It is ironic that Remembrance Day commemorates the end of World War I, a conflict dubbed at the time the “War to end all wars.” Canada’s day of honour, November 11, causes those who have never fought to remember the symbols of war, the pomp and state honours usually traded for suffering on the “field of honour.” But honouring the war veterans themselves can be tricky.
In 2005, the French department of war decided to mark the departure of the last war veteran of WWI with all the pomp and ceremony of a national funeral. This government commission, under the President’s authority, did not deem necessary to consult the vets themselves.
“Bullshit,” said French war vet Louis de Cazenave, who is 110, when he heard of the plans to make his funeral a national affair. He is one of two remaining veterans from WWI. “I have other plans for that day,” he said in an interview with Le Monde last week. He wants to be buried in the familial lot in his native Saint Georges d’Aurac.
“I never liked honours and medals, it’s a load of crap” he added. The man came back from the front lines transformed into a convicted pacifist.
De Cazenave also proved to be annoyingly free-spirited when it came to accepting the “Légion d’Honneur”, France’s highest distinction, in 1990.
“This is ridiculous. Most of my friends out there never had even a wooden cross to mark their grave, and I should receive this?” he pondered. “They can pin it or stuff it where they want,” he concluded.
Lazare Ponticelli, the other survivor, is equally unfazed by the national funerals. “They should have done a little something before, when a lot of us were still alive. Even a little something. This is too little, too late. I’ll watch the commemorations as for every year, if I can, but I don’t want to hear about those national funerals. They are insulting to the memory of all the others,” he said.
When veterans return from war, we call them heroes. We may give them a seat on the bus, but that’s as far as most of us will go. They are heroes, they have medals, while we have a poppy on our lapel for one week in the year.
Surely, the duty of memory can be made more deeply.