I have this picture of my grandparents on their wedding day. She is the quintessential blushing bride; he is the handsome soldier. My whole life this picture has hung somewhere on a wall in our home, and growing up it spoke to me – of love, of joy, of happily ever after. My grandparents spent most of their engagement separated from each other by World War II, and were married as soon as he returned. It’s a romantic story, isn’t it? She waited for him, he fought to get back to her. For a long time, this picture of the strong smiling soldier and his beautiful bride was the naive and innocent filter through which I understood war.
When I was 10 my family went to see Schindler’s List in the theatre, and I sat beside my grandpa. To be honest, most of the movie was over my head at that age, and I know for sure I slept through some of it, but I remember very clearly looking at my grandpa at one point during the movie, and seeing through the frames of his glasses, the tears pouring down his face. They glowed in the reflection of the images on the screen. It was the first and only time I saw him cry.
It would be years before I began to understand the reasons why. As a History major in university, I spent four years studying various conflicts around the world. The assassination that led to this war, the tribal tension that resulted in that battle, the ethnic divisions that created hatred and genocide in this or that place. I came away with a theoretical understanding of why countries send their troops into battle. But that’s all it was. Theoretical.
And then I went to Afghanistan. I met women who had gathered together in basements, whispering lessons to each other because they knew it was illegal for them to learn, and they could be killed if they were caught. I met men who had joined the fight for freedom against a tyrannical regime, and ended up wounded for life in a place where that means never being able to work and provide for your family again. I saw burned out tanks littering the countryside, found the tails of rockets on our walking trails, took note of which hillsides to avoid because they were full of landmines, and walked in craters left in the earth from the bombs that had fallen from the sky.
And I met soldiers – from Sweden and the US, from Turkey and Canada. Sometimes they would come to the compound where we lived to check on our security, sometimes they would come with supplies for our school and kindergarten – supplies that had often been collected and sent by their families back home. They would show us pictures of their wives or husbands and kids, and tell us exactly how long it would be, to the hour, before they would see them again. And I could see the toll that being away from them took. The sacrifice that they were making to be in a foreign country, to fight for peace and security.
In Afghanistan, I learned that the fight is worth fighting, because people deserve to live in freedom. And I learned that freedom comes at a high cost. Because sometimes those soldiers miss out on the birth of their children, or their kids first steps. Sometimes they get injured and have to go through the work of dealing with a disability for the rest of their lives. Sometimes all that they have seen and done weighs too heavily on their hearts and minds, and it becomes a battle just to get through a day. Sometimes they don’t come home.
And it’s not just the soldiers who sacrifice their time and lives, but their families too. Moms and dads who become single parents while their partner is away. Parents who worry constantly for their child’s health and safety. Couples that have to relearn to live together, and be in relationship after a long time apart.
I have found myself, in the last few years, looking at that picture of my grandparents in a whole new way. Behind the smile of the the handsome soldier, I imagine there was a lot of pain too. For that blushing bride on her wedding day, I imagine the challenge ahead of her, in learning to support a husband who had been through such tragedy, was immense.
Today is Remembrance Day – a day to pay tribute to the soldiers who have fought for our freedom, and to those who continue to do so. Today is a day for remembering those we have lost, and those we still have with us. Today is a day I will sing my anthem proudly, in honour of those who fight to keep our land glorious and free.
Today is Remembrance Day. Lest we forget.