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.
Whatever you call it — Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans’ Day — November 11 is a day about war. But the way I experienced it growing up in Canada was very different from how I experience it now that I live in the United States.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is that separates the two. Both holidays were at first named Armistice Day, after the 11 November 1918 armistice which ended the hostilities that had left seventeen million dead and twenty million more wounded. Canada renamed it Remembrance Day in 1931, as a way of placing “the emphasis squarely upon memory – and by extension upon the soldiers whose deaths were being remembered – rather than upon the Armistice, a political achievement in which rank-and-file soldiers were not directly involved,” at least according to one historian. The US moved in a similar direction in 1954, in large part because it seemed to prioritize the soldiers from the First World War over the many, many others — the Second World War, the Korean War — who had also served. They renamed it Veterans’ Day.
I remember November 11 as a quiet day. I remember standing in the crisp air outside the local skating rink, where the small granite stone commemorating the wars still sits today with silent poppy wreaths laid before it on little plastic tripods. I remember children from the local elementary school reciting “In Flanders Fields,” a poem by a Canadian military physician, John McCrae, who died in the First World War. A thank you for coming said by some low-level politician or local businessman, a minute of silence, and the piercing cry of a single trumpet, marking the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day. In bigger cities, they sometimes fired cannons — blanks, of course — and the sounds of bagpipes were often heard, drifting over the buildings. In the capitol city, Ottawa, there was a televised ceremony each year.
There was no jingoism. There was no triumphalism. There was no nationalism. Frankly, I don’t even remember if we sang the national anthem. It certainly didn’t stick with me if we did.
Americans are not, in my experience, a quiet people. This is not a moral failing, or even an outright criticism. And of course there are small pockets of reticence — the older generation of New Englanders seem to take a great pride in saying as little as possible at times — but by and large to me, the outsider in their midst, the typical American seems louder than most. On most days I think it’s rubbing off on me — I’ve never been one to withhold my opinion, after all, and I think I’m becoming even more free with it as I live here — but on Remembrance Day, I feel like one of the quiet ones.
In the US, on November 11, there’s a great deal of ostentatious “saluting of the veterans” with concerts and parades. Ostensibly, this is acceptable because the US has another, specifically “memorial” day, one that’s supposed to be about remembering the fallen; but being the only long weekend in May, you’re more likely to attend a barbecue or a patriotic air show than a wreath-laying.
War is a horror that we visit upon one another. That was the message — is the message — Canadians share with one another on November 11. There is no glory in war, only death. It is something only to be undertaken when the price in lives can be truly justified. “Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge,” the old saying goes, but it was the losses suffered at Passchendaele that shaped our understanding of war. Canada has fought in what I would consider many wars since: World War II, Korea, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and now against ISIS in varying ways. Since the First World War, Canada has been at war for thirty-four of the following ninety-six years.
In the US the number is far higher. If you count CIA proxy wars and “police actions,” it has only passed eleven years since 1919 without being involved in a war. To put that in perspective, the population of veterans in Canada is about 700,000, or around 2%. In the US, it’s more like 7%, or 21.8 million people. America is, simply put, a more bellicose nation. Even its president, who’s largely viewed here as a moderate, has long-endorsed a military campaign whose thousands of victims have largely flown under the radar in much of the news media here.
To me, I think the difference is fairly plain: in the US, war is normal. It’s a typical state of affairs, and so Veterans’ Day is a day to salute those who do a dangerous job under trying circumstances, like firefighters or policemen. In Canada, war is an aberration, something that is always, if not an outright mistake, then something only to be undertaken with the somber regret that it has somehow become necessary.
In Canada, on November 11, there is largely silence: a moment’s quiet, “lest we forget” the horrors of war.
We all react to war in different ways, and different cultures have their different norms. As for me, as is my custom, I wish you a quiet and thoughtful Remembrance Day.
Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and techno-futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.