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Lest We (the Young) Forget

A child of the '80s reflects on Remembrance Day.

Malcolm Johnson 9 Nov

Malcolm Johnson lives in Metchosin on Vancouver Island, where he works as the editor of SBC Surf Magazine.

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Bryan Adams: holiday music.

For those of us raised in the 1980s, the eleventh day of November has been an abstract and rather remote occasion. Despite the fact that my father and grandfathers were military men, my own memories are mostly of poppy sales and mid-morning assemblies in darkened gyms: the uneasy minutes of silence, preceded by the quiet and halting voices of the ensemble readings of John McCrae. To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. There were other commemorations, of course; speeches from blue-suited veterans, replete with accounts from the battlefield, and showings of the music video for the Remembrance Day tribute that Bryan Adams recorded in 1987. The assemblies were always solemn moments -- and sometimes even resonant ones -- but they were brief and came to their end, and we'd shuffle out the double doors and stroll outside for another unremarkable lunch-hour of skateboarding and bumming smokes and hassling the staff at the convenience store.

As we graduated and grew into the first stages of adulthood, Remembrance Day faded further from us, relegated to somewhere in the back rooms of our youth. Sure, the day off was nice, but it was a crass occasion for a party, and deadlines and work commitments often seemed to take precedence over attendance at the ceremonies downtown. In my own experience, this year has been typical: I've heard plenty of talk about coffee-shop concerts, film screenings and long-weekend surf trips, but almost none about the occasion itself. It's understandable, perhaps: very few of us have more than cursory contact with the military, and out of hundreds of friends and acquaintances, I can think of exactly four who have served or are currently serving in the Forces. The tech-heavy nature of today's fighting, coupled with Canada's politics and geography, have kept most of us far removed from the realities of war: when we drive to the beach to check the surf we hear the concussions of practice fire far off the Strait, but we think nothing of it and go on about our day.

For myself, though, Remembrance Day is no longer a date that I'm able to easily ignore. The reality of it hit me hardest last year, during a visit to Pier 21 in Halifax; my girlfriend and I were alone in the museum at the end of a cold, sleet-soaked day, and there was something menacing and chillingly real about the images of Canadian servicemen streaming onto ships and sailing off to lose their lives in the Second World War. The casualty counts of the past, when considered today, are almost beyond comprehension: 64,900 Canadian military deaths between 1914 and 1918, and 45,300 between 1939 and 1945. Given today's political climate, however, with our country deeply involved in the continuing mission against the Taliban, Remembrance Day is certainly not an occasion that draws its relevance only from the past. The current situation is as real as it gets -- as of September 25th, 72 Canadians had been killed in action in Afghanistan. The fact that soldiers younger than ourselves are dying isn't a comfortable thing; it doesn't seem quite right that while we talk about sports scores and iTunes playlists, our uniformed countrymen are thousands of kilometers away, bracing themselves against IEDs and mortar fire.

Whatever your political views -- and mine, to be forthright, sheer strongly away from any involvement in imperial war -- it's impossible to deny that the men and women who choose to serve in the Forces are people of remarkable strength and bravery. Those who enlist do so in the full awareness that their lives are likely to be put on the line, and the Canadian Press wires are ample proof of the risks. As a generation, though, we seem strangely adverse to talking about it, other than in vague condemnations of militarism and the policies of George Bush and the Conservative government: in describing a show this summer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a good friend of mine was genuinely upset that Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans had played a number of songs about soldiers and war. The children of the '80s are a free and affluent group, and the cruelties and sacrifices of war are generally foreign to us; surely, though, we can spare a day to honour our compatriots, and to give the past and the future some real and critical thought.

As the clouds lower this weekend and the rain falls, I'll be among the quiet crowd making its way to the memorial services in downtown Victoria. It seems like the least I can do.

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