Sunday, November 18, 2012

Remembrance Day in Retrospect

 Remembrance is important – that’s no topic of debate. The real question these days is how we remember, and if the white poppy campaign is any evidence, that question is far from settled. What kind of words should we use on Remembrance Day? Should we emphasize honor, heroism, and bravery, or tragedy, loss, and devastation? I’d like to focus here on WWI, as it began the remembrance tradition and stands as the first overseas crucible in Canada’s young history. I want to suggest that our remembrance should look on WWI with two lenses: epic and tragedy. Like a pair of glasses, we need both of these lenses to see the war’s meaning in the Canadian memory.

First, the epic lens. In literature, an epic has several qualities: it’s a serious narrative, it has a grand scale, and the plot centers on great acts in battle. With these, the epic also narrates the birth of a nation, which is especially important for our discussion here. When Lieutenant Gregory Clark went over the top in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he surveyed the scene before him:

As far as I could see, south, north
along the miles of the Ridge, there were
the Canadians. And I experienced my
first full sense of nationhood.

Clark was not alone in his feeling. Both on the day of battle and in the countless remembrance ceremonies afterward, everyone agreed: Canada came of age at Vimy Ridge.

When Canada entered the war with Great Britain, it was a young country of 8 million, where the English speakers thought of themselves as British first and Canadian second. The quality of Canadian troops was in open doubt. In one infamous event, when the movie tent at their training camp showed the same film twice, one incensed soldier said “Right lads, let’s burn it down” – and they did. By the war’s end, however, a combination of savvy leadership, esprit de corps, and creativity had transformed them into an elite fighting unit. As a lasting testimony to its arrival on the world stage, Canada signed the armistice for itself on November 11, equal to Britain and France.

Now, if we only look at WWI as the Canadian epic, we could give a stirring Remembrance Day speech, but we would lose touch with reality. We need to balance our perspective by also seeing the war as a tragedy. In literature, tragedy presents a hero’s progression from happiness to misery, brought on by his tragic flaw. And the important thing is that the hero’s suffering is totally disproportionate to his flaw. In 1914, the tragic flaw that swept Europe was a lethal concoction of militarism and nationalism. The general feeling was well described by Pierre Berton: “war was all dash and color, evoking words like ‘gallantry,’ ‘courage,’ and ‘daring.’ War was men in brilliant costumes galloping about on splendid horses. War was an arm temporarily in a sling.” Now imagine the experience of the Canadians, most of them teenagers, when they were shocked into the reality of war in the trenches of France and Belgium. Of the 420,000 Canadian men in uniform, 60,000 died. And every single death sent waves through a network of human relationships.

The Brooding Soldier - St. Julien, Belgium
As Canadians, we need to see WWI with double vision. It’s a historical fact that the war lifted Canada to prominence on the world stage. For a young nation without any military history, the epic story of Vimy Ridge unified Canada with national pride. Moreover, the story met the human need for meaning in the face of suffering. At the same time, the tragic story brings us to reckon with the human cost. War is horrible, full stop. We must not celebrate Victoria Cross stories alone – we need to remember what war does to people, lest we ever pursue it recklessly.

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