I have a difficult relationship with this day.
My grandfather fought at Passchendaele, and got depressed every time he remembered it according to my uncle. I know veterans of more recent wars. I do not want to insult them or their families.
And yet I am highly critical of the way in which Remembrance is scripted culturally. The tendency to gloss over the senseless loss of life and to create heroes out of every soldier.
This post about the poem In Flanders’ Fields is fascinating and gives me some extra knowledge to underpin my discomfort.
we call John McCRae’s World War I-era verse the four hundred million dollar poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915 issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made it the central piece of its p.r. campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured above.
The post also has an analysis of the poem as well as how the way it has been used in popular culture (selectively) has highlighted the patriotic elements. I highly recommend it. I’ll wait, if you like.
I am also increasingly aware of the extent to which Remembrance Day focuses on old men. Again, not to insult them or their contributions, but I know veterans who are younger than I am. I know women my age with sons who are veterans.
Even the old men were young when they fought. War is not a game played by old men. It is young men who go to war. Young men who come home. Young men who die. (also young women but the military is still not anything like equal in that respect)
So here’s a story for you that I don’t know what to do with but is the kind of thing that feeds my difficult and conflicted feelings about the day.
A couple of years ago I was visiting a university doing my work. The administrator and I were chatting. About nothing really, my flight, etc. I mentioned I had flown Air Canada. She said she had only flown Air Canada once. To fly to Ontario to pick up her son at Trenton.
Even as I write that, tears well up. I feel it in my chest. It was a casual comment with a real kick behind it.
For those who don’t know, the only reason you would pick up your kid at Trenton, is because he had come home in a box. You can drape a flag over that box. You can line up soldiers in dress uniform and have them salute the box. You can play trumpets. You can say kind words.
Her son, age 18 I think, came home in a box.
That’s all I know about him. I’m thinking he probably wasn’t a hero. He probably wasn’t a villain (though whoever killed him probably thought him so). We was a young man doing a job in a dangerous place.
I’m also not sure that anything that might make sense of the job he was doing would make sense of his death.
The thing about WWI is that the number of senseless deaths was just more senseless than anything we see today. Thousands killed in a single day. Men marching to their deaths over the bodies of their dead comrades.
When we visited Vimy and Ypres in 2008 I was prepared for the large monuments listing the names of those not found. I was not prepared for the number of gravestones marked “Known Unto God” or “Unbekant”.
Today I remember the dead. I mourn with my acquaintance and the many others I have not met who had to pick up their kids at Trenton.
I stand with those who came home. Who get depressed every time they think of it. Who wake in the night screaming. Who deal with the experience however they can.
And I wonder why we are still sending our young people out there to kill and be killed. To witness horrific things. To do horrific things.
I wish we knew how to make peace.