Saturday, November 09, 2013

A Difficult Time

As I sit at my keyboard I need only glance up to see the dress badges of the Oxford Rifles, Canadian Fusiliers and the Essex Scottish.   Just below them are badges from the previous war - the 48th Highlanders, the Seaforths, the Royal Flying Corps.  Behind me, mounted beneath a print of the Royal Engineers drawings of Fort Malden from where Brock and his 49th Regiment of Foot struck out to save Canada from almost certain defeat in the opening year of the war of 1812 are uniform buttons salvaged from the famous battlefields of that war - the Canadian Militia, the 49th of Foot, the 8th King's regiment of Foot, the 41st Foot, the Royal Artillery and there's more, a lot more.

Since the passing of my father a few years ago, Remembrance Day has become a difficult time for me.  He was a severely wounded WWII infantry officer.  Over the decades he was treated, by turns, very shabbily and very wonderfully by the country he had served almost by whim of the sitting government.  I lost an uncle this past year, a veteran of the abattoir that was Bomber Command in the first years of WWII.   He too had more than his share of shabby treatment from the country in whose service he had been shot down three times, his emotional wounds far more severe and persistent than the physical injuries.

If you have a severely wounded veteran for a parent, your life growing up isn't like most other kids' no matter how mightily your parents strive to make it just the same.   I have many vivid memories.   Well into my late teens my father would sometimes stretch out for a snooze on the rec room sofa after dinner only to burst out of some terror, screaming.   Some times it was unintelligible.  Other times it was too intelligible, "Don't Shoot".   My uncle, he retreated inside a bottle where he (successfully) kept his fears and anger from spilling over onto his family.  Yes, he was a drunk, but always a kind and happy drunk.

Those two fellows, and most like them, are now gone but in homes around our country today there is a new crop of kids growing up with parents physically or emotionally mutilated from our recent, futile war.   Their wounds will take a heavy burden on their families - on their children and especially their spouses.   Like those who went half a century before them, they too will be treated shabbily - they already are.

Perhaps the most unforgivable obscenity of Stephen Harper and his cabinet was the manner in which they shamelessly squeezed every drop of political capital they could extract from the dead and mangled bodies of Canada's Afghan vets.   They politicized our casualties, exploited them to boast of their own pseudo-patriotism while maligning all others.   Every rightwing greaseball from Harper to Don Cherry got into that act and they deserve nothing less than our undying contempt for their rank villainy.

That these casualties were nothing more to Harper than so much political cordwood was confirmed when he introduced his Veterans' Charter.   Now a wounded serviceman would be assessed for degree of disability, handed a cheque and sent on his way with the thanks, of course, of a grateful nation.  Clean and tidy.  Here today, gone today.   "Off with you, off with you then.  That's a good fella' and, don't forget, vote Conservative."

The only person who could dream that up would be the sort of person you would never find in a recruiting office - a person just like Stephen Harper.   For, you see, there is no way on earth that you can ever assess a wounded soldier's injury.

In many cases wounds are organic.  Over time they can change - a lot.   Shrapnel, for example, can migrate through tissue and, for the unlucky, it can wind up in some very bad spots.   Internal damage, especially over time, can yield some strange results.  My Dad went in for simple gall bladder surgery.   Once opened up the surgeon found his damaged liver had fused with the gall bladder.   That required many extra hours on the table as they had to section the liver, keep him from bleeding out and remove the gall bladder.  He spent days hovering near death before he finally began a slow recovery.

Wounds can also compound the natural effects of aging and tip a person abruptly and prematurely from one state into another.    You can't predict any of that when they're young.   There's no way to cover that off with a cheque.

Remembrance Day means many things to many people, too many things.  The Right, especially, tries to inject a celebratory note of triumphalism in it.  Yes, these brave men and women gave their all that we could WIN!!!   How would we remember them had we lost all those wars?

We imbue our war dead with a nobility that we use to suit our own purposes and does them no honour.   What nobility?   What nonsense.   If America ever had a war correspondent laureate it would have been Ernie Pyle in WWII.  He was killed in action just days before the fighting stopped.  In his pocket they found what was to have been his final dispatch:

"But there are many of the living who have burned
into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men
scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows 
of hedge throughout the world.

Dead men by mass production - in one country after another -
month after month and year after year. Dead men in
winter and dead men in summer.

Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they
become monotonous.

Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come to
almost hate them. These are the things that you at home need
not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns
of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just
didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque
and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands.

That's the difference.

I no longer will wear a poppy because I feel we have desecrated the very essence of remembrance.  I need no poppy to remember for I and others like me remember all year round and we shall never forget so long as we draw breath.  We can't, even if we wanted to.

In reading The Guardian today I found an elegant and poignant comment by English WWII vet, Harry Leslie Smith, "This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time."   Here are some excerpts:

"...this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years.  I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world.  I wear the poppy because I can recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend their shores.  But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.

However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more at my local cenotaph.  From now on I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world.  I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.

Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Robert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector.

...I find the government's intention to spend 50m pounds to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-1918 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane.  Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren't officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies.  They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn't care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated.  My family members took the king's shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I'll be 91 next year, so it feels recent.  Today we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda.  We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think of ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

Next year I won't wear a poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes.  If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded:  our poor, our unemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

I think this year I shall add Harry Leslie Smith to my personal remembrance.  


deb Scott said...

very moving. thank you!

Anonymous said...

I understand exactly your post. But, try being a Newfoundlander having served in the British Armed Forces and then become a part of Canada later as my father did. Does the country respect that more or less? The answer is....less. My mother also served during the early years of the war in England.

Lorne said...

A fine post, Mound. it should be read by all Canadians who have allowed themselves to be swept up in the politicizing of profound tragedy.

Purple library guy said...

Your uncle sounds like my grandfather. Amazingly talented man; I don't think he finished high school, but he read constantly on myriad subjects, taught himself multiple languages, and particularly learned to read Chinese. He knew an amazing amount about Chinese history and culture, and translated Chinese poetry; had masses of scrapbooks about it.
But he drank in binges and never held down a steady job. Did things like cook for logging camps. Never had a harsh word for anyone, drunk or not, but I do wonder if he might have done more with his life without the war.

Purple library guy said...

My grandfather was so dedicated to reading that I heard he deliberately dug slightly inadequate foxholes so he'd have light to read while he was in them.