Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest We Forget

It was typically a cold day on November 11th.  Each year by 10:30 AM, a variegated crowd had gathered in Cenotaph Park located in the centre of my home town.  The park was simply and correctly named; the focus of attention being on the only structure in the park, the gray concrete cenotaph.  It stood some 10 feet tall and, other than inscriptions referencing the Great War, World War II and the Korean conflict, its only adornments were brass plaques filled with names.  There were 192 in total; all men.  What surprised me then (and more so now) was that 124 of them, fully two thirds, died in the First World War.  The population of my small town at the beginning of that war was around 3000 people.  Assuming 25% were men eligible to fight, one of six did not return from the trenches of Europe.  Although the word “cenotaph” literally means “empty tomb”, it notionally represented the final resting place for many a World War I hero.
I was there, more from a sense of duty than desire, with a few other Cubs and Scouts who had gathered in our uniforms, which were mostly covered up by winter parkas.  I begrudged spending even a small portion of a school holiday shivering in the cold looking ridiculous in my Boy Scout uniform.  The sea cadets looked better than we did as they had the benefit of woolen, navy blue pea coats.  Our only role that morning was to stand at attention and make our three fingered salute as old men tenderly carried wreaths to lay on the cenotaph steps.  Having no soldiers in my family I did not understand the tears that escaped the deeply saddened eyes and crept down those wrinkled faces of the old soldiers that passed by.  The old men stood weeping as the Last Post trumpet solo mournfully moved through the pine trees in the park.  Although I did not understand it, I never doubted that the pain they felt was real and the memories vivid.  It was only later, through my son who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I began to understand how a sense of undeserving and guilt broke through the veneer of battle hardened hearts at times like that. 
The idea of sacrifice seems foreign to most of us today.  It is so easily misunderstood in this “I” culture.  We have become sceptics who question the concept of sacrifice.  Self-interest reigns supreme.  But can it be said that anything worthwhile is achieved without sacrifice?  Surely, the more valuable the virtue, the more meaningful the endeavour, the greater the sacrifice that must be made.  “Sacrifice” can be defined as the gift of something precious as an offering in exchange for something even more valuable. 
What makes a sacrifice worthwhile?  Undoubtedly, an essential consequence of any sacrifice of significance is that it be remembered.  “Lest We Forget” is the refrain of the 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem, “Recessional”.  It was a warning against a prideful attitude of forgetfulness about the sacrifices of those who won our privileges.  Let me quote the third stanza:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget.

Worthy goals will always be won by sacrifice, and lost by failing to remember that. 
Today we are called to remember the sacrifices of those who fought for us and the greatest values known to humanity.  The words of Martin Luther King Jr. echo my sentiment.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment