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Monday, November 11, 2013

Honouring Our Heroes - the Fallen and Living

The National War Memorial in Lusaka

Today, the 11th Day of November is what the UK and Commonwealth nations call Remembrance Day (formerly Armistice Day). All week leading up to this people wear red poppies to remember those who gave their lives in military service. Americans call today Veteran’s Day. In America, Remembrance Day is actually commemorated on Memorial Day (in May) which is for those who died while serving, whereas Veterans Day is about appreciating the service of all military personnel, not just those who died. On the Internet, on Twitter and on Facebook, we have been inundated with gratitude directed toward US men and women in uniform being thanked for their service to their country and to protecting its freedoms. Many people will share the reaction of seeing how men and women in uniform are greeted in the US. People stop to shake their hands and to thank them for their service. It is quite remarkable to behold. Now to those of us well aware that many of these military incursions are not motivated by the greater good but control of oil and other resources it may seem baffling that they are so highly regarded. But I think I get it and I admire it.

The Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia - USA

'Our nation's most sacred site' - Arlington National Cemetery 

Veterans and freedom fighters do not get half the recognition that they deserve. My own grandfather fought in the Second World War in Fiji. Like many other young and bewildered Africans, he was carted off to a distant land to wage war in a battle he had absolutely no clue about and then was barely recognised for his service. The struggle for our independence is one that many of us now take for granted. Hindsight is 20/20 and we are fond of applying today’s insights and broad view to events of yesteryear. I think this is unfair because people did what they had to do at that time and so while independence didn’t work out all roses in the end, the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to wrest control of our country from foreign invaders should not be dismissed. These feelings came as a result of witnessing this reverence for military veterans on a visit to Washington DC a few years ago. I was fascinated by the memorials and cemeteries and general solemn acknowledgment of and gratitude toward those who put themselves forward for military service and more so for those who sadly perished. Once back home, the inevitable contrast ensued. That year (2010 or 2011), I watched the November 11th commemorations opposite Cabinet Office with interest. How many people know that pillar or whatever across from Cabinet Office is a war memorial? Visit the Ex-Servicemen's League of Zambia on Facebook to find out more.

The tomb of the 'Unknown American Soldier'. A comfort to families of those whose
bodies were never found or recovered.

The sacrifices of the past are one thing, but our attitude toward our current military is very different from that in the United States. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The military in Zambia are heavily subsidised and generally given a free ride in almost everything, resulting in a sense of entitlement that manifests itself in persistent bad behaviour and indiscipline (if peace keeping reports are to be believed). Add to that the fact that (apart from officer level), it is the less educated and not so academically gifted who often found their way into military ranks and you have an inferiority complex armed with a gun in an environment where civil liberties are restricted. Our attitude toward the military is not pride or gratitude but fear. This is unfortunate because by God’s grace we have so far survived without outright military conflict. Yes the army are deployed to support the ruling party and control large crowds, but that is about all they do. The recent terror attacks in Kenya’s Westlands Mall show that even peace loving nations are vulnerable. The enemy comes in many guises these days. I doubt if as a country we have the first clue of what to do or how to react were something like that to occur here (God forbid). The 2012 Afcon victory celebrations and 2011 Presidential inauguration are two recent examples of just how poor planners we are and underscore the woeful inadequacy of our preparations.

There are always dozens of tourists arriving to pay their respects every minute

But being in a military or law enforcement job means that it is not like being a teacher. Nursing and teaching are both noble professions and those who hold such positions make many sacrifices, but rarely would they be called upon to sacrifice their own lives for the good of others. Of course, even in America you often hear complaints that once their tour is over, veterans are just dumped back home without the proper support needed to re-integrate into society and make a meaningful life for them. No longer in uniform, the gratitude dries up and remains empty words. Because I have American friends whose children and loved ones are fighting in Afghanistan and other places, I have developed a deeper respect for what families go through waiting for a son or daughter to return safely. All the while worrying that should they come back alive, how different will they be.

JFK's memorial. Contrast this dignified memorial with the ostentatious one
for the late President Chiluba

So on this Remembrance Day, my thoughts turn to our fallen men and women. I remember my grandfather and his friends, but I can’t think of anyone beyond those long departed veterans. I don’t know whether or not to call them heroes because I don’t really know anything about how or why they died or even who they are. We commemorate Remembrance Day because it was instituted after WWI and we were part of the 'British Empire', so had to commemorate it too. And yet it didn’t really have much significance or relevance for us as being young nations, our Independence is what meant more to us and still does. So in this regard, Independence Day is much easier because I know, understand and am grateful for the sacrifice of our Freedom Fighters.

But still, I remember...

Courtesy of Facebook

p.s. These pictures were all taken by the author. Please email to ask before you use them.

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