Two pieces about the 20th C “great” wars: World and War, and Far from Flanders Fields

World and war

Facts and Opinions, August 4, 2014

Every person who fought in World War I is now dead – and yet no one alive today is unaffected. The war consumed much of the globe for, arguably, decades. Many contend that the unresolved conflicts of the “Great War” re-ignited to become the conflagration we call World War II, then set in motion events from the Cold War to today’s Middle Eastern conflicts.

A century after it began, I am most astonished at the hubris. “Although there are many myths about the Great War, in August 1914 the soldiers did indeed tell their families that they would be home for Christmas,” wrote Margaret MacMillan in her epic tome about WWI, The War that Ended Peace. Many have described the  exhilaration, and a sense of release from years of political tension, of what Theodore Roosevelt called the “great black tornado” that smote Europe on August 4, 1914.

This month, for the centenary, we are asked to bear witness to the carnage.

It would be so much more comfortable to simply avoid, for to confront such horror is to risk despair. Wrote MacMillan in her epilogue, “The Great War marked a break in Europe’s history. Before 1914, Europe for all its problems had hope that the world was becoming a better place and that human civilization was advancing. After 1918 that faith was no longer possible for Europeans. As they looked back at their lost world before the war, they could feel only a sense of loss and waste.”

I am willing to risk despair because I am interested in the future. I am driven by questions: What have we learned? What next conflagration looms? And, most of all, What can we do?

We might start by asking, as MacMillan asked, who to blame. Here is her response:

There are so many questions and as many answers again. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases. To do that we must also understand their world, with its assumptions. We must remember, as the decision makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914 and what they had learned from the Moroccan crisis, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe’s very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically led to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last moment and the peace would be maintained. And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.
I am less interested in rehashing intricate details of who said what, where, 100 years ago than I am interested in asking what, today, are we failing to imagine? To whom are we today failing to stand up against? What choices are we missing?

Answers to such questions, I believe, are found only in memory, analysis and judgement. But those can be especially hard when too many warriors, and too many of us who came after, refuse to acknowledge the hell that happened. Whole families were and remain gripped in a vise of horrified silence around what we lightly call the “Great War.” Survivors refused to talk about it, others refused to ask. My own family was too typical: both my grandfathers sustained wounds that ironically saved their lives by forcing their return home, mangled in mind and body, where their suffering mutely infected their families and communities.

How much easier it is for everyone to shy away and try to forget such things. But I do believe this: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” as George Santayana famously said.

Our predecessors followed the passionately intense ideologues and imperialists of the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, all the way into a world war.  Our predecessors believed the soldiers of 1914 would be home for Christmas.

A century later, what can we learn from such hubris? What are today’s failures of imagination? Which ideologues and imperialists are we are failing to stand against? I ask because, I also believe, we have choices.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2014

Originally published in Facts and Opinions, August, 2014

Further reading:
The World Remembers is an ambitious, global memory project that aims to  display the names of all known military war dead from both sides in nations around the world for the first time in history. “We will not only remember but we will also honour shared histories,” states the web site of the project by playwright, producer and director R.H. Thomson and lighting designer Martin Conboy. The project, funded by donors and governments, is scheduled to launch this fall. Over four years, in the chronological order in which they died, it aims to name soldiers on web sites, and project them on public buildings, in participating countries.


Far from Flanders Fields

November 11, 2013, Facts and Opinions

Accounts of Canadian John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields, suggest a man steeped in the romance of war. McCrae was a physician as well as a poet, and also a warrior so dedicated that after fighting in the Boer War he enlisted for World War I. “He considered himself a soldier first,” says Wikipedia, in a quote attributed to a McCrae biographer. “McCrae grew up believing in the duty of fighting for his country and empire.”

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.

McCrae wrote his short poem, now as intricately bound with Remembrance Day as are red poppies, in honour of a friend who died in 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres. That fight, already horrifically gory from traditional artillery, was made agonizingly worse by German chlorine gas, in one of the first modern uses of chemical weapons.

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.

It’s at Ypres that my imagination falters, along with my tenuous grasp of McCrae’s identity, and interest in the tiresome debate over the merits and meanings of his poem. It’s because of Ypres I am unable to imagine a man with the sensitivity of a poet and the intelligence of a physician harbouring “romantic” notions of war in the conditions of 1915 trench warfare. It’s harder to imagine even the soul of a soldier finding romance in war three years after Ypres – after the stark horrors of the “Great War” had long been plain – when McCrae died in 1918 of complications from pneumonia.

But our imagination quavers and warps in the face of war. Individual or collective memories are no match for it, and are besides often suppressed, leaving us only with imagination. Imagination of the worst kind, the kind that finds voice in nostrums like “glory,” “duty,” and “hero.”

Almost alone in my family I have never been a soldier. But, I have studied war history and, like almost all of us, I am a child of generations of men and women who waged war. I am also the mother of children who astonished me by signing up as “peacekeepers” in the Canadian Army Reserves. Like almost all of us, I am closer to war than I’d wish. And yet I must resort to imagination to consider the wartime identity of the Scottish grandfather I barely knew, the Black Watch soldier who survived the trenches of WWI. Afterward he refused to speak of it and so, when I was a child, I imagined him a “hero.” Similarly, I could only imagine the thwarted life of a distant English cousin who was gassed as a young man in WW I and (according to hushed family reports) spent his few remaining years writhing and gibbering in a bed in his mother’s house. “Duty” was my childish word for him.

I like to think my imagination matured and that nuance replaced my nostrums for war.

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.

Was McCrae’s bequest more nuanced than the nostrum we have made of his poem, faithfully recited each Remembrance Day? Had McCrae lived to write more poems post-war, would In Flanders Fields have been supplanted by a different work? Had he survived long enough might McCrae – especially after the futility of WWI was revealed by its reiteration in World War II – have changed his exhortation, “Take up our quarrel with the foe?”

I wonder if McCrae would have approved of being remembered so very well, so extraordinarily fondly, and so almost exclusively for In Flanders Fields. I wonder, but just a little, if his poem ought to be left in peace as a product of his time and place. Mostly I wonder if McCrae’s soldiers would rest better under their poppies if they knew that others had indeed caught the torch they threw – but used it not for foes and quarrels, but to shed light on war’s causes and cures.

We’ll never know what McCrae really thought; he died too soon and lingers only in our flawed imaginations. And that is just one of the infinite small shames buried within the immense disgrace of our warmongering.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones

Originally published in Facts and Opinions, November 11, 2013

References and further reading:

In Flanders Fields Wikipedia page
McCrae House page, at the Guelph Civic Museum