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Remembrance, 2010

Their Name Liveth

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, in 1918, the guns ceased. During Remembrance Day, the British Commonwealth countries remember those who came before, and those who came after, and all who have given in their nation's service. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" is a common accompaniment at ceremonies, where the wearing of poppies is customary (on the left lapel, or as close to the heart as possible), and organizations like the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, et. al. are supported.

A number of European countries know it as Armistice Day. Americans celebrate it as Veteran's Day.

There's one more kind of remembrance I'd like to point out, and ask you to consider on this day. It's a remembrance of the Bloodlands...

Anne Appelbaum explains in "The Worst of the Madness":

"Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Milosz.... young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom "the killing of a man presents no great moral problem." Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away.

For all of these reasons, Milosz explained, "the man of the East cannot take Americans [or other Westerners] seriously." Because they hadn't undergone such experiences, they couldn't seem to fathom what they meant, and couldn't seem to imagine how they had happened either. "Their resultant lack of imagination," he concluded, "is appalling."1

But Milosz's bitter analysis did not go far enough. Almost sixty years after the poet wrote those words, it is no longer enough to say that we Westerners lack imagination. Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian whose past work has ranged from Habsburg Vienna to Stalinist Kiev, takes the point one step further. In Bloodlands, a brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century, he argues that we still lack any real knowledge of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the twentieth century. And he is right.... Snyder's ambition is to persuade the West - and the rest of the world - to see the war in a broader perspective.... The title of this book, Bloodlands, is not a metaphor. Snyder's "bloodlands," which others have called "borderlands," run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the East, encompassing modern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia (see map on page 10). This is the region that experienced not one but two - and sometimes three - wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction."

All that, and north to Finland, too. The Bloodlands are where the great wars started, and in those wars their name was earned. They are what so many fought for, and failed to fight for, and beyond the effect of those choices on us, lies their own story. Of war, and soldiers. Heroes, and villains. And remembrance.

Their stories, too, must be part of our remembrance. Lest we forget.

UPDATE: See also Canada's National Post today, as Father De Souza makes a similar point in "Karol Wojtyla's War."

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