Remembering what we haven't known 

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This Sunday marks the first Remembrance Day in a decade that Canadian troops have not been on combat duty in Afghanistan. That mission officially ended last December.

How successful the mission in Afghanistan has been will be judged by history. A decade of fighting — longer than the First and Second World Wars combined — has certainly brought change to one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Whether the fighting has led to the establishment of principles, such as women's right to education, remains to be seen.

As Canadians we are very fortunate to have been spared the front-row seats on a war that Afghanis, Syrians and many others have had. The last declared war on what is now Canadian soil was 200 years ago, although the North-West Rebellion in 1885 led to a series of battles and dozens of deaths.

Without living through it, it's difficult to understand how horrific war can be. Television coverage of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Vietnam and other wars conveys some of the madness but it doesn't penetrate our lives beyond the television screen. No bullets, rubble or disease enter our homes from foreign wars.

Veterans Affairs acknowledges that most people in Canada have never experienced war, so "remembrance" can be a challenge. How do you remember what you haven't known?

Part of the answer may be to try and understand what war is. The First World War, the conclusion of which was the origin of Remembrance Day, is illustrative. The bloody battles on the Western Front ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 under terms of the armistice signed at 5 a.m. that morning by the Allies and Germany. Fighting, and killing, continued right up to 11 a.m. that day.

Four years earlier, going off to war was seen by many as a great adventure. Most went with enthusiasm. Some signed up because they couldn't find a job. Many considered it an honour to put their lives on the line for freedom and their country, as many still do today. But in 1914 faith in "King and country" was stronger than it is today; the idea of dying for your country was less ambiguous. In his book Baptism of Fire historian Nathan Greenfield quotes a letter from a Prince Edward Island volunteer to his mother: "You have three sons and three daughters. Surely you can at least spare one for the sake of our Mother Country, in the defence of honour and righteousness..."

The assumption is that "the ultimate sacrifice," if made, will have been necessary to achieve victory, freedom or a way of life. But the First World War cast skepticism on that assumption. It was as primitive as war gets. Bayonets were more lethal than aircraft, as the latter were used primarily for spotting. For much of the war cavalry — soldiers on horseback — were viewed as strategically more important than machine guns.

The Western Front, a meandering line of trenches from Belgium to Switzerland, barely moved for four years. In some places the lines were so close soldiers could yell across no man's land to the enemy, a temporary diversion from the water, rats and body parts that often filled the trenches.

Only the philosophy of the commanders may have been as appalling as the conditions. After the muddy apocalypse of Passchendaele — a battle that was expected to take a few days in the summer of 1917 but which lasted three and a half months and took 570,000 lives — Sir Douglas Haig argued that any German loss of men was more important than British losses, because the Allies could outlast the Germans now that the Americans had joined the war effort.

About 100,000 British Empire soldiers were "lost" in four years just in the area around Ypres, Belgium. No trace was ever found of more than 50,000 men, their bodies blown to a million pieces or buried in the mud bog that the area became. The others couldn't be identified. Fragments of bodies are buried beneath 40,000 headstones that read: "A soldier of the Great War; Known unto God."

In Canada, "Remembrance Day commemorates Canadians who died in service to Canada..." But Veterans Affairs also says it is a time of "remembrance for the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace."

Sunday we remember. We remember the 158 Canadian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. We should remember all the soldiers who served Canada in Afghanistan. We should remember the two Canadian aid workers, the diplomat and the Canadian journalist who died in Afghanistan.

And because we tend to forget, we should remember how little war resolves. We should remember that when it's all over, the cost is always greater than anticipated.

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