This is the week of November 11 – in Canada, we call it Remembrance Day, which I quite like: it’s meant to be not simply about watching parades of veterans and thinking of it as someone else’s issue some time ago; it’s meant to be about remembering. In the United States, there is a separate Memorial Day, but it is mainly treated as a long weekend, and November 11 is Veterans’ Day – it celebrates their valor and honors their actions and sacrifices, but if you are not a veteran, you may think it doesn’t relate to you. In Canada, when we remember their valour and honour them, it is a nice little coincidence that we make u a part of it, through the happenstance of spelling. We read the rondeau by John McCrae, the beginning of which is on our five-dollar bills:
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I don’t wish to valorize war. War is an awful thing, and many who have never actually been involved in it (who may even have gone to considerable lengths to evade participation) take it too lightly, as a sort of calculation of loss and benefit, or even approach it eagerly, happy to send hundreds or thousands of young men – and, now, women – to their deaths. War ought not to be looked on as merely the continuation of business by other means. I would rather there not be another war, ever, and to my knowledge that desire is also common among those who have fought in them. And I think many wars have been fought without a valid basis, although when we are faced with a Hitler, for instance, there may not be another option to be found.
But what we need to remember is that, however little we may like war or even think it necessary, the people who have fought in it are, by and large, people like you and me – except that they went somewhere and did something that put their lives in genuine jeopardy, and they did it for the sake of others, some to their very valediction. They walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and you can bet they had plenty of evil to fear. Can you truly say you would do the same, for the cause of what you held dearest, or to protect others, or even just because you had made a commitment and were told to? We know there is a u in valour – the Canadian and British spelling, anyway – but is there valour in you?
What is valour, anyway? Certainly, we have learned from Shakespeare that “the better part of valour is discretion” (Henry IV, Part I, act 5, scene 4). But does this mean that people who were following orders – and thus were not granted the discretion to do otherwise – lacked valour? Of course not, not really; they could have turned and run. But if they had they would surely “hold their manhoods cheap” (to borrow a phrase from Henry V); what values would they have displayed, and what would have displayed their values?
Is valour about values and about value? Indeed, its origins are just that: Latin valere, which means “be strong” but also “have value” and “be healthy”. Romans said vale for “farewell” – a final wish of health, from which we get valediction but also, ironically, valetudinarian. French uses valoir to mean “be worth”, as in ça vaut la peine, “it’s worth the trouble”; valeur can be “value” as in “cost” (yes, value is also from valere), but also “valour” as in something that can cost you dearly; this sense shows up in the Canadian anthem: “Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protégera nos foyers et nos droits.” (Note, just incidentally, that valeur is a feminine noun in French, in spite of any overtones of virility it may often have.)
But valour is not some simple Val Kilmer heroism, just as it is not villainy. Valour is close in sound to failure, but of course it is not failure, although one may have valour and yet still not achieve what one had hoped. Nor does it come down to the velour on a ribbon holding a medal – perhaps the Cross of Valour, awarded (rarely, and among those times often posthumously) for “acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril” to civilians or soldiers alike (actually, there is no velour on its ribbon). Value may exist by common agreement, but valour is valid even when unrecognized (and, yes, even when demonstrated at times other than war).
As with all words, the meaning of valour is somewhat fluid, and can be debated and spoken on by people at great length, and what it will mean for you may be quite different from what it will mean for another. But I’d like to quote Sandy McLeod, a friend of my father (Warren Harbeck), to give his perspective on it:
Valour is instantaneous in most cases and does not involve the person themself and yet it does, most forcefully. Facing certain death, instantly not caring for yourself, but giving all for others without their asking or even knowing you, out of nowhere, instantaneously you will do it for them, giving your life without questioning the reason why it has to be done – just to do it, in total one-hundred-percent unselfishness, in an instant of thought and call to action in defence of another or others: “It’s a calling.” Not everyone is chosen for that calling and in fact most are not. That call comes from somewhere much higher and greater than most of us can even imagine.
In my view valour is much more than just courage. In my view and experience of living and seeing all of that for so many years, valour is God’s Grace in action – not just courage, it’s beyond courage. In most moments of valour, a moment like a breath of air, the decision to act is “beyond or in destiny.”
I know that many of my readers will find things in this to disagree with: you may not believe in God, or in “callings,” or in destiny, or or or. (You can, however, be a pure pacifist and still value self-sacrifice for others.) What I want is for you to have a taste of the values behind this word for someone who values it – and what it signifies – most highly. There is much to be said for self-transcendence, for connecting to something bigger than oneself and doing things for reasons that go well beyond one’s own narrow interests (and may even conflict with them). Indeed, we would not have any sort of liveable society without such values. And for those who see value only in money, may I remind you that the value of money is only redeemed by its being spent; a mattress full of unmoving moola may as well be straw.