11 NOVEMBER: REMEMBRANCE DAY |
November 14, 2012
Stationed in: Afghanistan
I’d not given much thought to the 11th of November. I know in America that it is Veterans Day and intuitively also knew that it marked the end of the First World War. But having never lived in Europe or found myself working alongside a NATO led coalition on this day I was unaware of its larger significance. I first noticed my ignorance about a week ago when small red poppies began to appear on the lapels of our British counterparts. They’re not unlike the small poppies that the American Legion can be found selling all across America. How these arrived in Afghanistan I don’t know, but their very presence indicates that it was meaningful enough for someone to plan. Nothing arrives here by accident.
I took note of the propagating poppies. They spread across the coalition, though they remained most dense among our British, Australian and New Zealand compatriots. I tried to correct a Brit in my office by letting him know he had something green stuck in the flash of his beret. I thought perhaps a piece of paper, or maybe a leaf had gotten stuck in it and torn off. If I had given this more thought I could have saved myself the embarrassment of making such an observation as I have yet to see much of anything the color green since arriving in Afghanistan. He corrected me gently and with a smile told me that it was supposed to be there. It was a poppy leaf.
So today we gathered in front of the ISAF HQ for a memorial event. The official party arrived, complete with bagpipes and bugles. It was a somber and respectful event. As the bugle played early on my eye and ear were drawn to a large black and brown bird with a bright yellow beak that was squawking loudly. Another bird answered his every call and it was almost as if they were competing with the bugle for dominance over the tiny patch of lawn that we had all gathered around.
I watched as ambassadors and soldiers from the coalition all laid wreaths together at the base of the ISAF and NATO flags. Soldiers and diplomats, side by side marking the loss of men they never knew. I was actually a bit taken aback by the final speaker, a French Lt. General. We all have our cultural biases and preconceived notions about others, to say we don’t would be nothing short of a lie. But I was humbled by his honesty and the sincerity he displayed when he thanked the members of the coalition that came to France’s aid during her time of need. He spoke first in French and then in English and even the birds seemed to cede the space to him. Saying “thank you” is often one of the hardest things we do and sometimes it comes across as perfunctory or mechanical, but today, even though I don’t speak French, I got the message loud and clear. You are welcome, sir.
It’s worth taking a moment here to consider the coalition of which I am part of today. Not quite a hundred years ago many of the nations represented here at ISAF were busy doing their very best to completely destroy one another. This day marks the end of that war and the short peace that followed. Let us not forget that war came again to Europe; diplomacy failed and the peace that was so hard to achieve did not last.
Europe had known war and conflict for hundreds of years. It was really a continent at war with outbreaks of peace as states fought and struggled to stand up and claim their sovereignty, carving their very identity out of the checkerboard of kingdoms that once covered the continent. That war returned to Europe is really no surprise. That it has not returned again is nothing short of an unmatched achievement in history.
Sixty-odd years ago most of the members of this coalition were at war with each other yet again. Today I watched as the members of NATO—among them Germans, Americans, Brits, French, Italians and others—stood side by side and mourned their own dead. More importantly, they stood side by side and resolved to fight not against each other but rather to fight together for a common goal; one that I believe is as just and as bringing peace to Europe was.
As the final notes of the last hymn were finished the squawking bird’s calls had mellowed into a steady and pleasant song. It was almost as if he had decided to join the coalition himself. The bagpipes came slowly alive and the small circular lawn in front of ISAF HQ emptied in a steady column of coalition uniforms. When the ceremony finally came to an end the silence was profound. I could actually hear the 39 flags of the coalition gently tossing in the breeze. At the center point of the assembly of flags flies the banner of Afghanistan, bracketed by the ISAF flag and the NATO flag. I hadn’t noticed it before today.
I wonder if sixty years from now an Afghan General who has not yet been born will take the stage someplace and thank the members of a coalition for his freedom.
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.