Today was Remembrance Day in Canada. Officially it commemorates the ending of hostilities in World War One, also called the Great War. Very few people from that time period are still alive today, and the impact of that event on the world is fading. We have to read a history of it to comprehend how terrible it was — over 8 million soldier deaths, and up to 100 million associated deaths, including the infamous ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918 that originated in an American military facility. It spread around the world quickly through troop movements and public events like the Liberty Loans Parade held in Philadelphia to promote war bonds (an outbreak from that event killed 12,000 people alone). As bad as our current pandemic is today, I don’t think we can in any way understand what the world went through during that time.
For a lot of Baby Boomers, World War Two has more presence in our consciousness. My mom was a nurse in Europe during the war, and some of her stories of holding her post in a surgical theatre while bombs were falling are hair-raising. Even though both my parents survived the war, it’s impact never left them, whether via deep emotional scars or medical fallout from food rationing and years of stress. My dad never talked about the war much; his outlet was to write novels about it, which I suspect weren’t entirely fictional, but I imagine it was easier to write as if it all happened to someone else.
And of course there have been veterans of many more conflicts, localized but just as terrible to go through. I have a friend who served as a Peacekeeper for a time; what little he’s told me about it sounds traumatic in a way that those of us back home will hopefully never experience.
The poem written by Dr. John McCrae after a friend of his was killed in the trenches in Belgium during the spring of 1915, less than a year into WWI, has become an icon of that first global battle. In Flanders Fields is deeply moving, as the dead who sacrificed everything to preserve freedom ask us to carry the torch they’ve passed through generation after generation.
Today we’re engaged in our own global battle, even if it hasn’t been given a name. We live in a world of amazing technological and medical advancements, but we’re still fighting greed, selfishness and prejudice — governments and corporations that are destroying the environment for profit, people who put their own desires over the greater need to prevent COVID from causing many more deaths, and people who treat badly anyone different from themselves.
So we carry the torch, continuing the fight against fear, ignorance and oppression a century later. We can’t let our lives be defined by fear, whether it’s of a viewpoint or way of life that’s different from ours, or of an incredible medical advancement that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccinated against the most devastating disease of the 21st century to date, or of doing the right thing, even when it’s challenging. Take up the torch, each of you, and let’s continue the fight to make the world a better place. Together, we can do it.
Lest we forget!