Veteran’s Day (with music from the Cruxshadows)

Today, 97 years ago, a cease-fire agreement went into effect in western Europe. Specifically, it went into effect at 11 AM on the 11th day of the 11th month, because apparently that seemed cool to people at the time.

Even though fighting continued in other areas, and even though it took more than more six months to finish the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, this was the day chosen by most Allied nations to celebrate the end of World War I, also known as the Great War and (rather optimistically) the War to End All Wars.

Veteran's DayEventually, a decade after the Second World War, it became Veterans Day in the United States. This is the day that we in this country give special recognition to all those who have put on a military uniform and stood in the line of fire, in the hopes that others would not have to do the same.

I’ve meant to do some music blogs here on The Catholic Geeks for a while now, but things just kept getting in the way. Today, though, seems like an appropriate day to start it off, and I think I’ll do it with some Cruxshadows.

Of course, part of the reason I kept delaying was that I didn’t know which song to write about first. Even just limiting it to Cruxshadows songs appropriate for Veterans Day is hard. As I mentioned in my first article on the band, they’re very popular with the military, and their expressive songs about the topic almost reach a Kipling level, despite Rogue never having served himself.

There’s their most popular song, hands-down: “Winter Born,” which is all about the idea of a soldier giving his life for those he’s sworn to protect, and was inspired by an AP photo of a wounded American soldier trying to shield an Arab child from incoming fire. Or there’s “Return”; where “Winter Born” is about going out to battle, “Return” is about coming home to family and the transition back to civilian life. Or I could go with “Sophia,” “Eye of the Storm,” “Valkyrie,” “Halo,” “Africanus,” “Sentinel” . . . you get the idea.

But as I kept thinking about it, I kept coming back to one in particular: a song that’s less about the experience of battle, and more about the inspiration that veterans give us and the reasons why we honor them in return.

Opportunities are lost
In a starving shade of silence
And every battle fought
Has left me looking back

The song “Roland” is easily missed, because it’s on the EP album Quicksilver. (That’s Extended Play, so it’s more than a single but has only a small handful of tracks. In this case, it was a release for the song “Quicksilver” with the original and two other versions of the same song, plus two other originals: “Avalanche” and “Roland.”)  It’s a quiet, contemplative song, reflecting on how heroes can inspire you to act just by having blazed a trail.

It’s often hard to be the first one to take a stand, and so we look back to our heroes for inspiration. That doesn’t just include what we should do when trouble comes, but also how to prevent trouble. One of the things that drives a soldier is the hope, large or small, realistic or otherwise, that this coming act is what we need to prevent a greater tragedy. That waiting for a perfect situation can, and has, lead to making things worse.

What we obtain through isolation,
Often leads us deeper into war.
So tell me, how can I retreat?
Some things are worth fighting for.

And by the example of those who have come before, we know the dangers of seeming weak. We know how if we avoid saying “This is wrong” because we don’t want to make ourselves a target, we wind up opening ourselves to attack — or worse, others who might be even less capable.

And how do we justify
When actions are conceived in weakness?
Is there honor in my heart
If I lack the strength to act?

It’s an important idea to contemplate; not just for physical dangers, but also for spiritual and philosophical ones. There are more dangers out there than merely bullets and bayonets; and even in the case of the latter, they always start because someone had an evil idea.

And though my hand is trembling
And my eyes are wreathed in so much doubt
And every instinct shows me fear
I stand my ground

The title of this song is taken from The Song of Roland, a medieval poem about how the Islamic invasion of Europe was stopped in southern France. Oh, yes — I’ve been guilty of many French jokes myself, but never forget that the reason why the rest of Europe didn’t live under Arab rule for centuries was because the French stopped the invasion cold. The Song of Roland, while (very) fanciful, gives tribute to those who died in the defense of their homes. While the battle it’s based on was actually between the French and the Basques, it took place because of the larger struggle going on and came to symbolize the defense of Christendom against Islam.

In particular, it focuses on Roland; who, though a bit of a dumb jock, was one of Charlemagne’s knights, and the wielder of mighty Durandal (hardcore Dresden Files fans might recognize that name) and the powerful Oliphant (a horn that, when blown, could be heard for miles; it was the inspiration for both Queen Susan’s horn in The Chronicles of Narnia and Boromir’s in The Fellowship of the Ring). In The Song of Roland, Roland’s last stand (again, not coincidentally like Boromir’s) is what gives Charlemagne’s army time to reach them and defeat the coming invasion.

We have no Olifant resounding
Nor fortunes here to carry home
No epic tale becoming legend
Only choices right and wrong

While the poem is even more fictional than a typical Hollywood adaptation, it was a source of inspiration for centuries to come. Those who knew it were aware that they were no Roland, but they could strive to be like him.

And that’s the same for any hero; because even when the tale is told completely accurately, no one who isn’t simply out for glory thinks that their current struggle is as great as those who have come before. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight; in the moment, all we have is the moment — and what we can glean from those who inspire us.

But somewhere in the haze of life I find
There is a perfect shining light
That each of us must seek to know the truth
Of who we really are

So sing a song for Roland
And all of those who sacrificed their lives
Their colors traded in for a world
Of black and white
So sing a song for Roland
And all of those who fought for what was right
You may never understand
For whom they died

And when it comes down to it, if we’re concerned with matching those heroes, we’ll fail. All we can do is do the best we can. Being concerned with how what we do will be remembered, and by whom, is pointless. If it’s important enough to be remembered, then it’s too important to be thinking about anything else; and if it’s that important, then it’s for reasons beyond ourselves.

Perhaps they will banish me
From the annals of history
In the end, it matters not
We direct our destiny

I’ve lived beyond myself for an instant
And heard the echoes in the hearts and faces
Of the people I will never know
But I still cannot forget

So sing a song for Roland
And all of those who sacrificed their lives
Their colors traded in for a world
Of black and white
So sing a song for Roland
And all of those who fought for what was right
You may never understand
For whom they died

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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