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Lest we forget, remembering war

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Tyne Cot Cemetary in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. Image: Thomas Quine/Flickr

On the 101st anniversary of the First World War, I am reminded of a school trip I made to Belgium 20 years ago, where I stood in silence with my classmates in a field filled with innumerable rows of plain white tombstones. These were the battlefields of the Great War, where not long before, wave after wave of men perished in one of the most brutal and bloody conflicts of our time. As I wandered through the trenches, reimagining the visceral scenes and belts of barbed wire, I thought of the tens of thousands of men ordered to climb the parapet to almost certain death in no man's land, the muddy indeterminate grave between two opposing fronts where soldiers were mowed down by machine guns, artillery and bombardment.

A few days ago, I read about a 22-year-old Instagrammer who complained of the intensity of learning about Britain's world wars and its adverse impact on the mental health of schoolchildren. In the same breath, he lamented that millennials were entirely unequipped to deal with modern-day challenges such as Brexit and climate change. These views prompted outrage, fanned ironically by many of the same tabloids that today make their margins on the sensationalism of mass human suffering.

The piece made me wonder about our ability to narrate the tragedy of war in a way that is both respectful and comprehensible -- that galvanizes affirmative civic response without allowing the past to stagnate in overwhelming melancholy stasis. In my case, the trip to Ypres affected me in a way that I was unable to communicate at the time. Standing amongst the endless lines of graves, I hit an interpretive impasse, where the gulf of comprehension was just too wide for me to hurdle alone as a child. In truth, the doleful expanse of the Western Front reminded me of the meadows of Kashmir, my ancestral homeland, site also to thousands of unmarked mass graves. Flanked by the Himalayas on the outskirts of old Srinagar lies one such cemetery, the Martyrs' Graveyard, where the inscription at the gate gestures to a well-known epitaph of the Great War: "Lest You Forget We Have Given Our Today For Your Tomorrow." A few years later, I volunteered at a local orphanage in Kashmir and found myself reciting the same world war poetry that I myself had been taught, only this time I was reading to a classroom of boys whose fathers had been killed in war or fighting for freedom. The words suddenly took on a different depth.

Sometimes I wonder what other children with direct or continued experience of war feel on Remembrance Day. What do Indigenous communities feel, or refugees, or veterans? Or young Black men growing up in the inner cities of America? What lens do we bring to the story of universal human pain? Remembrance connotes a chapter of history, a lesson learnt, a "never again" -- but what have we really remembered, and what are we reflecting on in our moment's silence? Is remembrance about the traumas of the past -- or that such a poignant day is made more poignant because the war that was meant to end all wars turned out not to be? Not only was it succeeded by the Second World War, which introduced killing technologies of chilling calculation and premeditated murder of mass scale, it was followed by the abomination of nuclear holocaust, which witnessed atomic bombs being dropped not once but twice on civilian populations in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then there have been so many wars which are not taught or remembered in our history books. Neither can the recent war on terror and the global devastation wrought by regime change conflicts be understated, simply because we are not the ones getting killed.

Over the years, I have visited many war memorials across the world, and I have always found them lacking. There is something static about these monuments, which does not reflect the currency of emotion that ebbs and flows in my heart from my own experience of conflict. In Rwanda, I was taken aback by the marked political undertones of educational placards that pitched the tragedy of the Holocaust against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In South Korea, I visited a commemorative museum where I was offered to pose in stocks wearing the shorn fatigues and chains of a concentration camp prisoner.

Perhaps there are limits to how we translate the potential for unabated human cruelty such that we need to distil evil to villains simply to protect our hearts from ourselves. Otherwise how else can we teach our children that the macabre histories of the London Dungeon did not truly end with the hang-drawn-and-quartering of the medieval ages, as if the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, or the gruesome beheading videos of ISIL were not reminder enough of the barbaric horrors still thriving in our world?

How can I reconcile placing a poppy in my lapel with the funding of foreign wars and the rising tide of xenophobia, when drowned bodies of refugee children continue to wash up on European shores? Do the forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria simply not count? That no official figure even exists on the number of Afghan civilians killed since the U.S. invasion in 2001 speaks volumes. And what about the immoral bombardment of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, which has led to the deaths of over 50,000 children, or the inhumane blockade of Gaza where each day thousands of minors are forced to risk their lives smuggling basic goods through perilous tunnels under the border to stave off poverty? What about the concentration camps in Xinjiang, or the silent unchecked genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Does one day of remembrance compensate for a year of apathy to all of these tragedies, where very little now pricks the human conscience in the global glut of sorrow? Even now as I write, I think of my loved ones in Kashmir who remain under siege for the past three months in an open-air prison occupied by almost 1 million soldiers struggling to earn the very same freedoms I am asked to reflect on. How am I remembering them?

For me, remembrance poses many uncomfortable questions with no easy answers. Do we treat war as an aberration in human history, or as the darker shadows of our better spirits that we need to continuously counter? How am I to remember tragedy in a way that remains uncomplacent and accounts for the sad realities of our fragmented Earth today? How do you put a lesson to senseless pain? How can you plough the depths of human suffering and find solace in silence? All I know for sure is that when I look at the world around me, I see inequities and global challenges that are compelling and testing the bounds of our humanity in ways we could never contemplate a century ago. Laying a wreath at a cenotaph once a year is simply not enough.

Shama Naqushbandi is a lawyer and writer based in Toronto, and author of The White House, winner of "Best Novel," Brit Writers Awards.

Image: Thomas Quine/Flickr

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