Every year at this time we see the bright red poppy sprouting on people’s lapels. And we hear or read the words, “Lest We Forget.” But do you know what that three-word phrase means?
I was fortunate to grow up in a generation of Canadians who didn’t have to face the perils that my grandfather did in the first world war, at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, where he was wounded; or as my father did every night on a bofors anti-aircraft gun through the blitz on London and in the liberation of Holland; or my friends and colleagues at the CBC who fought in Korea and Cyprus, or my two school friends, both of whom worked with me at the White Spot. In 1965, they both joined the American forces to serve in Viet Nam. One came back, the other did not. The irony was that the one fellow, in a fluke beyond all understanding, was the medic aboard the chopper that picked up the other fellow who had been mortally wounded. They hadn’t seen each other since leaving Vancouver.
Just a year ago, two spiritually corrupt people killed two of our own, at home. One was standing honour guard, unarmed, at the national war memorial and one was deliberately run down from behind near a base in Quebec.
When November 11 comes around, we are prompted to think about those and a million or more people who made those sacrifices, for a period of two minutes. Then as the last echoes of reveille fade away, we go on about our lives.
Lest we forget. It’s the last line of each stanza in a poem (really a prayer) written by Rudyard Kipling in 1897. In the poem, Kipling argues that boasting and jingoism, were inappropriate and vain in light of the permanence of God. In other words – we are urged to remember because if we forget, the sacrifice will have been in vain and we may end up dealing some infamy over and over. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Recently I interviewed Jai Boong Kim. He was a young civilian radio technician, a Korean national, working with the Canadian army Signal Corps, at the front lines, in the Korean conflict. At 88 years of age, he clearly remembers the horror of those days over sixty years ago.
“The Korean army was not very good, we could deal with them,” he said, “but when the Chinese army came in it was very bad. They would often shell our side for days on end, uninterrupted.”
He described being sent up to an advanced post on the front to fix critical radios. They went in by jeep, with a driver and a soldier with a Bren gun (a light machine). The weather was bad, and they had to travel without lights to avoid becoming targets themselves. He said those were difficult days, yet he served the Signal Corps well and made many friends. But after the war when he made application to emigrate to Canada, the country said no. They said no to all of Asian origin until the sixties when he came to Canada. Today, we have become a very diverse, and I think, stronger society because of it.
Never-the-less, as our anthem says, “we stand on guard for thee.” These are not platitudes. The meaning is exactly what it says. If we forget the sacrifices of people like Jai Kim, or even our new defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, who did three tours in Afghanistan, we risk losing what we have, and although I never picked up anything more than my trumpet when I was in a ratings uniform of the Sea Cadets, I have made an effort to understand what is at stake and not take it for granted. Have you? If you don’t believe me, ask any refugee from Syria, Bosnia, Uganda, Iraq or anywhere. You will hear the echoes of Kipling’s poem, and this time you will understand the meaning of ‘lest we forget – lest we forget’