Saturday, 6 November 2010

MEDALS and REMEMBRANCE


Another Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans' Day is here.

It is a chore anymore to polish all these medals and are they really necessary to wear on special days to make me contemplate not only the 125 cherished friends I lost but also the billions of innocents who have perished over the centuries because of man’s inhumanity to man?

I continue to attend these ceremonies honouring our dead and I continue to wear my medals even though few now recognize their meaning. But, more and more I feel like James Wolfe who had been deeply touched by Thomas Gray’s 1751 Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. In 1759 from his flagship in the St. Lawrence River he surveyed Quebec City with a sadness for what he was about to do. He admitted to his associates that he would much rather be the author of that poem than the general to take Quebec. Both he and the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm died in the battle, emphasizing in Gray’s poem the line "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

During WWI and for two years after WWII Canada authorized a golden wound stripe to be worn on the left sleeve of those who had been wounded in action, a similar recognition to the Purple Heart of the United States. As 17 small pieces of German shrapnel in March 1943 found a permanent home in the bones of a leg that happened to be mine, I wore this stripe for two years until the award was abolished so, today, I remain seated when they ask those with Purple Hearts to stand.

My satisfaction with myself for the small part I played in stopping aggression is tempered by the despicable means I had to use and the knowledge that those whom I was assigned to bomb into oblivion were not the perpetrators but also victims. The path to the perpetrators lay through decent people also caught up in a conflict not of their choosing. Circumstances delivered my penance. Shot down I was to meet hundreds of them and to be among them on over a score of occasions when we all, hungry, cold, and lousy, were bombed and strafed by Allied aircraft and artillery from a dozen nations.

So, I attend these remembrance ceremonies as a visible token of the stupidity of wars and in the hopes that we all learn to so conduct ourselves that our grandchildren will have no need to design ceremonies to honour the dead of recent wars.

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