Although our Anabaptist peace position calls us to speak against the evils of war and to work as peacemakers, we live in a country that has participated in many major world conflicts. Each November 11, Canada commemorates these battles and remembers the soldiers who fought. Is it right for Christians to participate in Remembrance Day traditions, such as wearing a poppy to memorialize the dead?
Remembrance Day is always filled with mixed emotions for me. As a high school history teacher, I look forward to the opportunity to explain the significance of this day to my students. I tell them numerous stories of courage, sacrifice, honour, and duty displayed by our veterans. It’s also a day I dread because we’re reminded of the horrors of war as well as the many examples of horrendous cruelty and suffering human beings are capable of inflicting on one another.
In March, I took about 40 grade 11 and 12 students to France, Belgium, and Holland for a 10-day tour of Canada’s battlefields. I know that they’ll never observe Remembrance Day in the same way again.
Learning about the disastrous raid on Dieppe is disturbing, whether reading the details in a textbook or watching a documentary. It’s quite another thing to recall the raid from an actual German bunker or from the stone-filled beaches below the cliffs, where hundreds of Canadians were brutally gunned down before most of them even knew what was going on. As my students imagined the fear and trepidation of those youthful soldiers, I achieved a far greater teachable moment than anything I could contrive in a classroom.
But nothing was more poignant than walking through the immaculate cemeteries for the war dead. As a father, I can’t imagine the emotional trauma of seeing my son march off to war. To walk by a grave of an unknown soldier and read the words “Known only to God” brought tears to our eyes. Two students cried as they stood in front of one of the stones. When I asked what was particularly moving about this grave marker, one of them replied, “He’s the same age as my brother.”
Much ink has been spilled about the failures, miscalculations, and in some cases, questionable motivations behind the Dieppe raid. However, reading the tributes to Canadians sprinkled throughout the town for the attempted, and then ultimately successful, liberation of Dieppe, we felt humbled and proud of the sacrifices made by our servicemen.
We assembled for evening devotions after touring Dieppe and talked about what we had seen, heard, and read. One student commented that while she had loved Paris (the shopping, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the palaces), it seemed the focus was all about individual and personal glory. Many palaces, museums, and monuments reflected the ego of the Sun King. Napoleon’s tomb was all about his conquests for personal glory and power.
But Dieppe was all about the other. It was about doing something for fellow human beings. I knew then that my students had understood.
The poppy honours those who made the ultimate sacrifice – who gave up their lives to earn freedom for others. Not for family, nor for friends, but for others who share our humanity.
My students came away from the trip convicted that war is something we should never seek, aspire to, or glory in. But they were also convinced that it’s good to honour those who considered others before themselves.
One Canadian war memorial in France is inscribed with a simple but profound remark: “Courage is knowing what lies ahead, but going on anyway.” Remembrance Day is a time to honour that courage displayed by veterans in the past and by our servicemen and women today. And for that I proudly wear a poppy.
Harvey Goossen teaches history and world issues at Woodland Christian High School in Kitchener, Ont. and is a member of Kitchener MB Church.