Friday, November 11, 2005

BOOKS: War and Remembrance

It's Remembrance Day here in Canuckistan. Now, I never know how much people from other countries know about each other's holidays (for example, I had no idea till recently that the U.S. and Canada* are the only countries that celebrate Halloween; get ON that, people!), so for those of you who don't know, Remembrance Day is when we remember our fallen soldiers from past wars.

There are usually parades in almost every community, leading to the local cenotaph where wreaths are laid, and there's at least one bagpiper doing his or her thing. The phrase "Lest we forget" gets bandied about a fair bit.

As a young Brownie, then later a Girl Guide, I was always involved in these parades, and something I've noticed since then is that the number of former soldiers in attendance is diminishing every year. And those that remain are very old.

Remembrance Day is an interesting holiday, in that it forces one to wonder if it has a shelf life. Canada kicked ass in the First and Second World Wars, but our representation in the global warfare scene slowed down after that. We didn't have official troops in Vietnam. We did have troops in the first Gulf War, though not the second. Which kind of leads me to wonder if the idea of remembering fallen soldiers will someday seem rather antiquated, or merely theoretical, to Canadian kids in the future.

I'm one of those people who comes by most of their learnin' incidentally, through novels, so most of what I know about warfare comes from literature. I have to confess, though, that a lot of the literature of war I find somewhat inaccessible. Much as I love Hemingway, for example, Farewell to Arms is not even front of mind if you were to ask me to list his novels. I've never finished Catch-22, though I've started it a few times. And I've read Pat Barker's Regeneration and its sequel, The Ghost Road, with little impression left by either. This says more about me than it does about these books, I'm sure.

I tend to do better, for some reason, with stories about innocent bystanders caught up in conflicts they had no part in starting. I loved Captain Corelli's Mandolin, for example, as I've loved all of Louis de Berniere's novels; he captures the absurdity of politics and war with as much dark humour as pathos. Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is an amazing story I've read countless times. Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, almost broke my heart, it was that good. And The Diary of Anne Frank should be required reading for everyone. In the world. Period.

I don't know how I feel about war itself. It strikes me that it's impossible to have a blanket position on the matter, no matter what factions on the right and left want us to believe. (My local video store clerk tells me that wars are all government-engineered money-making schemes. He has literature to prove this. It would be easier to entertain his theories if I weren't so distracted by the flecks of froth around his mouth.) Some wars are probably necessary. Others are not. It's probably a sad truth that we're only able to tell the difference after the fact.

On that vague note, I'll leave you with a poem, probably the only poem that's taught to Canadian schoolchildren that we actually end up remembering. It's by a Canadian soldier named John McCrae, who wrote it during the First World War.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

*ETA: And Ireland! Mea culpa!


Melissa said...

We call it Veteran's Day, and we don't do the poppies.

That poem is so heartbreaking. Last year my husband and I went to Europe and toured several World War I battlefields in Belgium. One place had actual preserved trenches, and it gave me the chills. One of the worst things is that so few of the bodies were recovered, so everywhere you walk is an impromptu graveyard. The last Anne of Green Gables book, Rilla of Ingleside, talks a lot about WW I in Canada(from the perspective of the women left behind).

Anonymous said...

Rilla of Ingleside used to be one of my favourite books when I was younger. I think the poem you mentioned or something quite similar was attributed to Anne's son in the book? Anyway, now I want to read it again!

Anonymous said...

I was jumping on to mention "Rilla of Ingleside", but I see that others have beaten me to it.

That book was the first book to make me sob aloud, and it has certainly affected my view on war as well. It was the first ever book to document the views of Canadians living through the war, so it's an interesting read as a time capsule.

I, too, have visited the battlefields in Belgium -- the ones that got me were the ones surrounding Ypres, where John McCrae wrote his poem. It's just heartbreaking -- seeing the seven thousand names of the Canadian soldiers with unmarked graves (just those who died in Belgium)on the Menin gate, visiting graveyards where the oldest person hadn't even turned 25...

Today, I attended the ceremony at the National War Memorial here in Ottawa. I am always tearful on occasions such as this, but seeing the "Silver Cross Mother" -- the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan -- lay a wreath while SOBBING made me lose it. Moments such as that really bring the effects of war home to me, and to all the young kids standing around me. I'm not sure if the day will ever lose its meaning with such heartache still visible.

Anonymous said...

When I married 11 years ago and moved to Canada from the U.S., I traded Veterans' Day for Remembrance Day and enjoy the fact that it's now a real holiday and not an excuse for store sales (or a day for fun in the sun, as Memorial Day is now). Our eldest (8yod) is in Brownies, and for the past few years, our family has taken part in the local parade and ceremonies. Very moving and touching, and best of all since it's a small town, our kids know many of the veterans in our town, and just what they did 60 years ago when they weren't too much older than our kids are now.

Glad to find you (via Cobranchi) -- fun stuff!

landismom said...

Fugitive Pieces is a truly great novel, and Slaughterhouse Five too. I never really thought about the connection between the two before.

I'll jump in to promote Dispatches, by Michael Herr. It's a memoir written by an American journalist in Vietnam. Not fiction, but still great.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of reading the book "War and Remembrance" by Herman Wouk -- the sequel to "The Winds of War". Both are excellent, although their main aim isn't to show the horrors of war.

The Stone Diaries is another good Canadian war novel.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm so incensed at your statement about halloween that I have skipped the rest of your post to indignantly state that Ireland do the halloween thing solid. Look at us here.... Nick

Anonymous said...

All Quiet on the Western Front is surprisingly accessible, actually, and heartbreaking to boot. Man, WWI produced some of the most poignantly sad literature I can think of. We're all familiar with Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", yes?

Anonymous said...

Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin is one of my favorite books of all time. A Roman gentleman recalls his life experiences, the most formative of which were as a soldier (I bet you guessed that) in WW1. I recently read it for the second time and was bowled over again.

Anonymous said...

As well as Remembrance Day, Australia also has ANZAC Day, not a holiday as such but a day off intended for the sombre reflection on all our war dead. The focus is traditionally on the ANZACs (Australians and New Zealanders) who fought in WW1, and who died so horribly at Gallipoli, Turkey, on April 25, 1915. Each year there are parades of veterans from all armed conflicts in which we've had troops, as well as representative groups of current armed services. Since soldiers from older wars are now either dying or actually dead (the last Australian WW1 veteran died just last week, I think), we now see children and grandchildren of those veterans marching in their stead, and entitled to wear that veteran's medals.

For a while in the 70s and 80s it looked like ANZAC Day as a tradition was dying out as people questioned the whole idea of going off to, usually, other country's wars--but in the last decade it's made a huge comeback, attracting increasing numbers of families who, I'm guessing, feel a need to remember what happened all those years ago. It's a very moving occasion.

Anonymous said...

They also have Halloween in England, at least according to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend.