My grandpa was a good-looking kid from the Canadian prairie when he marched away to war. He was shot on a hill in Italy during a pre-dawn raid. He fell in the cold, thick mud while it poured rain, everyone rushing past, a stampede. Bright red blood from his back thigh soaked into the thick fabric and the mud while he, unsure if he would live or die, was desperate with a fear more sharp than pain. A buddy of his pulled him to safety that day, carried him, slung over his back, gear and all, he ran them both straight down that hill.
He never talked about the war much. Oh, he sang old songs like “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! We’re going on a mighty mission” and joked about his wound, his buddies. But once, in uncharacteristic solemnity, he admitted that he’d never been so afraid in his life as he was that day on that hill, alone in the mud, surrounded by the sounds of his friends running and screaming and falling and dying in the dark.
“We were terrified,” he said. “We were just a bunch of kids.”
He came home. Many of his friends did not.
November 11 is Remembrance Day for Commonwealth nations. I have a plastic poppy pinned to my heavy fall coat. Since I was little-little, reciting In Flander’s Fields in school assemblies while holding paper cut-out poppies glued to green cardboard wreaths,I swore that I would always remember. My eldest daughter sang a song about peace in a school assembly yesterday, she asked me about war and soldiers, and I didn’t really know what to say but that it made me so sad.
War is complex, horrible, evil. As a Christian, I have felt lead to a path of peace-making but it’s an “uneasy pacifism” because I don’t know how it looks all the time, how best to live a consistent pro-life ethic with peace and love in a culture of violence, power and war. I know that pacifism is not total and absolute abhorrence of all violence – instead, to me, it’s a policy of non-aggression and active peace-making.
It’s living in the tension between my beautiful ideals and the ugly realities of the world, figuring out how to make-peace every day.
God, I’m so proud of him. I’m proud of my grandpa’s guts, of his bravery, his story. I’m proud of an entire generation’s commitment to a cause, proud of what they accomplished, proud of what they did in the face of fear and uncertainty.
I can’t bring myself to wear a pacifist’s white poppy. No, I need the blood-red one – baggage and uneasy pacifism, wonderings and tension, be damned.
This weekend, I remember my grandpa, I remember his friends, I remember my friends – and their husbands and wives, I remember every man and woman who has served in war-time. I remember the true cost and the reality of war. I listen to my daughter sing in her childish voice a song she can’t even fathom yet, and I will pass on the memories that I still carry of the look in his eye, that day he said: we were just kids. And I was so scared.
This is no day for nationalistic flag-waving nor idealistic condemnation. It’s a day for solemn remembrance, quiet knowing. One eye on the fields still covered with poppies, watered with blood and shit and mud, and on the wartorn homes of the world, for those that shall never grow old, the years never marking them.
May our veterans know how deeply I grieve with them, pray for them, love them, honour them. I fervently pray and speak and work for peace because I remember.
I will not break faith with them.