Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembrance Day: Lest We Forget

War is hell, and people die. This weekend, the more naive among us were reminded that the aftermath of war, whatever we may call it, is hell. And that people die.
A training mission described as “relatively safe” by the Conservative government and the military saw its first casualty Saturday with the death of a Canadian soldier in a Taliban suicide car bombing along a busy thoroughfare in Kabul.
Master Corporal Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was killed in the explosion around 11:30 a.m. local time.
 Those somber words from The Globe and Mail recorded Master Corporal Greff's death. He was the 158th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. His death seems to fall in a no-man's land between a time of active war on the one hand and, on the other, Remembrance Day, less than two weeks away. It's with some irony that this no-man's land time period, was one when many of us let ourselves forget that Canadian men and women are still in Afghanistan, and that though active combat has passed, the risks have not.

Four soldiers from other NATO countries and eight civilian contractors were also killed by the blast on Saturday. Yes, even a training mission can be deadly. Canadians comprise about 20% of the mission, which has participants from more than 30 countries. Lest we forget.

We should remember that training missions, which we hope will contribute to peace in an area where people still kill each other, is not a peace-keeping mission. Yet, even in peace-keeping missions, over a 53-year period ending in 2000, 120 Canadians were killed. Lest we forget.

Remembrance Day is November 11 - the one day a year when the whole nation remembers, and many of us keep a two-minute silence at 1100h local time. That two minutes, observed in a drug store, lead to a haunting and ever-beautiful song by Canadian Terry Kelly called A Pittance in Time. The link leads to the YouTube video. Please, I beg of you, watch and listen to this beautiful song.

The song's origin goes back to the Remembrance Day when Kelly was in a Shopper's Drug Mart, and an announcement was made asking all customers who would still be in the store at 1100h to honor the two minutes of silence. As the silence began, everyone in the store became quiet, except for the father of a young child who insisted on talking to the store clerk.
They fought and some died for their homeland...
Could he not have showed some respect for other dads who have died...
It's a pittance of time....
The insensitivity of that father, angered Kelly, and lead him to write A Pittance in Time.

It's a credit to Kelly's genius that in the song, he recognizes so many of our men and women who have died, have not been fighting their own war. They have been the ones who nonetheless face the prospect of combat as a means to keep the peace for others, of keeping warring parties from going after each other.
It takes to courage to fight in your own war
It takes courage to fight someone else's war
Our peacekeepers tell of their own living hell
They bring hope to foreign lands that hate mongers can't kill
Take two minutes...it's a pittance of time for the boys and the girls who go over
In peacetime our best still dawn battle dress and lay their lives on the line
It's a pittance of time
In peace may they rest lest we forget why they died
Take a pittance of time
I'm not sure whether the mission of which Master Corporal Greff was part is technically considered a peace-keeping force. But he, and its other members were there, providing training and support which would enable the Afghan forces to maintain peace and security, with the hope that the people of that land might experience greater democracy and prosperity.

Close enough.

The words I've pasted above from Kelly's song are eloquent, but they are nothing compared to the sound of his voice on the YouTube video. I had not heard the song until about two weeks ago. The family of a world war two hero who had served in the European theater asked that it be played at his service.

So it was played at the beginning of the sermon, which reflected on veterans old and young, and how well their needs are met. Which is why, by the way, many Canadians are concerned by cutbacks to the Veterans Affairs Department, and the government's efforts to keep from public scrutiny what exactly it is that will be cut.

At the end of the sermon, which made the point that all veterans, those who served, those who were wounded, and those who died, are honored when we have the backs of today's veterans, The Trews' great song, Highway of Heroes, was played.

Incidentally, as Remembrance Day approaches, a special act of Canadian loyalty to our veterans and our country, could be reading this story from the Oct. 25 issue of The Globe and Mail, "Tories move probe of Veterans Affairs cuts behind closed doors." According to the story: 
An opposition manoeuvre that prompted a public exploration of the effects of cuts at the Veterans Affairs department could come to a quick end.
The Commons committee investigating the issue went behind closed doors Tuesday after hearing from just one set of witnesses in its study of the reduction of $226-million over two years to the department’s $3.5-billion budget.
Secrecy is often the enemy, and in this case, one is hard pressed to think of justification for it. I wonder if such an approach to sensitive cuts in the Veterans Affairs Department is a way to show Canadians that our government has the backs of veterans, that it is keeping the faith. Perhaps the remembrance for those on the government benches should be that our men and women who serve are more than photo-ops, or props to make government members look good.

So in this lull between actual war and November 11, Master Corporal Greff's death in Kabul reminds us that some things are worth remembering, and being aware of, regardless of the date on the calendar. The two minutes silence, as the song says, is "a pittance in time."

But standing on guard, and making sure we've got our veterans backs, takes something more than a pittance.

Lest we forget.

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