‘He was one of the lucky ones who came home’: remembering the high cost of peace

Peace comes at the end of war.

Perhaps that is why the Royal Canadian Legion makes it a point to acknowledge the end of conflicts without commemorating when they began. Organizers of the annual Poppy Campaign, this year the Legion highlighted the stories of veterans who lost their lives in the service of Canada as Remembrance Day approached – a reminder of the value of peace.

It was 1944, and Ted (my honorary second father) and his friends had just graduated from high school. Walking into the military recruiting office in Chilliwack, British Columbia, they enlisted in droves. After training as an Air Force gunner, Ted was deployed to Britain. At that time, World War II was coming to an end and he was one of the lucky ones who returned home.

A lifetime later, in a long-term care facility where Ted resided, we commemorated many Remembrance Days. We turned on the television, closed the door to his room and watched the ceremonies. I didn’t always know what he was thinking – the stroke he suffered in his 80s caused a loss of speech – but the odd tear gave some clues. This loving grandfather with a bright smile and a kind heart had been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for what he believed in. Not for his own sake, but for the welfare of millions of people he would never know. It is heroism.

Each year, politicians and other notables lay wreaths at cenotaphs, speak of those who have sacrificed their lives for the good of the country, and pledge to work for peace. But do they?

This year, Remembrance Day seems particularly poignant. In February, Russia invades Ukraine. World leaders pledged their country’s support for Ukraine, saying the fine line between democracy and tyranny was in jeopardy. The rhetoric sparked memories of World War II and why young high school graduates like Ted had enlisted. What would have happened if Hitler had not been stopped in his mad desire to conquer Europe?

World War II lasted six years and finally confused the entire planet after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The war in the Pacific ended in 1945 after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing immeasurable suffering and loss of life. It is difficult to say how many lives were lost in total during the war. Including civilians, estimates range from 35 million to 60 million dead on all sides – numbers so large that it is difficult to comprehend, let alone calculate.

What happens if Russian President Vladimir Putin is not arrested? He repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons over Ukraine, threatening all of our lives, even here in North America.

This year, I am not sharing Remembrance Day with Ted, as he is unfortunately no longer with us. Why did he enlist? Not to promote war, but to create peace – something humans seem to only know how to achieve through war. Every Remembrance Day I wonder if this will be the year the high cost of peace really sinks in, and we really begin to honor all those who gave their lives for it.

Jennifer Cole is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

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