Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

National Archives of Canada

A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian’s grave near Vimy, France, in June 1917. A century after it ended, many question why the war was fought.

National Archives of Canada
A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian’s grave near Vimy, France, in June 1917. A century after it ended, many question why the war was fought.
Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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Pipeline, election test U.S. democracy

(November 4, 2016)

The current crisis in Western democracy reflects a deep popular distrust: we understand it is government of the people, but question whether it is by the people. What is worse, we are increasingly not convinced it is for the people at all.

It is appropriate to evoke this line from former United States president Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as we look south and see the struggle to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, while the U.S. presidential election hangs in the balance.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy, the turning point of the U.S. Civil War. Up until that point, it seemed Lincoln’s stand against slavery was a catastrophic mistake. Principles are fine, but at what cost?

Even after the Union victory, it took a hundred years to pass the laws that transitioned the U.S. into a country where justice before the law did not depend on race. Or so everyone still hopes — just as everyone hopes that fair treatment no longer depends upon gender.

But it all traces back to one man, one person, who chose to make a stand because it was the right thing to do.

If we distrust politicians after their election, it’s because that act of taking a stand for everyone because it is the right thing to do — not just for the people who elected you or who funded your campaign — is not a common occurrence.

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Remembrance Day 2016

Listening to great-grandmother's stories

Listening to great-grandmother’s stories

Delivered at Minto Armoury, Winnipeg, on 11 November 2016

There was no reason for the guns to fall silent on this day in 1916. The Battle of the Somme was in its final phases, with the battle for Ancre Heights just ending and the battle for Ancre just beginning.

That fall, the First Canadian Division had worn the famous red patch for the first time, making a name for themselves as assault troops at Courcellette that they would carry through the Somme and sear forever into the memory of friends and foes alike with their assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Today it is easier to think about those ghostly figures, wreathed in gas, fog and smoke clambering out of the trenches on old video clips, because they are all gone. Their words and images, the rusted tools of trench warfare preserved in museum collections, speak to us in ways that we can shape and control. We remember them in the way that we want, without fear of contradiction.

It is harder to create the same mythology about the Second World War or Korea, because there are still some among us who were there.

Whether it is Cyprus, Golan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, however — from Kapyong to Medak, to the Panjwaii and Kandahar – there is a long list of places where Canadians fought because they accepted the call to serve. Each one needs its own stories to be told in ways that give voice to those who were there, not merely carving their names and battle honours onto a monument to enshrine what the next generation wants to remember.

Today we remember those who died in battle, those whose lives were forever scarred by the horrors of war and have passed on, and we honour their sacrifice.

But memorials, like funerals, are never for the dead. They are for those who are left behind, for those who must rise to greet the dawn of a new morning, regardless of darkness in which it begins.

Most importantly, therefore, we are here together today to honour the living, to listen to their stories as they remember them, however difficult it is for them to tell us and however hard it is for us to hear what they have to say.

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