Reflecting on the tomb of the unknown soldier

Remembrance days are for remembering, full stop. It's incongruous and disturbing when other things intrude, like the vandalizing of a memorial at Malvern Collegiate this week. Remembrance Day itself arose after World War I, which was a controversial war. Antiwar poets wrote their poems from the trenches. But the Day is about the dead, not the war. They were innocent, even if those who sent them to die weren't. Nov. 11 is theirs.

The memorial symbol that emerged after that war expresses this perfectly: the tomb of the unknown soldier. Nothing like it had ever existed. It spread throughout the world, there are now dozens, on all sides of all wars. It doesn't recall a Nelson, Washington or Brock. The unknown soldier didn't lead or decide. He simply died. I remember philosopher Hannah Arendt marvelling at the image, as if amazed at the ability to create something totally new in the long history of war. She was a German 14-year-old in 1920, when the first tombs were erected.

Poppies are a great symbol, too. They're drawn from In Flanders Fields, a poem by a Canadian doctor in that war. But they can seem diminished by the way politicians and news anchors sometimes wear them with an air of self-congratulation. You can't diminish the unknown soldier. A politician who tried to exploit the tomb would be diminished by it, not vice versa.

The highway of heroes is touching, but evanescent. Perhaps it's just that the Afghanistan war still stretches on and the deaths are too recent to evolve into symbols. A young Canadian died there just two weeks ago.

The tale of the 9/11 memorial on the World Trade Center site is especially unilluminating. There were raw conflicts over design, construction, input and money. U.S. journalist Amy Waldman wrote a novel based on it, The Submission, which feels dull and predictable compared with actual events that occurred, like the uproar over building a Muslim centre near the site.

There have also been efforts to turn remnants from the site into memorial symbols -- like a charred beam which, some people claim, resembles a cross. Atheists objected to including it in the 9/11 museum. There's a hangar at JFK airport that once lodged 1,200 objects salvaged from the towers. They appear in a recent book and in photography shows. They include an Elmer Fudd doll from a souvenir shop with the sign: That's all folks.

Much of what survives calamities has that random quality. I once had a cottage that burned to the ground in a lightning storm. What remained, beyond the hulks of stove and fridge, were four polished stones, a nickel, and a plastic cowboy figure. You could try to find meaning in the Elmer Fudd sign but it would clearly be insane. You simply hang onto that stuff because it survived and it moves you.

This underlines what a brilliant invention the tomb of the unknown soldier was. It isn't easy to make an inspiring statement about a meaningless war. In Spain, where I happen to be, journalist Giles Tremlett met a former member of ETA, the Basque terrorist group, who said the decades of violence there had been generated by mere "patriotic melancholy." Novelist Don Delillo has a character say, "Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It's a settling of grievances between the present and the past ... War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country." The dead deserve remembrance, not the burden of providing helpful hints to future generations about what their deaths meant and why it was all worthwhile.

Consider In Flanders Fields, which actually gives a voice to the fallen: "We are the Dead." It's always read (or sung) on Remembrance Day. But the third verse is a virtual call to continue the carnage: "Take up the quarrel with the foe . . . To you from failing hands we throw the torch . . ." That last line appears on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room, where it does no harm and possibly some good. But even Col. John McRae, the physician who wrote it, might have had second thoughts about that verse, had he survived the war.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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