We were still. We were mournful. We were respectful. We were undone.
Last evening we joined a community gathering to honour those who paid the ultimate price at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. The pipes played, the respectful speeches given, and our hearts were moved. We can only glimpse this important Canadian event through a glass darkly. It was before our time and beyond our ability to really understand. Yet we stood in awe last night, although the tragedy and loss was beyond us, because we comprehended that we likely wouldn’t have been where we were at, individually and collectively, at that moment without those remarkable soldiers being where they were at during their exact moment when duty meant total sacrifice.
I was reminded of one of Robertson Davies characters in his Fifth Business. As he watched King George V pin the Victoria Cross on his uniform he experienced a great moment of remarkable clarity:
“Here am I … being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am a hero. But I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened. I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t seem to matter because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of that truth, it might as well be me as anyone else.”
And yet we as Canadians understand the sheer fate of it all – a few feet to the left, a dysfunctional gun, an artillery shell landing farther afield, a medic nearer at hand, and death wouldn’t have visited these particular soldiers. Canada has never been great at the “hero” thing, but we have proved excellent and deeply respectful of lionizing those who never made it. We know in our heart of hearts that we owe them – everything. We know that some 100,000 Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. We also know that 3600 soldiers died and more than 7000 were wounded in the successful attempt.
But we are moved by what we don’t know. The fear, the crying for family, the unbelievable heroism, the prayers, the patriotism, the insanity – these must have been monumental on a human scale. It is not just their death that moves us so; it’s all these things they endured just prior to their ultimate sacrifice. Life’s end should have been better for them.
They are the heroes we seek and we honour them year after year – the resurgence of interest in Remembrance Day is proof of it. But because we are Canadians we venerate them as pioneers of peace instead of merely soldiers of war. War is not glorious to us, but peace remains a preoccupation for the Canadian imagination and those that fought and died a Vimy paid the downpayment for us to stretch that imagination, that dream of a better world with Canada’s noble efforts in it.
Aristotle was right when he wrote that it is never enough to win a war; we must organize ourselves to win the peace. How profound! Perhaps Governor General David Johnston had this in mind when, profoundly moved at the Vimy Memorial in France a few years ago, he implored:
“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost here, and the reasons for which the lives were lost, and that is so our rule of law, our thin veneer of civilization can be strengthened and polished and, we hope, extended around the world.”
I was honoured to be asked to give the speech in Parliament in 2010, when John Babcock, the last Canadian World War One veteran passed away. They are now a generation gone. But we are not. We hate war, but will fight if required. Far better the truly Canadian dream of peace in a better world. We honour the Vimy dead because we still dream that what they were fighting for is now our task. Though dead, they live in us. Though gone, they empower us. Their end is our beginning.