Today there will only be eight minutes of words followed by two minutes of silence. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that is what we do. We stand silently for two minutes to remember those who must remain silent forever.
The dead cannot speak and, apparently, we shouldn’t speak for them.
One hundred years ago, World War I was entering its second winter. No-one had thought it could last so long. That Christmas, informal and undeclared ceasefires sprung up all along the line. In some places, soldiers exchanged songs and small gifts between the trenches. There were stories of impromptu soccer matches being played in No Man’s Land.
In subsequent years such displays of solidarity were explicitly forbidden by the high commands on both sides of the war. They could hardly let soldiers discover they had more in common than the barb wire that separated them. Their voices were silenced by the roar of cannons and the hiss of gas.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, slogans began to appear in urban centres all over North America.
To remain silent about a growing plague was to court death. But it wasn’t the silence of the victims they were criticizing but that of the establishment, ever slow to recognize deaths that they thought didn’t affect them.
We know that this slogan reveals a larger truth. Silence about domestic abuse, about bullying, about corporate malfeasance when it comes to safety or the environment, silence about any number of things always results in death.
Yet, when it comes to remembering, silence seems to be as much as we can accomplish. There are those who refuse to remain silent, who refuse to wear a red poppy or even choose to wear a white one, signifying that they have something more to say about war, its causes and what we should really do to remember and honour our fallen soldiers.
All too often they are shouted down.
But maybe what we need to do is not remain silent but shout at the top of our lungs: Never Again.
But that’s eight minutes.