November 11th is Remembrance Day here in Canada, Veterans Day in the US, observed throughout the Commonwealth to honour those who have died in the line of duty.
We remember the more than 2,300,000 Canadians who have served throughout our nation’s history and the more than 118,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Remembrance Day was first observed in 1919 throughout the British Commonwealth. It was originally called ‘Armistice Day’ to commemorate the agreement that ended the First World War on Monday, November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In order to honour the day, we changed our usual pub by the sea for a draught at the local Legion. The view isn’t as spectacular and the clientele isn’t as diverse, mostly pensioners, from sexagenarians to octogenarians. There are no servers, only a bar tender but the beer is cheap and plentiful. Legions in Canada can be found in every town and city, from the Billy Bishop Branch in Kits to the Roberts Creek Branch here on the coast, most of them struggling to survive but one of the few places where you can still dance to live music by local cover bands on most Saturdays. It’s also a place to have cheap lunch on Fridays and play some serious snooker or darts.
‘What do you think Camp. Are the wars glorified by the pageantry of Remembrance Day ceremonies?’
‘I think we need to remember those who paid the ultimate price for politician’s folly and hubris. There is no need for wars in today’s world, where communication and modern technology can prevent any kind of misunderstanding but yet tribal claims to territory, may they be Russian, Chinese or British will ultimately lead to armed conflict.’
‘Should we remember the fallen and wounded in the latest imperial assault and misadventure in Ukraine and should we only mourn the victims of the victors. Do we include the fallen Germans and Russians in our Remembrance Day celebrations, if you can call it that.?
‘All the young people who have been drafted by whatever power that sends them to die against perceived enemies, more often than not brothers and sisters of the same tribe as in the Balkans or today in the Ukraine or Ethiopia, should be included in our memorial rituals,’ Camp said, taking a swig from his pint.
‘I immigrated to Canada in order to get away from the draft in Switzerland,’ I said. ‘Even today, young men are conscripted to serve in the Swiss military while women can volunteer. They are seconded to barracks, clad in uniforms and deployed according to their skill or wish-list, from communications to infantry, from engineers to pilots, for 18 – 21 weeks and then every other year until they are in their 30ies for 3-week repetition courses. Everyone is issued a SIG SG 550 assault rifle that is kept at home and always in functioning condition. An inspection could happen at any random time.
‘Is this something the Swiss want to do? It sounds crazy for a country that hasn’t been in an active war since Napoleon.’
‘In 2013, a referendum that aimed to abolish conscription was held in Switzerland. It failed with over 73% of the electorate voting against it, in favour of keeping the conscription of men. Which goes to show that the military has a very strong presence for a neutral country. You can see hordes of young men in uniform, especially in train stations. When I grew up, every Sunday morning the peace was shattered first by the duelling church bells and then by rifle fire from the nearby shooting range. At lunch the pubs would be filled up by men with rifles slung over their shoulders, returning from the range,’ I said.
‘Do they really issue Swiss Army knives?’
‘Yes, every soldier is issued a Victorinox Soldier’s Standard Issue 08 Swiss Army Knife. You can buy it at Amazon for about eighty bucks.’
Camp looked around. ‘I guess this is self-serve. Tell you what, I’ll go and get the next round and you pick a song on the juke box.’
I picked: Salt of the Earth by the Rolling Stones. Here are the first two verses.
Let’s drink to the hard working people
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
I was an American draft dodger twice, in 1955 and again in 1966. The first time I went south, the second time north.
(details in my memoir Foxtrot and essay collection Stardust.)
I like that Stones’ song. After all, Keith Richard is not just a pretty face.