Valiant hearts lest we forget | Daily News
In commemoration of Remembrance Day

Valiant hearts lest we forget

The sun painted the evening sky in a tone of grey with random streaks of orange and purple. A soldier positioned himself on a cement pedestal and solemnly sounded the Last Post. For a few minutes I was frozen in a time frame as the majestic sun receded into the horizon. The shadow of the Monument of Remembrance fell upon us like an enigmatic phantom. I gazed up and looked at this solitary monument which stands in the garden of the Regimental Headquarters of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry Regiment.

It stands as a shrine to remember the officers and soldiers of this regiment who willingly offered their lives to sustain peace. Across this resplendent island, there are many other military monuments standing as reminders of the dark chapters of our history. Under this shadow of grief I was reminded of the poem by Alfred Tennyson, where he remembered the charge of the Light Brigade during the 1854 Crimean War “Forward the Light Brigade, was there a man dismayed? Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”. Powerful words which reflect rigid military discipline and the chain of command.

November is the month when the entire world pauses for a few days to honour and remember the departed soldiers, sailors and airmen. The week of remembrance culminates on November 11, known commonly as Poppy Day, where a tiny red flower reminds us of the blood spilt in the battlefields during World War I, World War II, Vietnam and many other theatres of combat. Remembrance Day has its commemorative origins in 1919 when King George V officially recognized those killed in action during World War I. Since then all the War Veterans Societies across the world remember their comrades by wearing and selling poppy flowers.

The Last Post is a piece of music, a bugle call originally played within the British Infantry Regiments and the Regiment of Royal Artillery. When played in the evening it meant that the Duty Officer had inspected all sentries and the camp was secure for the night. When sounded on Remembrance Day ceremonies it signals a vigil for the souls of the departed soldiers. Ceylon has its Commonwealth War Graves in Trincomalee and Colombo. There is a large Cenotaph in Colombo 7, honouring the dead servicemen of that era.

Every victory comes with a price. It is not in a single moment of conquest but part of a chain of sacrifice, determination and endurance. American General Douglas MacArthur said, “Duty, Honour and Country – These three hallowed words dictate what you ought to be”. Thousands of our servicemen have lived up to these words. They endured difficult conditions in jungles. They marched through minefields. Hundreds remain disabled. In the recent past, soldiers and policemen continue to mitigate the threats of radicalized ideologies and extremism.

At the Army Cantonment in Panagoda stands this majestic monument to the memory of 3,868 officers and men of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). This solitary edifice soars towards the blue sky. At its entrance are two large lions mounted on a cement pedestal with a piercing gaze. The steps leading to the monument have four landing areas. On reaching the topmost landing, there are eight lions looking towards every direction. The outer layer of the square chamber is unique - its walls of copper are actually artillery shells that have been patiently cut and flattened by a team of dedicated soldiers.

I was told that the copper-plated wall of the outer layer is exposed to the sun and rain, and not polished. It strives to remind us of the fallen soldiers who were exposed to the sun and rain, as they fought night and day. From the base of the structure, four triangular walls rise in veneration at a height of 82 feet. The four walls are configured in such a way that they capture the radiant sunlight and slowly usher that glow into the sanctum. The innermost chamber delivers an aura of overpowering silence. This is the most venerated area of the monument adorned by white slabs. It is inside this sanctum that the parents, widows and children come to mourn. I was reminded of the words of American General George Patton when he declared “Always do more than is required of you”. These soldiers did exactly that.

Other military monuments can be seen at the Welisara Navy Base, where the front half of a gunboat is surrounded by slabs with the names of dead sailors. Another shrine stands on the lonely dust-laden road at Elephant Pass commemorating the dead troops in the Northern Province. A monument was erected in Ekala by the Air Force to remember the 443 officers and airmen killed in action. The Police Special Task Force (STF) has its monument set up at the Training Academy, Katukurunda. When we talk of the war in Sri Lanka, we cannot forget the civilians who died. There are no monuments for them. There were Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims who died in various stages of confrontations. Perhaps they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Their families continue to mourn their loss. There are many disabled people and widows from every community, some mentally scarred.

In retrospect what are we really remembering during these 10 days of remembrance? Indeed the lives and gallantry of those who defended this nation. Is it not important to realize the reasons that sparked these insurgencies in the first place? Are the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans still eroded with racism, hatred and division of languages? I sincerely hope not. It is time to replace these politically induced thoughts with unity, forgiveness and hope.

As Philosopher Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”. I am confident we all catch his drift. Being patriotic is not confined to waving the lion flag on February 4. Being a true Sri Lankan means to embrace our diversity. To be a discerning citizen who respects the multi-religious values of this island. We must not forget those who served this nation. In their final seconds in the battlefields, they would have dreamt of peace and a united Sri Lanka. I conclude with a quote from William Shakespeare “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?”