IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
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.
I memorized the poem, many years ago, as I'm sure you did. It is a ritual of Canadian childhood. While achieving acclaim in America, it never become indelible in the American mind. Through out the Empire and Commonwealth it achieved iconic status, spurring the creation of the poppy campaigns seen every November. The poppy somewhat confuses Americans. For the Chinese it has other connotations.
The reading of the poem, the solemn viewing of grainy film, the occasional visit by an aged veteran - in my case a Canadian participant in the Great Escape - is part of the catechism of Canadianism. Why did they die? For freedom. Why did they suffer? For Canada.
It was all a very earnest attempt, by ernest teachers, to impart, as best they could, the nature of a war few of them experienced. They - unlike most of us - knew someone who was there. An uncle, a father, a grandfather. The names chiselled on walls that were only names to us, were to them family names and off-tint photographs.
To most of us, the students, the ritual, however much we wanted to feel what we were suppose to feel, was largely empty. There can be no places further apart, in mind and feel, than Flanders in 1917 and Canada today. We were much too lucky to understand. There was no personal connection. The odd student had escaped from a far away war-torn country, but was often too young to recall or understand. Most our families had not fought in the war. Our ancestors were buried elsewhere and for other reasons.
The war became real to me, as far as it can to someone like me, when attending the University of Toronto. It was the same school that John McCrae attended, more than a century before me. His name is inscribed near Soldiers' Tower. The names that had been inscribed at my elementary school were names from along ago, from people who were adults. They were two steps removed.
The names at Soldiers' Tower had been my age. They had walked the same halls. The difference between myself and them was only the accident of time. Most of the names were those of officers. In addition to all the burdens of war, these early twenty-somethings had the burdens of command. Imagine yourself at that age, trying not only to survive but to lead others into life and death. Only chance separated myself and them, as it had separated the survivors and those on the wall.
For all our secularism, and professed multiculturalism, we are still at root a Christian country. Except in the very early years of Canada there has always been, at least in English Canada, a fairly strict separation of church and state. The rhythms of our culture, as of most Western literature and art, however are Christian.
When the word sacrifice is used in remembrance ceremonies its origin, and echo, is Christian. It is Christ on the Cross. Just as He suffered for us, they the soldiers suffered for us. To the believer, then, November 11th has a double meaning, as it would have to those who first marked Armistice Day nine decades ago. Even a comparatively secular contemporary writer, Rudyard Kipling, infused his short short The Gardener with Christian allusion and allegory.
For good, and ill, Christianity is no longer the living religion it was then, or even thirty or forty years ago. It is seen today as a weekend hobby, resorted to in times of crisis, and then pushed to back of mind. Little, arguably nothing, has come to replace that living force in our culture. David Warren alluded to this in a recent column on Faith and Freedom. You can deny, as I do, that freedom requires faith. It does require, however, some sort of system of belief and value. A nation driven by whim and will is not a nation that will long be free. The Founders of both Canada and America understood this fact. They deferred, to a greater or lesser extent, to religion to provide that moral backbone for society.
While the message of sacrifice lingers in modern Canadian culture, the existence of evil is denied. There is no evil, we are told, only misunderstanding and reaction to suffering. This is why Remembrance Day has become only a ritual. Its meaning is lost, not only because of time, but because the spirit of that age is gone.
They who built the Cenotaphs and Soldiers' Towers believed in suffering, in redemption and in evil. Re-read the poem above, that last jarring stanza. "Take up our quarrel with the foe." The message delivered by those earnest school teachers is the pointlessness of war. That is not, however, what John McCrae believed. Like most of his generation, like most of those thousands of Canadians who lie buried with him in northwestern Europe, they believed in evil. More than this, they believed they fought for something good and against something evil. War was horrible, yes, but it was sometimes necessary to fight evil.
We all die, some of us die in great pain. From disease, from famine and from natural disaster. What separates death from natural causes, however horrific, and war is morality. War is a product of human thought and action, and so can and must be judged morally. That is why we remember and must, because of the moral dimension of war. We do not honour suffering for its own sake, we honour it because of what they sought to preserve. Let me close by quoting another poem, one that would have been familiar to John McCrae and his fellow officers:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,
And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?"
It's from Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome. Churchill memorized the poem while at Harrow. It was a standard text for generations of schoolboys. It faded from the curriculum in the years after the First World War. Macaulay was a Christian memorializing the feats of Roman pagans. While their creeds separated the stoical Romans from Victorian Englishmen, the themes of honour, duty, family and values worth fighting for crossed that divide. That we modern Canadians cannot understand Macaulay, and cannot understand that last stanza of In Flanders Field, is the unacknowledged tragedy of the last century.
The torch; be yours to hold it high.