This is a day I always try to treat with some solemnity. It is a day my country doesn’t treat as solemnly as I think it should—I have my two years in Canada to thank for the perspective I’ve gained on Veterans Day, to be honest. It’s a day to remember the side of war that is easy to forget when the flags wave and the band plays and the generals talk of “freedom” and the “noble cause”. It’s a day to remember what we mean when we use a phrase like “sacrifice” to refer to military service.
This doesn’t require you to be a pacifist. Abraham Lincoln, as anyone knows, was no pacifist—he recognized with terrible agony the necessity of war to right the societal evil that his country had visited on an entire people. But he never took lightly the burden of war—the seriousness of asking someone to die, of asking thousands and thousands to die, for a cause, no matter how vitally important that cause is. He was, as I think is evident in all his letters and speeches, a man haunted by violence. The world we live in today is no less violent. So today, take a moment and think about the soldiers you know and have known, and those a world away you will never know. Think about what it means for anyone to give their life or their health or their sanity for the sake of their country, for the sake of the people they seek to protect. And ask yourself what kind of benefit is great enough to warrant our sending young men and women into that kind of harm’s way.
If it’s helpful, take a look at a couple of poems by Siegfried Sassoon, a veteran of the First World War. I won’t comment on them as I usually do for Poetry Friday. As poems, they have a lot of features I could talk about. But as expressions of a man’s experience, the legacy of having survived and having seen so many die, before them I feel an urge to be silent. Sometimes it is better to listen than to speak.
Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s tomorrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.
I see them in foul dugouts, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
“Suicide in the Trenches”
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.