Remembrance Day is always a curious day for me. If it hadn’t been for the Vietnam War, today would be, for me, not Remembrance Day but Veterans Day. My own life was changed by war — not by a war in which I fought, but by a war in which I declined to fight.
Whenever Remembrance Day approaches, I experience a number of emotions: sadness that the suffering and death war causes still endure; peace of mind that the decisions I made more than 40 years ago, I would make again; reflection about my relationship to those individuals I know whose histories differ so greatly from mine.
This competing group of emotions was especially acute during the more than 30 years in which, as part of my job, I participated in the annual ceremonies of the day. It should have felt a little strange that I, an American draft resister, was leading Canadian teenagers in official tributes to their country’s warriors.
Thankfully, Canadians associate Remembrance Day not with false glory and shrill patriotism but with a full awareness of the loss and sacrifice that war brings. This thoughtful attitude encourages all Canadians, veterans and non-veterans, to consider the complex realities of war. The absence of nationalistic bravado made it possible for everyone, for me, to participate in all good conscience, to join the common reflection which characterizes the day. So instead of discomfort or a feeling of isolation, Remembrance Day gives me a strong sense of how fortunate I am to have lived my adult life here.
A more personal aspect of my experience of Remembrance Day came soon after retirement, when I joined an exercise group for cardiac rehab patients. Many members of the group were older than I am, and more than a few of them were veterans of World War II or the wives of veterans. My own family remained in California, so this was my most extended contact as an adult with people of the WWII generation.
Like all Canadians I have met, without a single exception in 40 years, these elder soldiers welcomed me into their group. Some of them, volunteers in their war, shared my feelings about the Vietnam War. They had fought in what was arguably the last anti-imperial war, and they recognized that the war that I had resisted was nothing at all like the one that they had fought.
While we exercised, we often listened to music. One day, as a small surprise, I brought in a CD of 40′s dance band music. At first, I just enjoyed watching the smiles and the dancing feet. Later on, I started to watch the faces of the old folks as they sang along to the songs of their youth. What Elvis and Dion were to me, Glenn Miller and The Andrews Sisters were to them.
As I watched them, I listened more closely to the words they were repeating. “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover.” “I’ll be seeing you in apple blossom time.” To them, these were not just superficial old pop songs; they were profound expressions of the emotions of separation and conflict, emotions that these people had lived.
As the veterans and their war brides and their widows sang, as their faces softened and they turned inside, into private thoughts I could only imagine, I saw them — and the costs of their war — in new ways.
It’s a scene I haven’t forgotten, and every Remembrance Day I think of it.