I feel closer to my father in early November than at any other time of the year. It was then, in late autumn – when the fallen leaves lay in deep mats, or raked into towering piles in the parks and yards of Montreal, following the first killing frosts, and just before everything would be blanketed in the silent, white shroud of the Canadian winter – when he would open up about the War.
My father rarely spoke of his experiences as a tail gunner in a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. I had grown up seeing his photos, dashing and handsome in his RCAF uniform, tucked discretely in a corner of the downstairs family room. It was a memory my father honoured – an experience central to who he was, and who he became – but it was a part of his life that he rarely chose to revisit, despite my curiosity. “It was a long time ago,” he would say as he brushed my questions aside. “It was another lifetime.”
Yet, at this time of the year, as daylight hours grew short, and the cool breath of autumn turned to a chill that stripped the last leaves from the maples in our back yard, his memories of that other life came back to him. Perhaps it was the poppy on his lapel – we all wore poppies in early November – that jogged his memory, recalling the faces and voices of the comrades and friends he had left in the Commonwealth war cemeteries in Europe. Maybe it was the old soldiers, some bearing the scars of Vimy Ridge, Passchendale, the Somme, who still distributed the red poppies at kiosks at the local grocery store, or on the sidewalks Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.
I felt an intimate bond with my father as he would take me into his confidence. I learned of the terror he felt as his aircraft threaded its way through the blossoms of flak blooming all around; I learned about the sang-froid masking despair with which he and his fellow aircrew toasted the memories of lost comrades on return to their base at Wratting Common; I learned the names Mark Goldwater and Robert Tait Roth. He told me about the night his aircraft went down over Witten, in the Ruhr Valley, about his wounds, his capture, and confinement in a German prison camp. He spoke of duty, of terror, and of the guilt he carried for participating in the slaughter of civilians.
My father was a good man – honourable, charitable, committed to social justice, kind, and gentle. He was the kind of person I have always aspired to be, though I well know that I have always fallen short of the mark. I could not, however, imagine him as a soldier, an airman huddled behind four .50 calibre machine guns in a Lancaster’s tail turret, and it was in interrogating the disconnect between the father I knew, the steel-eyed young man in his RCAF portraits, and the frightened teenager on his POW index card, that I felt closer to him than I could ever have thought possible.
Although he wore a poppy every November and attended Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph in Dominion Square every year, my father’s wartime service was rarely a significant component of his public persona. He never joined the Royal Canadian Legion, and never sat at a table distributing poppies. Yet I know that the War was never far from his thoughts. It was only after he visited Europe with my mother, for the first time in 45 years, following his retirement in 1995 that he began to revisit that other life more consistently and more often.
They had visited his old bomber base in Cambridgeshire, and traveled to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. As his closest friends from the old neighbourhood in Montreal – Bill Maulton, Si Yasin, Bill Charad – each died in the following years, my father began to speak more frequently of the War. When my mother, the love of his life, died of cancer in the winter of 2006, he found fellowship and, I think, solace in the company of the old soldiers at the Veterans Centre in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. From then until the last months of his life, he dropped in several time each week to work out in the gym, drink coffee, and chat with his new comrades.
I had the privilege to meet them when my partner and I visited my home in the fall of 2010. They were extraordinary gentlemen. Henry had been a C-47 Dakota pilot flying supply missions from bases in India over “the Hump” of the Himalayas into Burma. Mo, 94 years old when I met him, had been General Bernard Montgomery’s driver in Europe. They laughed, joked, told stories of courage, terror, and ribald adventures. They were fascinating, charming and, like my father, noble. They were all strong, confident, and distinguished old men who, in their 80s and 90s, had retained or rediscovered the vigour of young men. Yet I could not then imagine them as young men any more than I could imagine the veterans of Hill 70, Cambrai, and Amiens who had distributed poppies in my youth as young men.
Henry, Mo, and my father – like Mark Goldwater, Robert Roth, the old soldiers of the Great War, and more than a hundred million soldiers and civilians who fell in the World Wars – are gone now. But this week, I think of my father and his comrades forever as young men, preserved in that moment of fear and resolve, as they faced the prospect of battle and, in many cases, the near-certainty of injury or death. I know they did it; I can’t imagine how they did it.
I only attended a Remembrance Day service with my father once. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning and I was not in school. I stood there with him in Dominion Square, holding his strong hand, alongside the men of his generation, and the generation before, in a sea of poppies as the bugler sounded the “Last Post.” After two minutes of silence, the piper played the ancient air the “Floors o’ the Forest.” The wreaths had been laid, the guns had fired their salute, the poppies turned, and my father and I found the car and went for a thoughtful lunch.
We sat quietly at a table at Murray’s at the corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria, and the nice Scottish ladies brought us post-Thanksgiving turkey pie. Men of my father’s generation sat at neighbouring tables, some in groups, some alone, some with sons and daughters of about my age. I remember the silence; it was profound, respectful, and peaceful. We had apple pie for dessert; my father had coffee, and I had tea.
Finally, my father looked at me and said very softly, “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.”
It was not an unreasonable hope at the time. By then, Canada had not been to war in a generation. Since the Korean War, the young men and women of the Canadian Forces had only seen action wearing the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers. Vietnam was then a tragic memory, and the Cold War was warming. Soviet troops were not yet in Afghanistan, the United States had not yet invaded Grenada or Panama, the Camp David Accords seemed to promise the real possibility of a permanent peace in the Middle East. Even media pundits opined that it looked like peace was “breaking out all over.”
My memory of that time seems unreal now; it is more like a dimly-recalled dream, or childhood fantasy. As we approach Remembrance day this year, it seems like Canada, the United States – indeed, the world – has been at war continuously since 1990… for almost a generation. It has not been one continuous war, of course, but many starting and ending and starting again… continuously. When there has been peace, it has been an uneasy peace; of a pause between rounds, as pugilists wipe the blood and sweat from their faces and prepare to enter the ring once again.
War has become so unexceptional that, when the United States, Canada, and their allies commit themselves to “combat operations” – a convenient euphemism that speaks of mechanical, bureaucratic efficiencies rather than blood, bodies, and horror – the questions most of us ask do not interrogate war itself, but how clean it will be, how much it will cost in dollars and cents, whether there will be boots on the ground. War itself is not the question, the ethics of killing are not up for debate; the question is whether we can get away with killing without having to face any serious consequences.
War has become normal; so much so that we almost expect young men and women to don their fatigues, to be ordered by old, powerful men to kill and, if necessary, to die. I was shocked when Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered while guarding the Cenotaph in Ottawa last month but, to my shame, I was not surprised. While it is still not clear, all of the pious rhetoric notwithstanding, whether this was a terrorist attack, violence – whether perpetrated by political extremists or legitimate governments – has become so mundane that it no longer surprises us. Not in the United States, and not even in Canada.
That sad, horrific, realization came to me as I prepared to begin my lecture at Rutgers University earlier this week. I looked out at a room full of inquisitive, motivated, idealistic college freshmen and sophomores, and my father’s words echoed in my thoughts: “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.” That hope now seems unrealistic, even foolhardy.
I looked at Stephanie, a part-time soldier, like Cpl. Cirillo, who serves in the New Jersey National Guard. I have had guardsmen in my classes before, and I have seen many of them disappear from the classroom as they have been called up to duty. I looked at Hassan, with his passion for aircraft and flying, and wondered if, should it ever come to it, he might ever find himself on the firing line. I looked at Eric who, seeking me out during my office hours, off-handedly commented that he felt pressure to enter the service to pay for his education. That’s the pitch made by the signs and posters outside the recruiting office on Clinton Street.
I felt a chill in that brief moment as I imagined what it could have been like to stand before the college classes of 1914, 1917, 1939, and 1941, knowing that few of those hopeful, promising faces would return unscarred, if they returned at all. I thought of the plaques on the walls of Macdonald High School, and Concordia University, where I had been a student myself, solemnly listing the names of young men who lie at Vimy Ridge, Boulonge sur Mer, Ypres, Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, and the Reichwald Forest.
I feel horror that “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we have failed in our obligation to remember.
As part of my Act of Remembrance this year, I offer two poems, composed by poets on opposite side of the Great War.
Georg Trakl was a medic in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern front. In 1915, following the Battle of Grodek, Trakl was utterly overwhelmed by the number of horribly injured soldiers he had to treat, and sank into a deep depression. He committed suicide several weeks later. The translation of his poem “Grodek” is mine, followed by the original German.
Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915. He saw service in the trenches of northern France, and was killed in action at the Sambre-Oise Canal on the morning of 4 November 1918, almost exactly one week before the Armistice that ended the Great War.
By Georg Trakl (translated by Matthew Friedman)
At nightfall the autumn woods
resonate with deadly weapons,
the golden plains and blue lakes,
unfurl about a darkening sun;
night embraces the dead and dying:
the wild lament of their shattered mouths.
But silence gathers in the pastures.
A red mist, where dwells an angry god,
gushes blood into the lunar chill,
opening all roads in black decay.
Under golden boughs of night and stars
the sister’s shadow flits through the silent grove
to greet the shades of heroes, their bleeding heads,
as the music of autumn flutes rises softly in the reeds.
O prouder sorrow! You shameless altars!
The searing flame of the imagination
nourishes an unthinkable agony:
the generations yet unborn.
By Georg Trakl
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düster hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.