Prelude and Fugue

I remember the night that my father came home from work with a copy of the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields’ recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It was a double-LP boxed-set (recorded music came on black vinyl discs in those days) with extensive booklet of liner notes. My father let me read the notes, but insisted that we would only listen to the records when we had time to sit through all four sides without interruption. My next few days were filled with curiosity and anticipation. Today, on Bach’s 332nd birthday, I recognize that this was one of the great formative moments of my life.

My father called me into the living room on the following Sunday for what he called “a concert.” It was a bright winter afternoon of the type that we used to get in early January in Montreal. The sun flooded through the big picture window, reflecting off the snow drifts in our front yard. I was eleven or twelve years old, and had spent the morning skating and playing shinny on a patch of ice cleared on Lac St-Louis behind the Town Hall. We had had the traditional Friedman weekend lunch of bagels, lox, and tomato soup.

Placing the first disk on the stereo turntable, my father promised that I was “in for a real treat.” The tone arm moved, the stylus dropped to the groove on the record… And my life was changed forever.

I am sure that many of us have had moments of artistic revelation – even many of them – that moment when a book, a poem, a painting, a film or a work of music opens up a whole new aesthetic vista. I was no stranger to music. My father had an enormous (for the time) collection of records, ranging from the Deutsche Grammophon bicentennial collection of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, concertos and overtures to jazz and boxed sets from the Newport Folk Festivals. We listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts together with the kind of devotion that more religious Jews attended schul, and we regularly attended concerts by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

My mother played the baby grand piano in our living room brilliantly. In retrospect, I believe that she loved the experience of producing music with the graceful, balletic motions of her hands – music that would fill the house from glassy piano to thunderous forte – more than the music itself. She inclined toward Mozart and Chopin, and would often pull scores from the bench pretty much at random, mixing it up with Scott Joplin and arrangements of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Her performances were full of delicacy and passion, and I would often imagine her looking through the score to some distant point as she inhabited the sounds.

I had the benefit of a thorough, if unconventional, childhood education in music. My grade school music teacher Andreas Gutmanis imparted musical knowledge with a combination of urgency and enthusiasm. He put my classmates and me through the paces of the Orff Method – tee-tee tee-tee tah-tah on the school’s xylophones and glockenspiels – without great success. His real interest was in getting us to listen to music, however, and he would frequently draw the curtains and have us listen attentively and respectfully to everything from Mozart to Morton Subotnick’s electronic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon. In that he was immensely successful, and I am astonished at how many of his students became musicians.

Mr. Gutmanis taught me the violin. I loved the instrument, even though I hated practicing. My first concert performance was in a third-grade recital of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in all of the Suzuki variations. My father introduced me to conductor and pedagogue Brock McElheran when I was five. Dr. McElheran presented me with a baton and a copy of his book Conducting Techniques for Beginners and Professionals and gave me a series of private – though informal – lessons. (I still have both the baton and the book.) I later studied the piano and the flute and, though I never displayed any great talent, I learned to read music and to appreciate its beauty at a very profound level.

The vaults of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

The Art of Fugue, however, was an epiphany. It isn’t that this recording was or is the best music that I had ever heard. Make no mistake, however, it is an extraordinary piece of music, and the performance Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is outstanding. Rather, the experience of listening to this music for the first time, in that time and place utterly transformed me. It was the first time that I heard music from the inside – and saw it too, for this was a profoundly synesthetic experience. The counterpoint rose above and around me like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Years later, I saw a photo of the nave of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor and Director of Music for more than half of his career, and said out loud “yes, yes, that’s what I saw!”

Although the beauty of The Art of Fugue is highly architectural, the fugal lines of Bach’s masterpiece are never static. They move, and sweep and dance in ribbons of melody. The music is always serious and contemplative, a product of the Enlightenment, yet it is full of dark depths, ecstatic highs and restrained passions evoking both the religious foundations of Bach’s work and the chromatic future. It is both a palimpsest and a prophecy, and it ends abruptly 239 bars into the last, immense, four-voice, triple fugue – apocryphally at Bach’s death.

If I was to identify the moment when the starting point of trajectory that led me to become a music historian, that would be it. It is the ursprung of my own intellectual and professional genealogy. The process certainly was not quite that simple or predetermined, and I have drifted and dodged in any number of professional and scholarly directions in the decades since. But listening to The Art of Fugue on that afternoon, and every time since, I find myself connected to a nexus of history, art, culture and the genius of an artist whom I never met but somehow know intimately.

That is why music is important. Several years ago, when I sat down with my dissertation advisor to pitch the project that would consume my life and presumably define my academic career, I described those moments – beginning with The Art of Fugue, and following innumerable times thereafter – when listening to music connected me to those networks of meaning, history and feeling. Music is important because through it we can hear both the abstract and the concrete: the composer’s imagination, the performers’ skill and training, the resonance of the luthier’s craftsmanship, the boundaries of culture and knowledge, the expectations and prejudices that obtain at is moment of production and at every subsequent moment of reception. We cannot touch it, but we can feel it. We cannot see the notes as they are transmitted through the air, but we can read them.

The great unfinished final fugue from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, performed by Pierre-Laurent AImard.

Assured Destruction in Two and a Half Minutes

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. That is where we are.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists clock is an indication of dangerous times. And these are dangerous times, indeed. The clock indicates how close humanity is to a catastrophic act of self-destruction – an extinction-level event – according to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. And before you dismiss their concerns as the unrealistic ranting of eggheads who never leave the lab (as noted Trump apologist John Podhoretz did in January), consider this: They’re not just boffins in white coats. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board consists mostly of international security experts, like Steven Miller (Director of the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), and Lynn Eden (Emeritus Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation).

If the people whose jobs are to actually study the state of global security – the people whose research directs government policy here, and around the world – say that our species is closer to Doomsday this week than it has been at any time since the 1980s (remember… when Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Moscow, and the USSR murdered the 246 passengers on KAL 007?), then we should probably take them seriously.

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Let’s think about that; let’s think about what has happened over the last two months.

The clock announcement didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper (either on paper, or on the Web). The sense of rising tension has been hard to ignore over the last few years. Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal war against his own people in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis, the terrifying black legions of ISIS, the onward march of xenophobic entho-nationalism, Russia’s rising imperialistic ambitions, the melting ice caps: if I believed in prophecy, I might think that W.B. Yeats was writing about our own times a century ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Talking tough

And here, in the United States, the President, the chief executive and commander of the world’s most formidable military, the most powerful person in the world, is talking pre-teen tough on Twitter, striding through international events like a schoolyard bully, looking to pick a fight with anyone who denies his ego and fails to turn over their lunch money.

Today, we all woke up to news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that “all options are on the table” with regard to the US’s growing confrontation with North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea with a ballistic missile program. The pariah state that, nonetheless maintains fairly friendly relations with China and India. Nuclear-armed China and India. No one likes the idea that Kim Jong-un has nukes; but you can be sure they’re even less excited that the United States (which unapologetically incinerated hundreds of thousands of Asian people with its nukes in 1945) might consider the nuclear option, when “all options are on the table.”

In case you forgot, it’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Can you hear the ticking?

At its press conference on in January – it seems so long ago now – the Bulletin was clear that America’s new president was not the only factor in the jump to two-and-a-half minutes. Things have been bad, and getting worse over the past year, and this “already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign” after which then-President-elect Donald Trump enthusiastically advocated nuclear proliferation. With tensions rising around the world, and with the international security situation poised to fly off the rails, this is not just crazy talk. It’s very, very dangerous, very frightening crazy talk: “In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

When I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, I used to have a recurring nightmare. I was always sitting in my family’s living room in suburban Montreal looking out the big picture window. All of a sudden, there would be a flash of light, as bright as the sun, but where the sun couldn’t be. Then I would hear a shrill whining noise that would build and build until the glass of the window would blow in. And I would wake up.

The Day After

It wasn’t such an unusual nightmare to have in the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1980 Olympics boycott, SDI, and the MX missile. I know many contemporaries who had the same dark dream – or something like it – over and over again. In my case, it was certainly reinforced by The Day After on ABC, and a classroom screening of Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama The War Game in ninth grade. What we felt then – and what I tell my students when I teach Contemporary American History – was not fear that a nuclear war might happen, but the expectation that it would happen.

I have been having the nightmare again; twice since Inauguration Day. The Doomsday Clock announcement only made me feel less crazy.

It has always been something of a wonder that we have never had a nuclear war. Since 1949, the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have been staring daggers at each other, armed with the most terrifying weapons human intelligence has ever devised, but not using them. There was the RDS-46, the B41, the Minuteman, and SATAN-2; and yet they were never launched in war. As the 20th century wore on, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, tested and built their own stockpiles. There are about 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, armed and ready for deployment – enough to obliterate the planet – but there were more than 60,000 by the end of the Cold War. Yet for all of this, no nuclear weapon has been used against humans since the US bombing of Nagasaki 71 years ago.

The reason is simple: the detonation of even one small-yield nuclear weapon in combat would invite retaliation and inevitably trigger a sequence of events that could destroy the planet. Our species has successfully navigated Scylla and Charybdis because our always-imperfect governments and leaders have understood the reality of Mutual-Assured Destruction, or MAD. No one, not Lyndon B. Johnson, Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mao Zedong, Harold MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle, or anyone else was willing to be the person to start a nuclear holocaust. Even if some humans did survive – a scenario addressed in a fascinating literary subgenre of the 1960s best represented by Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon hundreds of millions, if not billions would die, leaving the survivors to scrape through a toxic nuclear winter.

Atomic shadows

Even if a global nuclear war were winnable, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory. As flawed, arrogant, or oppressive the leaders of the nuclear-armed states might always have been, they all nonetheless recognized the moral enormity of nuclear weapons. They cannot be used without killing millions of both the enemy and their own people and, at the end of the day, they have recognized that these are people. Real people. Reagan described them as “Ivan and Anya, Jim and Sally.” Sting sang that the Russians “love their children, too.” What has kept us alive for all of these years is empathy.

And this is what frightens me: We have very good evidence that the most powerful person in the world, a man with 7,000 thermonuclear weapons at his personal disposal – weapons whose proliferation and use he casually advocates – is a narcissistic solipsist apparently devoid of empathy.

Nothing that President Trump has done or said as the chief executive, as a candidate, or as a private citizen, suggests that he believes other people are, in fact, people with their own lives, feelings, and needs. With a stroke of the pen, he barred all Syrian refugees from entering the United States, almost certainly condemning tens of thousands to misery and death. That he did so while simultaneously failing to note in his Holocaust Remembrance Day message that six million actual Jewish people died in the camps – not merely unnumbered, abstract “victims” – suggests that he cannot recognize or comprehend the suffering of others. And when the courts struck down his executive order, he just tried again. The news that TrumpCare will ultimately rob 24,000,000 people of their health insurance, while providing a windfall for his wealthy friends, doesn’t seem to worry the president at all.

Indeed, President Trump seems to regard other people as an abstraction. They exist as undifferentiated masses – the “million and a half people” he believes packed the National Mall on inauguration day, the “three to five million” illegal voters, the hordes of immigrant terrorists and murderers, even the nameless, faceless “Americans” of his imagination – but not as individuals. People are not subjects to President Trump, they are objects who exist solely in relation to his own ego. Even his daughter Ivanka, whom he says he’d “be dating” if he wasn’t her father, is a hot “piece of ass.” What is important are his delusions of persecution: by the free press, by President Obama, by anyone who doubts his greatness.

Narcissism

This kind of narcissistic solipsism is fairly harmless in a reality TV star, and it is very likely the secret of President Trump’s mythic success in the real estate business. But in the leader of the world’s greatest nuclear superpower it is the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. The solipsist denies the reality of what lies beyond his own mind; the narcissist is emotionally isolated and unable to feel empathy. How can we count on a man incapable of empathy to consider the consequences of Mutual-Assured Destruction?

The President’s staff and congressional Republicans seem to think they have everything under control. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer feeds President Trump’s narcissism and shrugs away his delusions, repeating them without explicit endorsement from the podium. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismisses the President’s allegations of massive voter fraud, but thinks “it’s fine” for him to indulge his self-aggrandizing fantasies with a special investigation, while using his cult of personality to advance a cold, callous, conservative agenda. They are playing at a kind of rodeo brinksmanship, and they will ride this horse for as long as they can, and as long as they get what they want.

They are courting disaster. They are riding a bronco to the brink, and when they go over, like Slim Pickens astride a hydrogen bomb in the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove, the consequences will be catastrophic.

It’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Maybe less.

Kristallnacht is Coming

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Antisemitism. The bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers, and the vandalism to a Jewish cemetery in Missouri this week are just the latest manifestation of our dark, persistent social neurosis.

If you’re Jewish, you kind of expect this sort of thing. It’s depressing, disappointing, distressing – but it’s part of the background noise of daily life. What’s different now is how frequent and numerous these more public, directed incidents have become. This is a step beyond the usual casual antisemitism and, although coincidence is not causation, it’s hard not to see the connection between the political climate and these incidents. What worries me is that these things will inevitably get worse.

I have met, and spoken to antisemites of the most virulent type. They are mostly timid, fearful creatures who get strength by testing boundaries, and seeing how well they can push through them. They will start with small attempts to outrage, and gaining skill and strength, they will inevitably escalate to larger outrages. They conceive of themselves as the dispossessed, the “forgotten men,” and see Jews as both a great monolithic power that stands between them and their birthright, and a tiny minority community they can dominate and, yes, destroy.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews like Walter Rathenau were among the most prominent people in the country, but Jews made up about 0.8% of the total population. Today, in the United States, Jews like Jared Kushner, Bernie Sanders, Wolff Blitzer, and many others, are among the most prominent people in the country, and Jews make up about 1.4% of the population. The proportion is larger, and Jews are close to the centre of White Nationalist power, but that makes us both more threatening, and more vulnerable. To the antisemite, Ivanka Trump is not reassuring; she is a race-traitor, and an emblem of the awesome danger of infection and defilement posed by “the Jew.”

And that last category is important, because it is not a category controlled by Jews, liberal gentiles, or any rational people. As Sartre noted, “the Jew” is a creation of the fevered mind and dark imaginings of the antisemite – just as, it should be noted, “the Muslim” is a product of the Islamophobe’s mind.

So things will get bad. Very bad – and very soon. Just as the archetypal serial killer escalates from torturing pets, to butchering neighbourhood animals, to hunting humans, seeking greater gratification with every boundary crossed, so will the antisemite progress from a nuisance, to a problem, to a danger, to a vandal– to a murderer.

This is the reality: Kristallnacht is Coming.

The Chamberlain Moment: A Letter to Justin Trudeau

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrives at Heston Airport, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938, bearing “Peace for Our Time.”

Dear Mr. Trudeau:

I write to you from the United States in an atmosphere of crisis and fear. I am a Canadian citizen who has lived and worked in this country for more than a decade. I earned my doctorate, in American history, from an American university, and I married an American. But I have never abandoned my citizenship, or my connection or attachment to Canada. It is the homeland to which I hope someday to return.

My Canada is not merely a geographical location or a political abstraction; it is a place of the spirit, a constellation of ideals of democracy and human rights, of universal values of integrity and decency. I have not always agreed with your policies, sir, but I have never doubted your commitment to these values. More than any other world leader, you have made them the centrepiece of your political vision.

I look around me, appalled by the policies of the new American administration, frightened for the future and, quite frankly, despairing for the quality of our humanity – not just here, but around the world. President Trump has made the world far more dangerous than it has been for decades, and has imperiled the interests of our homeland and the welfare of the world. He is poised to destroy the United States’ relations with our mutual ally and economic partner Mexico, and has jeopardized the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has pledged to cripple NATO and undermine the UN, the international organizations that most define Canada’s role as the world’s honest broker. We can no longer dismiss President Trump’s words as mere populist bluster. The consequences of his foreign policies will be catastrophic for Canada and the world.

I only wish that was the worst of it but, as you know, President Trump’s policies are worse still. A little over two weeks ago, he signed an executive order on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. With the stroke of a pen, he turned his back on tens of thousands of people fleeing starvation, misery and death in Syria. He closed America’s doors to permanent residents and visa holders merely on the basis of their faith and national origin. Travelers from those lands have been prevented from embarking on flights to the United States. Those who were in transit at the moment when the President’s pen met paper were turned away upon anding. Although the courts halted the implementation of the order, there is no guarantee that this will be more than a temporary respite. The new administration’s policies are driven by Islamophobia and white nationalist chauvinism; it is inconceivable that it will let the matter drop.

I won’t address how, rather than dealing a blow to Islamic extremism and ensuring American security, these policies will almost certainly have the opposite effect. Others have written about this, and I am sure you are being well-advised. I will, however, note that they contradict every ideal that open, diverse democracies like Canada claim to defend. They are hateful and inhumane. They gainsay the Canadian values that you have so eloquently championed time and again.

I am an immigrant in the United States; I am the descendant of immigrants and refugees. One of my ancestors fled the persecution of Puritans in Britain and arrived in the New World in 1635. His descendant was a United Empire Loyalist who fled to Halifax during the American Revolution. I am the grandson of Jews who left Central Europe in the last days of the Hapsburg empire, a step ahead of religious persecution. Others like them were less fortunate, such as the passengers of the SS Saint Louis, and the millions of others who, denied safe haven in the United States and Canada, perished in the Nazi death camps.

What we face today, in America and around the world, is no longer a question of policy or diplomacy; it is a question of humanity. You and Canada have accumulated substantial political and diplomatic capital since you took office a little over a year ago. People around the world welcomed your strong and principled statement on 28 January that Canada would welcome refugees fleeing persecution, terror and war regardless of their faith. Many read it as a clear rebuke of the Trump administration’s xenophobic policies. Two days later, at a rally in Jersey City in support of refugees, the crowd chanted “hey hey, ho ho, we want a leader like Trudeau!”

Yet I learned today that you plan to make an official visit to the United States, to meet with President Trump, on Monday. I understand that the United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and most powerful ally. I am as aware as anyone of the significance of the world’s longest undefended border which we share with the United States. I recognize that you feel that you must balance the material and economic interests of our country with ethical principles. I believe your father called it a strategy of “constructive engagement.”

But there can be no constructive engagement with an authoritarian narcissist advised and directed by a cabal of white nationalist ideologues. President Trump, indeed the world, will inevitably view your visit as an endorsement and legitimation of his policies – at best! At worst, he will regard it as a vassal’s supplication. You stand to undermine all of the good will you and our country has accumulated. Consider the gravity of this historical moment: Do you really want to be remembered as an appeaser, returning home after your planned visit to Washington, striding off of your plane waving a paper, and claiming to carry “assurances” from President Trump?

Mr. Trudeau, you must take a stand. You must repudiate hate and explicitly condemn President Trump’s policies. Above all, you must recognize that you cannot travel to Washington to pay obeisance and shake the hand of a man whose every utterance and gesture denies every value you hold dear.

Canada’s call to history has always been to be a defender of democracy, human rights, and common decency. You have an obligation, as our leader, to step up to this historical mission.

Best Regards,

Matthew Friedman

Forsaken

donald-trumpMany of the people who voted for Donald J. Trump, appear to have voted the way they pray. That is, I have often noted, with some bafflement, that there are some religious Christians (a minority, to be sure) who beseech the creator for specific “gifts.” They pray to win the lottery, or to pass the final exam, or to get the job. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this, but it seems strange. Rabbi Treister always taught that, in the Jewish tradition, one prays to praise God, for thanks, or for the welfare of the community and others. So the concept of praying for specific, material benefits seems foreign to me.

Likewise, the idea of voting for specific, narrow, parochial, and often personal benefits strikes me as a little odd. For example, many of the voters who cast their ballots for Trump seem to have assumed that a Trump presidency would benefit them, personally. That is, by voting for Trump, they would keep their industrial jobs, would see their personal income increase, would feel personally safer, would not have to interact with unfamiliar foreigners in their daily lives.

While this kind of voting seems just as puzzling to me – perhaps because of my background in a Westminster-style parliamentary system, I always assumed that one voted for (or against) broader issues, relating to the community as a whole, and what kind of community one wanted it to be – what I really wonder is this: What happens when your god ignores your pleas?

I mean, there is no way that any Trump policy will be able to address the personal, individual needs and desires of 60 million people, so many – if not most – of his supporters are going to be terribly disappointed, as many already are. So what happens to people when, despite their most fervent prayers, their god abandons them?

Autumn Leaves

poppies-and-autumn-leaves_3249105I 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.

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

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.

***

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

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.

***

Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

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.

Grodek
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.

***

Grodek
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.

***

Peace.