Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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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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Sometimes it’s more than just a matter of opinion

(August 22, 2020)

IT’S hard for an academic to write an op-ed. No footnotes or bibliography are allowed. Nor does anyone want a C.V. that details your qualifications.

On the other hand, many more people will read whatever you write!

I have been thinking and writing about nuclear weapons for a long time. My first effort, with my friend Bruce in Grade 5, won a prize in the St. James-Assiniboia school division Science Fair for an enthusiastic presentation of what Winnipeg would be like after a nuclear blast, with Portage and Main as Ground Zero. (Note to the curious: it would be gone.)

So the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an obvious topic for an op-ed — and yet from the letters published in response, my “opinion” was not appreciated.

Fair enough — it’s a free country — but the academic in me took umbrage at the comments.

There are experts on the history of what happened, who researched the original sources, talked to the people and wrote the academic articles and books, especially as new materials became available. Then, in the next wave, are the scholars who have studied what the first scholars discovered.

I count myself in that second wave — as adjunct associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, where I have been a subject-matter expert in technology and warfare since 2003, teaching undergraduate and graduate students. (Most of them were members of the Canadian Armed Forces, some studying while on deployment.)

To say that nuclear weapons have embedded racism and xenophobia since their inception is therefore not merely my opinion, but the result of decades of scholarship — including my own. To say the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people — either directly by blast or horribly later on from radiation poisoning — were not needed “to win the war” is also a product of such research.

For anyone to claim that my criticism of the inhumane and unnecessary decision to drop those bombs somehow disrespects the Canadian veterans who suffered (and died) at the hands of their Japanese captors is therefore offensive to me. It also reflects an implied racism that unfortunately is still widespread, 75 years later.

Conclusions such as “the Japanese deserved it because of what they did to us” was not what I remember hearing, growing up, from one of my neighbours, who had been captured in Hong Kong and barely survived the POW camps that broke his health. He would have been horrified to find his suffering used today to justify such inhumanity — after all, what kept him (and others) alive was the fact that, despite their treatment, they refused to abandon their own humanity.

This is why we need to confront the systemic racism that underlies the “master narratives” of our culture, including this one about Hiroshima and Nagasaki — narratives that claim sometimes there are good reasons for nuclear attacks, especially against someone “worse” than us. As long as nuclear warfare is considered an option, as long as someone, somewhere, believes there are some conditions when the missiles and bombs can justifiably be used against “them” — whoever “they” are — none of us will ever be safe.

Years ago, when I taught my first university course, which included this version of the atomic narrative, I had an old man in my class. He came to see me, and told me he, too, was a scholar — I was chagrined to learn I had given a C-plus on an essay to someone who held a PhD from an Austrian university in the 1920s.

He laughed, and said he deserved it, but then told me he and his wife had been held in a Japanese prison camp since the fall of Singapore. He had a different perspective, because dropping the bombs saved their lives, so he was grateful it had happened.

But now that he had children, and grandchildren, he was also troubled — because their lives were saved in that way, their own family and all the people whom they cherished, the world they loved, was now at risk from an even greater evil than the one they so narrowly survived. He wished someone could have found another way to end the war, and grieved the inhumanity of a decision for which he now felt somehow responsible.

“It was wartime,” he said. “No one could safely challenge the government.” Shaking his head, sadly, he concluded, “People do terrible things in war” — before meeting my eyes, gripping my hand and thanking me for the course.

The racist, xenophobic idea that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deserved what happened to them has had more poisonous and long-lasting fallout than the bombs themselves. It needs to be fiercely challenged wherever it is found — and that is definitely not just my opinion.

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