Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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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.

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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