When I was 14, my family and I travelled to Belgium, and it was during this trip that we spent a day driving around the countryside of Flanders, more commonly known as Flanders Fields. Nearly a century ago, this land was the site of The World War, The Great War, and ultimately, World War I, for twenty years later, World War II necessitated this distinction, and it was in Flanders that the battles of Ypres, the Somme, and Passchendaele were fought. This was the land of the trenches, a living Hell on earth, and the scars of war lay everywhere. And yet, the land of Flanders was resilient, and while the scars may remain, the wounds had long since healed.
It is hard to describe the inherent contradiction of modern day Flanders, because as we drove along those roads, our views consisted of green fields filled with grazing animals, small farmhouses with smoke puffing out of their chimneys, and a quiet calm that somehow seemed out of place. However, if you were to look closer, the remains of war came into focus, marking the terrain decades after the last troops left the battlefields. Craters from explosions left holes in the ground, trenches still cut through the land, and at nearly every crossroad, tiny signs pointed the way to the hundreds of cemeteries that are spread throughout the countryside. I had always thought that Flanders Fields was one single mass gravesite, but I quickly learned that the graves of the fallen soldiers were spread throughout the land, buried in the grounds that have been donated by the local landowners. We visited dozens of cemeteries, some holding several hundred graves, some holding a mere fifty, and as I walked among the headstones, reading the names and ages of young men, some as young as 16, I came to realize the true cost of war. The worst were the headstones bearing the simple inscription, “A Soldier of the Great War”, and tears would prick my eyes knowing that these soldiers gave so much, only to be denied a name in death.
It was a powerful experience for a sheltered, suburban kid of 14, but it is one that I will never forget. The images of those tombstones will be forever enshrined in my memory, and the lessons learned from those graves will never be forgotten. But above all else, I will always remember Flanders as a beacon of hope. World War I was supposed to be the War to End All Wars, but instead a century of bloodshed, slaughter, and violence followed in its wake. While we may adhere to Lest We Forget, it would seem that remembrance does not necessarily mean progress, and while we may wear our poppies, we also bear the weight of a history ignored. There seems to be no limit to the cruelty we humans can commit towards one another, but I know that whatever damage we may inflict, we will always recover. If Flanders can find a way to come back from Hell, to heal its wounds, and to emerge as a land of peace, then there is hope for us all. Every November 11th, as I stand and give my two minutes of silence, I will hold fast in my heart the knowledge that no matter what evil we may face, there is nothing that we cannot overcome.