by Jacob Thomas
I was asked if I would write a piece on whether we should celebrate Remembrance Day. For those who know me there is only one answer, “Yes, obviously,” and probably in a condescending of a tone, as I have little time these days to for the most common contemporary arguments against the idea. In any event, for anything that is “obvious,” it ought to be possible to present “why” it is obvious.
Note: I intentionally chose to stick with the grammatically correct use of the word “men” to represent both the men and women who have gallantly risked and given their lives for us.
While I do believe that it is often right to accept traditions—as a matter of efficiency, without needing to worry about every nuance—it does not hurt to examine the roots of different traditions, such as this one, if only to give us a better appreciation for why they exist. So here we go. There are multiple reasons for celebrating Remembrance Day, but I wish to focus on the one which I see as perhaps the most important. In order to develop this more thoroughly, I make the assertion there that it is our duty.
Duty is simple yet elegant, idealistic yet, in the greatest moments, intensely practical.
Duty has in the last half-century acquired a negative connotation for being burdensome. Undeniably, it is not very exciting. A mother waking throughout the night for months on end to feed her newborn child is hardly glorious. Duties can be monotonous, unexciting, and difficult. Nonetheless, duties are things we are obligated to perform regardless of their nature or cost. So dwelling on their monotony only serves to undermine our contentment in performing our duties. Fortunately, though, our duty in the context of Remembrance Day is not difficult. It lies in at least two spheres: first, our duty to remember those who have sacrificed their lives, often out of their own sense of duty; second, our duty to encourage the present and future generations to be ready to fulfill their own duty if the time comes and they must resist great evil. So, the first is our duty to the past and the second is our duty to the future. I start with the latter.
Our duty to the future comes from the necessity to encourage the present and future generations to actually “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Despite popular belief, the pen—or in our case the digital blips that make up a tweet or a Facebook post—is not mightier than the sword when the latter is wielded by a determined villain who does not care about our progressive pretensions.
The skillfully handled pen may indeed wield great power, but that power, in any useful sense, still grows out of the barrel of a gun. And guns do not fire themselves. We are fortunate as to live in a time when soft power often prevails over hard power, yet we must not forget that it is a situation built on the sacrifice of two generations who, in the first half of last century, paid a heavy toll for the mistaken idea that real power is not ultimately hard and cruel.
The question is would our generation take up such a challenge with the same vigour and determination? I doubt it. As in the Great War, the good few we had left, would go off to die first. Again leaving us bereft of our best and weakened for decades to come. We have spent too many long years undermining the notion of self-sacrifice and of our duty to attend our nations call in its moment of need; too many years of second-guessing the heroes we ought to be using as inspiration; too many years of mocking the virtues necessary to ensure a free, thriving, and capable citizenry; too many years of reconstructing history to fuel our own smug progressive self-satisfaction that allowed us to conclude with little reflection that we are far superior to our ancestors and, to avoid seriously looking at our own plethora of conceits and vices.
Instead of all this, we should have been encouraging a sense of civic involvement, civic pride, civic duty. For without a fighting spirit we will be unable to resist the advance of real evil, in whatever form it may come. We must encourage a heroic spirit, but a spirit ironically so humble that it will refuse to see itself as heroic and insist that it was only doing its duty. For these are the real heroes we remember on days such as Remembrance Day, not “super” heroes. Our soldiers were not people with mutant powers or genetic advantages—they were no gods or demi-gods. These were ordinary people, people that you or I could easily be like if we so chose. Farmers, tradesmen of all kinds, factory workers, these were the sort of individuals that made up the bulk of the armies that fought the German menace twice and remained to oppose the Communists. These soldiers were led by regular university undergraduates who took such a view of their own duty to their men that, in the Great War, in the deadlock of the Western Front, the death rate amongst junior officers was of a higher percentage than that of the men they led.
Could the undergraduates of today even conceive of such a ridiculous idea? Would they be able, let alone willing, to lead men into the teeth of hell? Would they accept a far greater share of death as their duty, stemming from a position of privilege in learning and personal development? Could they muster themselves to die in greater droves than their “un-intellectual” “inferiors?” You tell me.
It is important that we remember our place in this great historical chain. It helps in maintaining the fight against evil by making us want to avoid the shame of being the weak link that snapped. It makes us soberly consider our own minute existence, our place in the great enterprise which is Western Civilization, and what we ought to do to ensure its preservation. A proper appreciation of the past will keep us from growing conceited in our own self-aggrandized grandeur. A sense of the past is the only proper foundation on which to build a free and prosperous future. In sum, it is our duty to participate in things such as Remembrance Day for the simple reason that it is vital to the construction of a good future and gives us both a practical and intellectual basis for going forward. The task of defending and improving Western Civilization is something that we have received from our own predecessors, and it is our duty to hand it intact to those who follow.
As important as our duty to the future is ours to the past. Great sacrifices were made by many regular individuals like ourselves that we must not dishonour them by neglecting, and especially not willfully repudiating, their legacy of heroism. At this point, I want to clarify what I consider it was they were fighting for. I do not necessarily agree that they went overseas in order to fight for such vague notions as our freedom, certainly not our licentiousness, as, excepting a few notable moments. Those were safely secured by the steel hulls of the Royal Navy and the broad Atlantic Ocean. No, what got them overseas in the first place was their loyalty to their country, to their Monarch, and sometimes even to God. I do not think they laid down their lives for our freedom or rights. This is especially true considering the modern understanding of those terms, which have become predominant in our Dominion since the introduction of the Charter of Rights. And the Charter of Rights is based too much on the Continental ideas of Rights and not our own ancient tradition, something that would as a matter of fact not be completely foreign to these young men.
Regardless of what got them there, once the real shooting started, the primary motivator to go forward quickly became their duty to the soldiers on the left and right of them. This was and still is what gets soldiers to fight. It is a remarkable bond that can only be forged through incredibly difficult moments. It is not something that anyone who has not been through similar circumstances can truly understand; even I have only had a very small foretaste, and make no claim to actually know what it is like.
However, it is a real thing that caused men to give their lives, to—just as heroically I might add—accept dismemberment and loss of limb, to giving their futures for our present. People lament, regarding celebrities, that a handful of decades spent performing for a wage and living a life of excess is “far too short.” No, no. The man not yet twenty with a fiancé back home and a bright future—even if it was to live the most ordinary life imaginable—is dying too young. This is the real tragedy! As Homer would have it, in their death all other things cannot but appear fair. And they were the ones who volunteered out of a sense of duty and out of their place in the great societal contract to which we belong. They may not have had the time or the mental energy to look at the bigger picture, but their sacrifice to fight year after year is perhaps the smallest and most intensely practical way our societal contract can play out.
You, the men next to you, fighting for one another in conditions beyond our imagination, there is perhaps nothing more raw or fundamental than this. So, to not remember, commemorate, or even recognize the sacrifices made by these men would be a ghastly dereliction of our own duty to them. To reject the contract played out so matter-of-factly between countrymen at such a basic and primal level is to show a complete lack of understanding of what really makes a society function. And to be unwilling to perform such an onerous and difficult duty of taking an hour out of every year in order to remember those who gave their lives, their limbs, their futures, is, in fact, unbecoming and pathetic.
We have a duty to remember the Past for the sake of our future. And neglecting this duty undermines our ability to face possible future crises by destabilizing the moral fibre of our citizenry. It also does a great dishonour to the individuals who served, many who are far too humble to question your right to tread on their great sacrifices. As these men understand it, this sort of freedom of conscience is yet another element of the societal contract which the present have inherited from over a millennium of struggle. But that does not make it right. Even if you believe that it is a small duty, do not neglect to take time this November 11th to look back and be grateful. For, after all, when it comes down to it and a great threat to our national existence camps a mere handful of miles across a shallow body of water, England expects.