assemblies and reciting John McRae’s “In Flanders Fields” the way our elementary kids know the Pledge of Allegiance. As a child, I wouldn’t have known that World War I happened at all if not for its more American-famous sequel, World War II.

As we approach Remembrance Day, observed as Veterans’ Day in America, I’m struck by the different approaches to remembering. Americans honor soldiers, living and dead, those individuals who have spent their lives working to serve and protect their country. While this in itself is a worthy goal, we miss the commemoration of the event itself, the Great War whose end Canadians and Europeans mark each year on November 11. The oft-repeated “Lest We Forget,” slogan of Remembrance and Armistice Day, is as much about the war as the people who fought it, reminding themselves of the circumstances that dragged the world into conflict a hundred years ago.

That remembering is crucial, spending time each year acknowledging this dark chapter of history lest, as the saying goes, we’re doomed to repeat it. I’m hardly the first, this week or this year, to note the toxic nationalism that has crept back into the West, the poison of prejudice and suspicion deepening divisions, both within our nation and against those around us. We have to remember—have to know this story to begin with—to recognize the danger.

A few days before Veterans’ Day, as Luci and I share our almost-daily appointment with construction paper, scissors and glue, I make a dozen paper poppies to hang over our fireplace. She asks me what they’re for, and I tell her about “a sad time” that ended a hundred years ago, as if a hundred years means anything when you haven’t yet lived three. Next year she’ll ask more questions, and even more the year after that. And every year, I’ll seek the words to remember well, to pass on the knowledge that both honors those soldiers who’ve served and stands as a warning to us who survive because of them. Grateful for their sacrifice, we honor them best when we look back at the past with clear eyes, telling even the sad stories, then work to write a better one for our children in years to come.

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