Learning to Remember.

13 November, 2015, Fontaine-Henry, France

Following the the armistice of 11 November 1918 that brought The Great War to an end, King George V wanted to fashion an appropriate tribute to the service of the millions who fought in and were affected by the great war, and the over one million of his subjects who had lost their lives. He reasoned that such a tribute could also serve as an act of Remembrance to serve as a reminder of the horror of war and to help to develop in his subjects an appropriate disposition towards war — that in grave circumstances it may be necessary, but that it is inevitably tragic in its effects.

To these ends, he asked of his subjects that they observe two minutes of silence in thanks and remembrance of the service and sacrifices of the Great War each year at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of November. Over the years, commemorations have grown into the various habits of marking Remembrance Day in the nations of the Commonwealth, Armistice Day across much of Europe, and Veterans Day in the United States.

At the time, the gesture of setting aside a time of Remembrance was at least effective and more likely necessary. The thanks and wounds were fresh in mind. Both the facts and feeling associated with the great conflict were raw and well known. They needed only the oxygen of an appointed time and a declared ritual to find appropriate expression and to provoke appropriate reflection. I believe that Remembrance continues to be a fitting tribute to service and sacrifice in the Great War and later in World War Two. I also believe that developing an appropriate knowledge of wars past and disposition towards possible future wars is as important today as it was nearly a hundred years ago. Yet, it strikes me that without intervention increasingly Remembrance Day will not continue to be able to contribute to this last objective.

This year on the 10th and the 11th of November, I had the opportunity to participate in acts of remembrance in Flanders. On the 10th I visited a number of sites that speak to the Canadian experience and contributions to The Great War, including The Essex Farm Cemetery, The Brooding Soldier, The Memorial Museum of Paschendaele, The Hill 62 Memorial, and The Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. On the 11th I attended mass at St. George’s Memorial Church, participated in The Poppy Parade, attended the Armistice Day Ceremony at the Menin Gate, and explored the Menin Gate and its surroundings in Ypres.

Taken together, these two days added immeasurably to my sense and understanding of Remembrance Day, but equally to what it is that we are seeking to remember. It’s not that I am not aware in outline of the causes, events, and results of The Great War. It’s not that I didn’t know that many people died in World War One, but seeing a countryside still dotted with cemeteries, literally scarred with row on row of crosses marking the war dead, made that real for me in a different way. At Essex Farm, I imagined a young John McRae seeking to make sense of his comrades death as he wrote In Flanders Fields. Prior to visiting, I did associate Flanders’ Fields with that poem, but not with their scarred reality as a rich and ancient farmland that has so many times been the space of intense conflict. Prior to visiting the Brooding Soldier, I didn’t in fact know that Canadians were the first to experience a German chemical weapons attach in that war, or that they had withstood that attack. I had not previously felt the depth of emotion of a Remembrance Day church service shared with older veterans of World War Two, Younger veterans of the gulf conflict experiencing post traumatic stress, and thankful Belgians who come back year after year, enlivened by the intensity of presentation from both an Ambassador and the Chaplain General of Her Majesty’s Land Forces. Mostly I did not learn new facts, but I did close some of the space between intellectual and emotional knowledge. The history of the war and of its remembrance are today salient for me in a different way than they were a few days ago.

Over the years, two aphorisms have stuck with me more than just about anything else about Remembrance day. They are, “We Remember” and “Lest We Forget.” But before we can endeavour to remember or not to forget, we must first know. So too, we must know in order to have the possibility of exhibiting an appropriate emotional response. The content of what was is to be remembered was front of mind for just about anyone in an affected country one year after the end of The Great War. So too for both of my grandfathers who fought in World War Two and my grandmothers who participated in war efforts in their homelands, and I imagine most others of their generation. Less so, but this was still significantly the case for my parents who were both born in the wake of World War Two into deeply affected families. Even for me and my generation, this was already much less the case notwithstanding Grandfathers who had fought, and parents whose lives are relatively deeply marked by it. Indeed, my lack of salient understanding was sufficient that I was in a position to grow significantly in my understanding within only a couple of days in Flanders.

As I was thinking about my own learning, I noticed four younger boys at the Menin Gate Ceremony. Three of them wore soccer warm-ups from London, Ontario. The fourth looked to be a local boy from Flanders. From afar, they all seemed like normal enough boys, probably with generally good levels of opportunity. I came to think about their own journeys to remembrance. I wondered to myself what it is that they can remember of the World Wars, their meaning, and their impacts? My thought — unless they do a fair bit of both factual and emotional learning: not much.

They are now three generations removed from the last full-scale war. None of them live in a place that has deployed large numbers of its sons and daughters to war since the early 1970s. Likely, none of them has a parent or grandparent who participated in large-scale war. They all attend schools where the world wars are doubtless part of the curriculum. But so did I, and in and of itself I don’t think that went particularly far in developing in me and my classmates much of a sense of salience in the lessons. If the school group I saw walking through the (not that brilliantly contrived) Memorial Museum of Paschendaele seeming more interested in getting to the picnic than the exhibits in front of them is much on an indication, things aren’t much better in that regard for the current generation. They are growing up in the shadow of 9/11, but while that has brought with it some lessons on fear, terror, and possibly the discourse of rights, it has hardly become a discussion of war and peace.

And yet, in these four I saw a hope. In the brief time I observed them, I saw evidence of learning experience that combined fact and emotion. The two elements together strike me as the necessary ingredients to building an appropriate salience for knowledge and in turn the possibility of meaningful remembrance. The three (presumably) Canadian kids had the honour of carrying the Maple Leaf Flag in two parades. They did so with pride. They appeared to follow the ceremony with some intensity and I assume over the days before and after had some similar experiences of seeing the land and beginning to think about the war with a more emotionally salient context it as I did. The Belgian, a bit older, was carrying with him a Digital SLR Camera. I saw him on two occasions stop men in uniform and ask them to pose for him to photograph. He gave the impression at minimum of being a fairly purposeful young photographer, but more likely of one who learns through intentional observation and who had turned, at least in this moment, his observation to questions of war and remembrance.

Although I have not recently consulted with statistics to show this point, my sense is that both factual knowledge of and emotional salience associate with large scale war has been declining across the generations. Ceremonies of Remembrance can be most effective only if they are able to leverage both of those kinds of knowledge. In 1919 both were in wide supply. In creating a time and ritual of remembrance, King George V created sufficient space for the appropriate expression of tribute, reflection, and remembrance.

Almost a hundred years later, if we are to heed George Santayana’s famous exhortation that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we must ask ourselves what learning we need to support in order to make meaningful remembrance possible.

I suggest that this requires re-examining how we support the acquisition of the relevant factual knowledge by our young. Probably more pressingly it involves asking what we must do to create the appropriate emotional salience around questions of war and peace that they may develop appropriate attitudes towards the great questions of war they will face. Doing so will require getting beyond the increasingly stale texts of war history, and beyond traditional pedagogy and museum-visit stand-ins for experiential learning, into more authentic spaces of interaction and learning.

It is unrealistic to imagine that every young Canadian will travel to Flanders, Normandy, or the other fields of World War One and Two. But while extolling the virtues of those travels, we can, and I would suggest must find alternate authentic and compelling opportunities to learn about these elements of our past that are accessible to all of our young. These may include access to compelling primary sources, intentionally constructed interactions with people with more direct experiences of violence and war, project-based and other experiential learning opportunities, and countless other avenues.

Indeed, if Remembrance Day is to serve as a time of meaningful tribute and reflection for another century, we must re-enliven the whats and the hows of learning both about the fact and emotion of wars, and particularly great wars past.