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On November 11, Here's What I Remember

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Remembrance Day: A day for everyone to remember and honour our dead. But memories are not of a collective nature. We all have our own personal recollections. Mine, when I think of Remembrance Day, go back to WWII and the summer of 1944.

I was eight years old. The Germans had just retreated from the Arno River Line, allowing the Americans to finally "liberate" us. Although the war in Europe was to last several more months, for those like us who lived in Tuscany, the horror was finally over.

That November I visited the local cemetery with my grandmother. Together with the flowers she had brought for her parents' tomb, she had brought others and placed them near the white crosses of unknown soldiers who had died in our area. I was surprised she distributed them equally among those whom we called "allies" as well as those whom we had called "enemies."

"They were all men ordered to war by their governments," she said. "Men who fought for their ideals, who sacrificed their youth, and gave their life for their own countries. In that", she concluded, "they are all equal and worthy of respect."

Later, I saw men in the parade. They were veterans of two World Wars accompanied by a marching band, parading through the streets of our town until they reached the main square. Then silently and solemnly, a wreath was placed at the monument of the Unknown Soldier.

"Why do we learn so little from our experiences?" said my grandmother wiping her tears. "How many more deaths do we need before we learn to live in peace, together?"

I still didn't quite know what she was talking about. I was in junior high by then, imbued with the spirit of the Homeric poems, and the daring acts of its heroes. I had already forgotten about the real horrors of war.

But I was reminded of them a few years later, as I travelled south of Rome and saw the hills near Cassino covered with thousands of white crosses. The town had witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting of WWII and those crosses represented the youths of many countries who had died on those hills. Young men from Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Britain, Poland, France, Morocco and others. All were united in the fight against Nazism. All following orders, for different reasons and different national objectives... and all dead.

Those who return from any war are called "veterans," and their respective governments and fellow citizens honour them for having obeyed the call. For risking their life and sacrificing months or years of a short existence to often doubtful causes. For purposes not always clear, not always understood, sometimes not even honourable.

In a world that has seen and continues to see so many wars, destruction, death, wouldn't it be better to put more effort working for peace and understanding? If words like "let's go and kick ass" in foreign lands, would be erased from our lingo? If the veterans of one country, upon meeting the veterans of another country, would shake hands and together reflect on the ultimate destructive silliness of war?

A poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier who fought in the First World War symbolizes for me the utter sadness of war:

"We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved, and we loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields."

Marking Remembrance Day -- 2011
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