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November 11 — Remembering more than sacrifice

This spring I visited Gorizia, which today is in Italy but was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the First World War began, and which collapsed afterward. In Canada we more often hear of the battles on the Western Front and perhaps forget that those on the Eastern Front were equally horrific.

Gorizia has two military museums, and it’s striking to go from one to the next. One is in a castle dating to medieval times, and one can’t help admiring the weaponry. The swords, axes, armour and other implements are literally works of art, each meticulously fashioned and individually decorated.

Not that war should be glorified, but one must acknowledge that these weapons needed skill from those who used them, and that they needed the courage to literally meet their enemy face to face.

Just down the street is a second museum featuring the history of the First World War, where many soldiers never saw their enemy. It started after the Industrial Revolution, which allowed mass production of many things, especially weapons. Many are on display at the museum, and they are certainly not pieces of art. They are simply nasty, crude, ugly chunks of steel, refined only to the extent needed to turn them into machines that can fire shells and other devices designed to kill from afar.

Not that it took any less courage to wield them. One particularly disturbing piece of equipment was the crude metal plate — too rough to be called a shield — behind which a soldier crept when advancing on his belly with wire cutters to cut the barbed wire in front of enemy lines. The soldier with that job always died, said the information alongside.

He joined some 8.5 million others in the First World War. They did not lack courage, but unlike those medieval soldiers, many of them died in trenches, never having seen their enemy face to face.

The next war brought the combatants ever farther apart, dropping bombs from thousands of feet in the air. But courage was still needed; bomber crews on those missions faced a slim chance of survival.

Today we’ve evolved to a disturbing combination of medieval and modern. You can’t help acknowledging the technological elegance of today’s weapons. The latest example is the “drone,” flown by someone operating a computer thousands of kilometres away. Elegant technology, but unlike the elegant weaponry of old, it can be wielded with no personal risk, let alone having to meet the enemy face to face.

Aside from the obvious moral questions arising from that is another of how a new generation has been raised to see war as an abstract notion, not much different than a video game.

On November 11 we now honour some members of that generation who know war is for real — those who fought in Afghanistan. Members of the generation who fought in the last world war know better as well, but now every week there are hundreds fewer to remind us of what war is really like.

That means those of us in the generation they raised now have a responsibility to remind new ones of the realities of what they went through. Just as importantly, we need to remind them of what their contributions meant, which means pointing out things that we now take for granted — such as a trip for groceries.

My daughter and her husband live in Gorizia, and their apartment is just a few hundred metres from Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, which dissolved in 1992. While apparently the border crossing was not quite the dangerous affair as between other Soviet Bloc countries, you can’t help but be struck by the steel fence which still runs along the border, and the concrete buildings at the crossing between the two countries. Today they are locked and empty — no barriers, and no guards toting Kalashnikovs. You just walk past with your shopping bags to the supermarket on the other side.

Walking through that empty border post is a striking experience even if you have only read about the history of the many wars in that region. It must be even more remarkable to those who actually experienced them. Where in living memory bullets and shells were flying, today you just walk or drive across the border without stopping, which is more than we can say about a trip between here and the U.S.

This year’s awarding of the Nobel Prize to the European Union was no doubt a deliberate reminder of just how remarkable that is in a part of the world where there had been regular wars for centuries. Problems with the euro look pretty small in comparison.

It’s also a reminder that on November 11, we should not only give thanks to a generation for its sacrifices during the last world war, but for its remarkable wisdom and tolerance in preventing another one.

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