Last week I stood with my wife and children looking down upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. “What is this, Dad?” my twelve-year old son from Africa asked. I explained how just a few years ago the body of some forgotten man had been transported to that very spot in memory of all those unnamed we had lost during too many conflicts. “But who is he?” my son asked, still confused.
I must confess I’m not so sure anymore. I thought I did at one point. He might have died in Holland or Germany, Hong Kong or in the Atlantic, but he was the embodiment of sacrifice to me – a courageous soul, who despite his fear and isolation, carried the torch of Canada into some of the darkest places on earth and perished with it cradled in his hands. The old religions demanded that only the best animals be sacrificed and, ironically, we followed suit. The best and brightest of our young men and women we offered to a greater cause – to God, King or country. And we believed that noble offering would, in turn, bring us blessing and future peace. Indeed, such promise was the only way we could bear the pain of their loss.
As a nation, we marched ahead on the blood they shed. Indeed, this was the only way they could really bear what was ultimately their own death. Their belief in their families and their country propelled them in the most miserable of circumstances, and as they closed their eyes in death they could at least rest assured in the knowledge that the Canada they loved was a nation steeped in noble sacrifice, so much so that it would never forget their final effort. They sacrificed so that we might, I suppose in some strange way, comprehend that the purpose of their ultimate act was not that we would just remember, but that we would not stop.
Do we really believe that the Unknown Soldier, and the countless others like him, breathed their last proclaiming the glory of war? Hardly. By the time their end came they would have realized just what an awful thing they were enmeshed in. They had seen too much, endured too much, and lost too much to be idealistic about it anymore. In moments and months of increasing clarity, the thrill of just being there passed into sadness, and in its place came the thoughts of their parents, children, the farm outside Calgary, the harbour in Halifax, the tundra of the north, the silky wheat of the prairies, or the grandeur of the BC coast. The rest was just too much to figure out. The meaning of it all just wouldn’t make itself clear. And so their reasonings turned to the familiar and Canada emerged through the carnage.
This is the Unknown Soldier I thought I knew. We all thought we somewhat understood him. But what would he think of citizens who refused to vote, politicians who refused to cooperate and political parties that raced to the bottom line? What would he make of a country that left its farmers to go bankrupt in isolation, manufacturers who abandoned their workers for more lucrative fields abroad, seniors who were left without proper support, or a pristine land abandoned for a consumer’s dream?
I don’t know that soldier as well as I thought because, in truth, I have failed to carry his torch. I thank him for his sacrifice and wear my poppy proudly, but in reality I won’t go to a similar length to fight for lower carbon emissions, aboriginal justice, healthy food, a woman’s right to be truly equal or to free a child from hunger. I thank God for him but it’s just not in me, at least at present, to see Canada as he did. In life, I can’t replicate what he saw in death – a marvellous nation worth every energy expended for it.
I will stand at the Cenotaph tomorrow, not to remember, but to ask for forgiveness for fumbling the torch so mightily handed to me. And I will ask God to help me not to just remember, but to go on and fight for a land I see in my dreams, as the Unknown Soldier saw it in his. Maybe then, he will emerge through the haze of my own lack of sacrifice and be real to me once again. I can only pray.