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Marking Remembrance Day so we don’t forget how bad it got

Hundreds of Canadian soldiers have died in latter-day missions, whether of true peacekeeping or in the likes of Afghanistan. While Remembrance Day looks to encompass military personnel and veterans of such forays, November 11 is largely associated with wars from the first half of the last century, the epic struggles of the First World War and World War II and, a little later, the Korean War.

Even the most recent is now an event that ended 66 years ago. Little wonder, then, that it’s more work today to keep the younger generations attuned to the meaning of Remembrance Day: the farther removed we get from the wars themselves, the fewer of us there are with firsthand experience. Local ceremonies to be held on Sunday serve to both commemorate the fallen and to draw attention to the issues.

Come Monday, we’ll be prompted to take heed of the sacrifices of war. Ideally, we’ll remember not to go down that road again, though the species has show a very resilient ability to do all kinds of horrendous things and to come up with new ways of doing them. We never seem to tire of putting on display the worst of humanity.

Remembrance Day goes beyond recalling the valour of those who served – many of whom made the supreme sacrifice – in Canada’s wars. As well, the observance should make us think about the consequences and horrors of war, which are being waged at this very moment.

To be sure, Remembrance Day is indelibly linked to the great wars, those almost unthinkable battles that engulfed the planet in the last century – for those of us fortunate enough to have avoided that experience, looking back on those times is an eye-opening revelation: it’s difficult to imagine the scale, so much more encompassing than the likes of the occupation of Afghanistan, which take place on the periphery.

Images from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the seemingly endless stream of small-scale wars around the globe are commonplace. Most of us have tuned them out. They exist almost exclusively as background noise. Unlike the big wars, there’s no impact on our daily lives. It was a different story for those who lived through world wars: just ask them about the rationing, the shortages and host of other sacrifices that, while small in comparison to the hell experienced in the battlegrounds themselves, were regular reminders of what was going on overseas.

Under those circumstances, it’s important to reflect on the consequences of war – the very thing Remembrance Day embodies.

The increased awareness of such issues may, in fact, account for greater attendance at events, and higher poppy sales, reported across the country. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, which capped a slew of First World War centennial occasions, and reminds us that the ill-fated events following that war set the stage for the horrific events that would begin 20 years later.

Some 628,000 Canadians took part in the War to End all Wars. More than 10 per cent – 66,000 – never returned. In the Second World War, which quickly gave lie to the label on the First, more than a million answered the call, and 45,000 paid the ultimate price.

The sad truth is there are fewer and fewer people around who can give us a firsthand account of life during wartime – it has been 74 years since the end of WWII, and 101 years since Armistice Day ended the Great War. That many of us have never experienced such horrors is a welcome relief, but it is then all the more important that we make the effort to remember lest we be doomed to repeat past mistakes.

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