I wrote this several years ago, and I post it every year. Remembrance Day is a tough one for me. Originally this was a post on the TC "Spiritually Speaking" blog, but apparently they changed hosts for the blog, and dumped all of the old content.
An International Day of Regret
“Hatred is never overcome by hatred. Hatred is only overcome by love. This is Dhamma.” Dhammapada v.5
For me, Remembrance Day has been the one day of the year that I struggle most with. Not so much that we should mark it, and remember the tragic losses that have taken place though war, but rather, how we go about doing that. How we think about it. How we speak about it. How we hold it in our minds and our hearts.
I recall growing up in Ontario, and participating in Remembrance Day ceremonies in the school gym. I remember red poppies, O Canada, and singing “Blowing in the Wind”. I remember “In Flanders Fields” and the men and women dressed in faded uniforms, who seemed to be set off balance by age and the gleaming hardware displayed on their chests. I remember the speeches about “heroism” and “the cost of freedom”. I remember the crackling recording of “Taps-The Last Post”, and the two minutes of silence. I remember tears. Seeing grown men overwhelmed by their grief, and being totally baffled by it.
“These people are heroes!” I thought, “What could they possibly have to be sad about!” I was impressed by the medals, and inspired by the pomp and ceremony. I remember even being a little disappointed that I was too young to join the army and go “fight for freedom”.
When I was about twelve or thirteen, I met my step-mother’s father, Mr. Arthur Green. Art was a signaler in the First World War, and was in his nineties when I met him. We used to vacation in a cottage that he had built near Wasaga Beach, and I had a few interesting experiences during my summer holidays thanks to him. I remember there being some relics from the “the great war” at the cottage… a pair of field glasses from a German Soldier… and his pocket knife, which had a large single shank on the back side of it, which, when I asked, was told it was the “pig-sticker”.
He once told me a story that I never forgot about one Christmas eve in France. It seems that while the line of Canadians in their trench faced the line of Germans in theirs, suddenly the firing ceased. The Germans began singing “Stille Nacht”, and the Canadians joined in with “Silent Night”. The next day, being Christmas, the soldiers came out of their trenches and cleared the barbed wire in no-man’s-land. That day, the two sides played game after game of soccer, shared food, drink, photos, and song. Most of them were 18-25 years old, and but for a uniform, might have been lifelong friends. The next day, at first light, the barbed wire having been replaced, the fighting began again. I still struggle with this story.
I also remember hearing Art awaken from a nightmare, and being frightened because I had never heard anyone curse like that…
A few years ago Zenwest and UVic Interfaith Services hosted several events with Vietnam veteran, Zen Teacher, and author of the book “At Hell’s Gate” Claude Anshin Thomas. Anshin spoke with a clarity and brutal frankness about the impact of war on the men and women that take part in it. He shared in explicit detail the horrors that he not only witnessed, but also willingly participated in as a helicopter machine-gunner during the Vietnam War.
He also shared that like many, if not most war vets, he tried to cope with the trauma he experienced in life after the war through the use of drugs and alcohol, and they didn’t help. How the “social systems” that are in place to help these veterans, in many cases just amount to increased doses of different (socially sanctioned) drugs. He shared how even after years of therapy and spiritual practice, he still isn’t able to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch without waking.
I believe that war itself is failure. As soon as the first shot is fired, as a species, we have failed. Like children that can’t get their way we have forgotten to use our words, and have started fighting.
There is no winner in war. Even the soldiers that survive on the “winning” side are damaged or shattered. There has been no lasting peace that has come as the result of war. Ever.
To win in war is only to sow the seeds of resentment and hatred, which will come to fruition when time and opportunity present themselves. At best we might delay the backlash for a generation or two, and so ensure that our own children or grandchildren reap the fruit of violence.
As a “religious figure” I have been asked to speak at several Remembrance Day ceremonies, but I don’t think I have ever been asked back, because I absolutely will not tow the party line that we must “fight for freedom” or “fight for peace”.
Most often, all I can come up with is an apology.
I am sorry to the many veterans who have had to see and do what they have.
I am sorry to those that have fallen on all sides of war, and to their families.
I am sorry that as a society we have fooled ourselves into thinking that peace can be found through violence.
I am sorry that “peace” and “freedom” have come to mean “our way”.
I am sorry that after millennia of seeking peace, freedom, and harmony through violence and the use of force, that we don’t have the wisdom to say “this isn’t working”.
I am sorry that we are at ease with systematically spending seemingly infinite amounts of money on war and the components of war, and only the tiniest fraction of that on aid, medicine and development.
I am sorry.