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.

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.



The Forever War


The President goes to war

Today, thirteen years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America is once again girding for war. “Once again” might not be quite the right phrase to use, since it suggests that we are on the cusp of a transition from a state of peace to a state of war, yet this country has not been at peace for more than a decade.

From the perspective of this day in 2014, President George W. Bush’s speech from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California on 1 May 2003 seems like a sick joke. For those too forgetful, or too young (like many of my students) to remember, the president strode heroically across the carrier’s flight deck from a Lockheed Viking ASW bomber, clad in a Navy flight suit, with his aviator’s helmet under his arm. Under a red-white-and-blue banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the president announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” A few moments later, he added, “the war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.”

He lied.

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

The proof is that, since 2004 the United States has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and 2,300 in Afghanistan, while perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed, dislocated, their lives destroyed. And all of this since President Bush claimed that the mission was accomplished.

So here we are, more than a decade later, with President Obama wearily announcing that, despite his predecessor’s speech, despite the promised US withdrawal, this country is committing itself once again – there’s that phrase! – to war, this time against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For now, these will be air operations, deploying America’s vast resources of aircraft, drones and cruise missiles against the jihadists who have overrun much of Iraq. It does not mean that the United States will be sending troops in any number to the region to face off against the new enemy on the ground. At least that’s the story.

Because we – Americans, Canadians, Britons, whatever – like to remember history in terms of nice, discrete packages, where great empires rise and fall, where crises come and go, where wars begin and end, it’s the kind of story that we can believe. This time, the old song goes, won’t be like the last time. Indeed the last time,  and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, has faded into vague memories that flicker fitfully on movie screens to teach us moral lessons of courage, sacrifice, grief and pain.

We remember that the Second World War was the good war; the one where there was no moral messiness, where we (and, incidentally, our Soviet, French, British and Commonwealth allies) did the right thing and stood against the brutal butchers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We forget that we ended the war by incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians in places with names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg, and Dresden. We forget how greatly Nazi expansion benefitted from the Western democracies’ benevolent indifference to the goose-stepping legions that marched through Spain, Libya, Ethiopia, the Sudetenland, and Austria.

We remember the heroic hardships the American GIs, indeed soldiers from the whole free world, endured to defend South Korea from the violent embrace of the Hermit State and the Chinese Red Army’s surge across the icy Yalu River in 1950. We forget that Douglas MacArthur wanted to use this as a pretext to bring nuclear Armageddon to China, and that the war, more than a half-century later, is still not over, but remains suspended in the tense unreality of a permanent ceasefire without peace.

We remember the spectacular victory of Panama when, over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s a quarter century ago, American soldiers stormed from their Blackhawk helicopters to restore order and democracy and, to the pounding beat of MTV music, bought a drug-dealing caricature of a banana republic dictator to justice. We forget that Manuel Noriega had been our agent, and that he acquired the cash he invested in the Columbian cocaine cartels working for the CIA. We forget the thousands of civilians who died in Panama City’s El Chorillo neighbourhood, and others like it.

My Lai

My Lai

We remember the horrors of Vietnam; we remember that it was a mistake, built on a lie, enabled by paranoid Cold War fantasies; we remember that we confronted the worst of American arrogance there, and hope that we came out better. Sometimes, we even remember the bodies of women, children, and the elderly at My Lai, cut down by fresh-faced American boys ordered to “waste ’em all.” But we forget that, after the boys came home, paid their penance, and were rehabilitated as heroes, the dying went on. We forget that our arrogance and our bombs brought the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power and helped bury the uncounted millions in Cambodia’s killing fields. We forget the Vietnamese refugees who, after we washed our hands of our defeat, sailed in boats swamped to the gunwales across the South China Sea by the millions, and drowned by the tens of thousands.

Above all, we forget that, in 1964, we were going to answer the fabricated provocation of the Tonkin Gulf, and achieve our noble aims – just as we will fifty years later – with airpower alone. We were going to secure the peace by pummeling the enemy into submission with F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and B-52 Stratofortresses – America’s unbeatable advantage over the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. But 3,500 marines landed at Da Nang in the spring of 1965 to guard our bases, followed by thousands… then hundreds of thousands. Within four years, there were more than a half-million American soldiers and airmen “in country,” and the generals wanted yet more.

We remember the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that as if they are somehow separate from this time, as if all of our wars can be easily compartmentalized from all of their deaths and misery, as if this time won’t be like the last time. It will be different.

Mass Execution

Mass Execution

Like all of us, I have watched the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with a combination of disbelief and horror. I have wept over the thousands displaced, raped, tortured, and butchered by the faceless black legions marching like the soot behind a flame across the map of Iraq and Syria. I shuddered in disgust as I forced myself to watch the videos of the beheadings and the mass executions, so I could bear witness to the atrocities of our historical epoch.

If I believed that evil was a living thing – a dark force with a positive, material existence in history – then I would believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the Nazis, slavers, and the US Army cavalrymen grinning and posing in that old photo over the mass grave at Wounded Knee before them, were it. But I know that nothing in history is ever that simple. The Islamic State’s soldiers are in the right as they understand it, they are fighting a holy, righteous crusade in the name of God, as they understand it. Mass murder is a moral act for them, just as it was for Paul Tibbets on that clear August morning, or for Richard the Lionheart as he entered the gates of Acre.

I can well understand the visceral desire, the demand for justice; for evil to be crushed and for us, under the banner of civilization, democracy, and all that is good and moral, to be the instrument of that justice. But then I have to ask where we Americans, or “Western Civilization” broadly – the butchers of millions, the slavers, the genocidal exterminators of the First Nations of the Americas – derive the authority to act in the name of all that is good and moral. How can a mass murderer be the judge and executioner of a mass murderer?

And haven’t we all been here before? Wasn’t the War on Terror supposed to defeat terrorism? President Bush declared war thirteen years ago promising to “wage this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” Invoking the divine, he was certain of victory: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” What happened to that victory?

This was not to be just any war. It had specific goals, outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. One of these was to “win the war of ideas and diminish the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change that lead people to embrace, rather than shun, terrorism.” Yet here we are, a decade later, and those conditions have not been diminished, but greatly enhanced. The black legions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have clearly not shunned terrorism and – let us be honest – they would not have had this startling success had people in Iraq, Syria, and around the world, not in their despair embraced the message. By its own standards the War on Terror, which has run longer than any war in our history, has been an abject failure, a disgrace, a bloody farce.

A Predator drone at work

A Predator drone at work

The invasions, the occupations, the suspension of civil liberties, the militarization of American life, the “targeted killings,” the drone strikes – none of these have brought security to America and the world, and none of these have diminished “the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change.” They have created and expanded them. The monster of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the monster created by war, and despair – our war. Here we are, thirteen years after it all began, and the President has committed us to reinforcing failure, to escalating the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. Maybe we should stop and think about this.

There is a great fallacy at work here – at the White House, in Congress, on the cable news talking-head shows, in social media, at the water-cooler – that the military option is the only option. “We have to do something,” we all piously intone, and that might well be true. But why does it seem reasonable to anyone that the escalation of a strategy that has not only failed, but has made things worse, is the only or even the best option? It’s like turning up the heat to save someone who is dying of thirst.

All consideration of what has to be done begins with dropping bombs and launching missiles, inevitably continues with “boots on the ground,” and ends – no, wait, it doesn’t end. This is the endless conflict. War is no longer our state of exception; it is our state of being.

“We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.”

Beersick for Home

The recovery drink of champions!

The recovery drink of champions!

I’ve been drinking a bit more beer than usual, lately. I blame the hot, humid, Hudson Valley weather, I guess, but also that, since my partner finally came out as an occasional beer drinker, I’ve been picking up the odd six-pack to keep in the fridge – Allagash, Shipyard… that kind of thing. Now that she’s travelling abroad for a few weeks, I have the beer all to myself and, not incidentally, more inclination to imbible. If you’ve ever been in love, you understand the truth of the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow thirstier.”

Hell, I had three – count ’em – beers yesterday alone! If you know anything about me, you’ll know that that’s a lot more alcohol than I usually drink in one 24-hour period, considering that it usually takes me no more than two beers, two glasses of wine, or two cocktails to get me blind-stinking drunk. Yeah… I’m a cheap date.

All of this boozing has had me thinking about the beers of my hometown, Montréal, especially since today is the Fête de la Saint-Jean, the national holiday of Québec (and although I am a Tête Carré, I am un vrai bloke Québécois de souche!). I really miss the beers of home.



I miss the crispness of a frotsy Belle Gueulle Pilsner on a hot summer night. I miss the hoppy-yeasty-ness of a Boréale Rousse. I miss seeing the bear label in windows of Brasseries advertising Boréale within. I even miss the way the ship on the Molson (Export) label looks like an Armadillo when you see it sideways (for example, with your head on a beer-soaked tabletop).

Some of my real favourites are brewed by the McAuslan brewery down on St-Ambroise street in the St-Henri district in the West End of Montréal. (Yeah… I’m an Anglo. The West End is my little patch of home.) The brewery is just to the right of Courcelle street, when you fly down the hill from NDG and Westmount to the Lachine Canal bike path. So many times I’d be riding back with my buddies Marlene, Henry, Gustavo and Tim from a metric, or a century or some other long hot ride to Rigaud, Hudson or wherever, and we’d pass the brewery and I’d want a beer. ‘Stavo would invariably opine that “beer is a great recovery drink.” And there would be a Saint Ambroise Pale Ale or Griffon Rousse in my immediate future.

When I organized a cyclo-cross team at Martin Swiss Cycles in 2001 (the Martin Swiss Cyclo-cross Experience), McAuslan was one of our main sponsors. They didn’t give us money — they paid their sponsorship fee in beer. That was fine with us. There is a long and storied relationship between cyclo-cross and beer, and since we would probably have spent a fair bit of the money on beer anyway (the shop’s Friday night closing time in the pit… with beer…), it was a fair bargain.

We did a few races in the US, where we arrived with our sponsor’s product, and afterward, many of our rivals would ooh-and-ahh over the cases of IPA and McAuslan’s absolutely brilliant oatmeal stout. (I will go on record here and say that it is far, far superior even to Guinness.) If we had distributed the beer before the races, we might have had a better record.

As it turns out, one of the hardest things about living in exile (“un Canadien errant…”) is missing all of the comforting flavours of home, whether it’s Montreal bagels, poutine, those nasty maple-sugar cones that you can buy at Atwater market in springtime, or Montreal beer. There are sources for Montreal bagels in New York, and we have explored some in Brooklyn. We have even located a source for cheese curds – Beecher’s – at the corner of 20th and Broadway, allowing us to improvise some pretty credible (and creditable) poutine with instant vegetarian gravy. (Incidentally, most authentic Montréal poutine is actually made with instant mushroom gravy.)

But the beer thing is a problem. We (Canadians) all know just how bad American beer can be. Bud, Miller, Pabst… these are all well known among us as “sex in a canoe” (fucking near water). Even at their worst – whach can be pretty bad – the commercial offerings from Labatt and Molson at least have some flavour.

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Having said that, there are good beers from small brewers, like Harpoon, Stone, Allagash and pseudo-small brewers like Sam Adams, of course. A tour of the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME, last summer was an eye-opener. Monkey Fist was a bit too hoppy for me (it’s an American IPA, after all), the Chamberlain Pale Ale, with the likeness of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain on the label, was (as my father would say) the stuff. My partner was charmed by Pumpkin Head and, in season, Apple Head. Clearly, the canoe has beached.

Like any ex-pat, however, I do miss the libations of my homeland. I’m not talking about Molson, or Labatt Blue, or any of that other foreign-owned, homogenized, industrial swill. As an old drinking buddy once affirmed – Labatt is fine for your third beer, when you can’t taste it anymore, and the point is to get shteezed. (Suffice it to say, I rarely get to the point when Labatt 50 becomes acceptable.)

I’m talking about the small brewery beers. The ones with a griffon, bear, or buraq (look it up) on the label. You can get the Chambly beers here – La Maudite, Fin du Monde, etc. – but they’re from Chambly! Besides, I never really cared for them, anyway (too strong… too sweet… too self-consciously Trappist). But that’s it. For some reason, no other small, Canadian and Québecois brewers have penetrated the American market. It is a measure of my unrealistic expectations that I walk into almost every beer-retailer I pass at least once, hoping to find what I need to quench my homesick thirst. All I see are La Maudite and Fin du Monde – good in a pinch, I guess – but they’re not my beers. They are not the ones that make me think of Balconville and bonfires in June and the Jazz Festival and rides across the Estacade.

Bonne Fête1

Bonne Fête!

So here I am, on Saint Jean, missing beer. I am as beersick on this holiday as I am homesick. As a great Canadian singer once noted, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” So, my Montréalais(e) friends — tonight, please raise a glass of one of our beers to salute the holiday. Think of me, and every other exiled Montréaler. Sing a song in French and toast our eventual returns.

Bonne Fête, mes amis. Je vous souviens!

On Shaming Seven-Year-Old Fame-Sluts: A Rant on Rape Culture, Revisited

I don’t know what kind of a person Woody Allen is. Actually, I don’t even believe in “kinds” of people – you know, racists, sexists, rapists, good, bad, ugly. I have seen people I otherwise like engage in awful behavior, and people I find difficult have impressed me with unexpected acts of kindness. So let me rephrase it like this: I don’t know what Woody Allen has done, aside from his work in cinema. I find some of it compelling, and some of it boring, and some of it self-indulgent.

Allen’s talent was initially a large part of what some internet commentators are disingenuously calling a “controversy” over his daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse. (If you are somehow unaware of this, come out from under your rock and do a quick Google search.)

At first, the issue was whether one can appreciate the films of a sexual predator. (We’ve been here before, with Roman Polanski and similarly ambiguous conclusions). We were asked to contemplate whether Woody Allen deserved his Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes, following tweets from two members of the Farrow clan excoriating the decision to honor him. The world seemed focused on the moral conundrum of praising a flawed genius, or supporting the work of a likely criminal, who was investigated but never charged. It was about the man and his actions. For some, it was an assault on his character, whether it was merited or not.

Then, after Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter to the New York Times, the dialogue turned from Allen-shaming to slut-shaming. The problem is, one can’t easily slut-shame a seven-year-old, even when she becomes a grown woman. So it is open season on her memory, and her maternal family’s visibility.

Attacks on the Fallacious Farrows have been most pointed at the Guardian, where Suzanne Moore writes off the social-media discussion of the case as little more than an ill-informed “kangaroo court.” Michael Wolff suggests that entire situation was manufactured by the Farrow family to improve their profile and return them to the ranks of Real Celebrity. Even Dylan’s first-person account, Wolff argues, is carefully crafted to appeal to famous young women who will provide public (read: impersonal) moral support in return for some undefined increase in their own popularity. He says that Dylan’s story has resurfaced at a convenient moment for the careers of her mother and brother, and that her allies are swayed by emotion rather than “outside facts” – whatever those would look like.

Neither journalist is accusing her of lying; they’re just telling her that her story only matters in its ability to make and break public lives.

All of these might well be valid philosophical points, and the extreme culturalist in me wants to acknowledge them. All the while, the extreme feminist in me is trying to scream louder than the cacophony of Allen defenders and Farrow detractors. BULLSHIT. BULL FUCKING SHIT, and please don’t pardon my language.

It is the same routine we see nearly every time anyone comes forward with their story of sexual assault. I haven’t yet heard anyone questioning Dylan’s own morals, but that is a small victory. Instead, they are calling out her mother’s family history, mental health, and public profile. They are finding fault in her brother’s recent ascent to the fishbowl. They can’t very well say that a seven-year-old child was drunk at the frat party, or call her a slut, so they use other words so often used to dismiss women’s complaints to undercut those around her. Crazy. Manipulative. Fame-obsessed. Desperate.

It is another way to silence people we find inconvenient. When we insist that the voices in question are coming from people who are mentally unstable (in itself, another rant for another day), who have another agenda, or who are vindictive, their complaints can’t be legitimate, and we don’t have to listen to them. Telling the Farrows not to mar a supposedly brilliant director’s career because they are barmy third-rate celebrities – or, as it seems now, telling the Farrows that they are lying because barmy third-rate celebrities couldn’t possibly have real grievances against a supposedly brilliant director – is part of an old refrain. Don’t talk back to Holy Father. Don’t ruin the young man’s life. Don’t destroy his football (lacrosse, soccer, hockey, accounting) career. Don’t hurt your mother. Don’t you know what kind of pain this would bring upon your family? Don’t tell anyone, and if you do, nobody will believe you anyway.

It takes a good deal of courage to speak up. I imagine that it takes even more to do so knowing that every word will be subject to media scrutiny, amplified by Facebook and Twitter.

If you have a vagina, or your parts don’t conform to your soul, or you are brown, or you act in any way that the herd finds difficult, you probably know what I am talking about. (I am not saying that normative white men can’t understand this, because I know many normative white men who are compassionate, caring, and capable of great empathy… but they also tend to be aware that they’re playing with a stacked deck.) I am sure every person reading this has experienced a moment in which your words were taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt because you were  _________ (insert adjective describing other-ness here). Those with vaginas and melanin and non-normative gender identities don’t get a free pass here, though, because we vagina-wearers and non-normative folks are often as guilty as anyone else of slut-shaming, crazy-calling, and manipulation-card-waving.

This is not about determining whether Woody Allen raped his daughter. There were two people in that room. There are no other witnesses. There are no “outside facts.” This is about allowing people to recount their stories of victimization (which is not the same as victimhood) AND TAKING THEM SERIOUSLY.

We could have a long academic conversation about memory and celebrity, or the relationship between narrative and political investment. We could interrogate the idea of consent. But today those things make me feel like we’re running around the problem and allowing its perpetuation. When we question Dylan Farrow’s narrative, we’re not just circling the wagons around the perpetrator. We’re telling another generation of women (and many men) to sit down, shut up, and hide their pain. Don’t ruin a beloved person’s life. Be a good girl and take it.

We can’t know what happened in that room. We don’t know what happened in a billion other rooms on a billion other days to billions of other people. But we can at least try to create a safe space for telling, because while silence is painful, pushing back against the crushing, relentless public doubt that greets a broken silence is much, much worse.

Image of Madiba

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I cried.

I cried when my mother died in the winter of 2006. I cried when my father died in the spring of 2012. I cried when Nelson Mandela died this week. I felt as if I had lost a close friend, a mentor, a member of my own family.

At first, I was puzzled by the intensity of my grief and my sense of loss. Mandela’s death, though sad, was hardly a shock. He was 95 years old. He had been gravely ill since last June, and had passed into a coma in July. Part of me hoped, as I did when each of my parents fell ill, that the great man would come through, that he would defy the odds, his age, and medicine, and make a full recovery. The world needed Madiba, and I could not imagine it without him. He didn’t, of course, and his death on Friday was simply the last page of a months-long denouement to an extraordinary life.

I never met Mandela. I watched his release on television in February 1990. Though I did not attend the rally in his honour at Jarry Park in Montreal the following summer, I listened to it on the radio and watched the extended coverage on the news. I never shook his hand. He was not a personal friend, a colleague, or a comrade. Yet, in so many ways, I felt closer to him than I do many of my friends, colleagues, and comrades.

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Nelson Mandela has occupied a place at the centre of my politics and sense of justice since my father told me his story. I was in grade school, and I had been assigned South Africa for a United Nations day. The night before the exercise, my father sat me down and told me about apartheid, the Bantustans, the pass system, Sharpeville, Soweto, Stephen Biko, the African National Congress… and the long years Mandela had spent in prison because of his struggle for freedom and democracy. “You will be South Africa tomorrow; I know you will do the right thing.”

My first acts of activism were against the apartheid regime. I helped organize demonstrations in CEGEP; I stood along with thousands calling for Mandela’s release, and to protest the Canadian government’s continued engagement – like the uranium shipments from the port of Montreal – with Pretoria. I boycotted FBI orange juice, and any other product remotely tainted by its connections to the Rembrandt Group.

When I danced the high-step to the Special AKA’s “Nelson Mandela” in some long-forgotten punk club in 1985, or to Johnny Clegg and Savuka in the streets at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1988, it was with passion and determination. I was not dancing alone; I danced with my friends and comrades, and with Mandela in our imaginations. It was an ecstatic act of musical and political solidarity.

Madiba has always been there with me. I guess I thought he always would be. Now that he is gone, I feel the weight of his absence.


What puzzles me more, however, is the representation of Mandela in the news and social media over the last couple of days. I have had an eerie feeling that I have been watching the “Savage Curtain” episode from the 1969 season of Star Trek played out over and over again. That’s the episode where the ever-intrepid Kirk and Spock do battle with some of the worst villains of galactic history, aided by the two greatest paragons of justice and courage: Abraham Lincoln and the Vulcan philosopher Surak. They’re not really Lincoln and Surak, but mysterious doppelgangers. Spock insists on addressing “Image of Surak.”

It seems as if so much of the media have been addressing Image of Mandela, rather than the man himself. In fairness, I recognize that the Mandela who I lost this week is as much an image as anyone else’s. Yet what puzzles me is how many – though not all – of the Mandelas depart from any reasonable reading of the man’s life and work.

The most common is the whitewashed or right-washed Mandela. This is the one on display in the American corporate media, shorn of his radicalism and revolutionary politics. Most of these reports emphasize his courage, strength and his insistence on peace and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. These were essential parts of his politics and character, to be sure, but when his radicalism is mentioned at all – he was a life-long socialist, close to members of the South African Communist Party, and committed, even after his release, to the armed struggle – it is as an afterthought.

It is as if few people in the media want to ruin their celebration of the great man’s life by mentioning that he was on the US government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, and remained an incisive critic of US imperialism, and close some of the great villains of the American Right’s worst fantasies. In fact, one of the few remotely-mainstream American commentators who has mentioned any of this is the repulsive reactionary gasbag David Horowitz – and then only to denounce him.

Rick Santorum has even gone so far to enlist Mandela – a socialist and a vocal advocate for government-run, free, national health insurance – in his ongoing campaign against the Affordable Care Act. According to Santorum, his efforts to deny affordable health care to the majority of Americans is just like the great man’s resistance to the brutal, racist, genocidal, apartheid regime. You can’t make this stuff up.

A Mandela meme

A Mandela meme

More common is the kind of embroidered sampler sentimentality that bloomed all over Facebook, Twitter and other social media sources. We’ve seen this kind of thing before with Martin Luther King, jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama – a focus on the kind of comforting, unchalenging platitudes that can be printed over a soft-focus photo on an Internet meme. It’s the kind of thing American and Canadian liberals go in for in a big way; quite like all those pictures of a gentle, smiling Louis Armstrong over the text “What a wonderful world it would be.”

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

In this, white liberals are able to domesticate Mandela – the revolutionary – like a fuzzy Lolcat in a profoundly racist dynamic. He has become, to so many doubtless well-intentioned people, a kind of “magical Negro.” This is a recurring media figure, closely related to the “Uncle” and “Mammy” of the blackface minstrel show, whose whole purpose is to nudge white characters toward spiritual salvation and reconciliation. He is virtually always portrayed as a wise, gentle usually older Black man who is somehow in touch with a deeper, mystical reality. Think of the John Coffey character in The Green Mile, or Morgan Freeman in virtually anything. While it might give middle-class white people – like myself – the warm-and-fuzzies, and a momentary respite from interrogating our privilege, it robs a man like Mandela of his agency and his power.

It makes him safe.


The young Mandela

The young Mandela

On the other side, I have noted puzzling critique emerging from the radical Left. This first became apparent in an exchange on my Facebook wall where a friend – a committed activist whom I deeply respect and admire – suggested that, for all his radical efforts as a young man, the post-release Mandela was simply a “bourgeois pacifist” and what, in “Marxist circles,” might be called a “revisionist.”

I’m not so sure about Marxist circles; Communist circles, certainly. “Revisionism” suggests that there is an explicit and pure party line, and that to deviate from it in any way is a revision of the original intent. Considering that (a) Marx’s analysis and critique apply to a radically different form of capitalism than exists today and (b) he called for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” including his own work, I would have to say that any “Marxist” who condemns anyone as a “revisionist” should go back and actually read Marx.

The most common Left criticism goes something like this: While we should respect the Mandela’s revolutionary work up to his arrest and trial in 1962, the man who emerged from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990 was no longer a revolutionary committed to the armed struggle. He had been tamed. His efforts to seek a peaceful transformation of South African society, his insistence on reconciliation with the White population and his willingness to engage with neo-liberal, global capitalism as president are all evidence of “capitulation.” The whites did not feel the force of African vengeance nor did Mandela immediately transform South Africa into a workers’ paradise. Instead, he played the game of bourgeois liberal democracy and betrayed the Revolution.

Western/Northern/Euro-American (hereafter “Western”) radicals are impatient people. We want The Revolution to be made right now. We want to storm the barricades and, considering that we are virtually all bourgeois intellectuals, we can’t understand why the oppressed proletariat doesn’t rise up right now. We can’t understand why Mandela, a Marxist, allowed himself to be “coopted” and “capitulated” when he finally had the power of the state in his own hands.

Mandela, the radical leader

Mandela, the radical leader

This kind of criticism of Mandela is deeply colonialist. It presumes the universality of a Western revolutionary agenda rather that acknowledging that a revolution in another part of the world might address other kinds of issues and look quite a bit different. Mandela’s “failure” to live up to the revolutionary standards of comfortable bourgeois intellectuals like us in the United States and Canada is characterized as a betrayal.

I am sure that Mandela felt that he had some larger issues to contend with than sticking to the Western revolutionary playbook. Like maybe dismantling a century-old regime built on systematic racism and racial violence. This was a society where the minority White population held a monopoly on political and economic power. It was a place where non-whites did not have the right to vote, where Blacks could not legally own or manage businesses, where the education system spent ten-times-more teaching white children than Black children. It was a place where Afrikaans writer Breyten Breytenbach was arrested and imprisoned, in part for violated miscegenation laws, when he returned to his country of birth with his Franco-Vietnamese bride in 1975. I suppose that, if you ignore all of that and more, you could argue that Mandela’s “failure” to bring about an immediate and complete social revolution might look like “capitulation.”

Could Mandela have acted differently? More “radically?” Maybe he could have expelled the entire white population, like Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. We can see how well that turned out. Perhaps, when he spoke from the steps of the Cape Town city hall hours after his release, Mandela could have called for a mass uprising in the streets, and simply accepted that the hundreds of thousands who would inevitably have been slaughtered by Africa’s largest, best trained, and best-equipped army had died in the cause of revolution.

Perhaps, when elected president, he could have used the powers of his office and his phenomenal political capital to nationalize all industries and economically disenfranchise non-Black capitalists, as Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe right now. He would have then had to accept the embargo that the Western democracies would inevitably have imposed. Millions would have starved, of course, and it would have been impossible for Mandela’s government to fund desperately-pressing programs to address basic needs like housing, food, and education.

Moreover, he could not have done any of this and expect any support in the South African Parliament. The Whites would have opposed it for sure, as would have the South Africans of Asian and South-Asian descent. And despite the fact that, in the romantic imagination of Western intellectual revolutionaries, all oppressed people are a single, undifferentiated mass with a unified hive mind and will, it wasn’t that way at all. Black voters and political leaders would not automatically have agreed. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party held 43, or 20%, of the seats in the 1994 Parliament, and they were never inclined to support Mandela. Even in the ANC itself, there was – and is – a vast range of opinions. It is highly unlikely that a majority could be could be mobilized to pass such legislation.

But what difference does democracy make to a true revolutionary? The good revolutionary knows that democracy is a sham designed to maintain bourgeois power.

It would be better to ask what democracy meant to a man who committed his life to “one-man-one-vote,” who was prepared to die for the principle (we should ask ourselves what we are prepared to die for), who served 27 years in prison for it. For Nelson Mandela, the simple idea that all people must have free and equal access to political expression and power was the first principle. Everything followed from there. If that was not secured, the nothing could be secured.

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Joe Slovo, Mandela’s comrade, friend, the minister for housing in his government, and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, no less, said this in 1990:

“Our party’s programme holds firmly to a post-apartheid state which will guarantee all citizens the basic rights and freedoms of organisation, speech, thought, press, movement, residence, conscience and religion; full trade union rights for all workers including the right to strike, and one person one vote in free and democratic elections. These freedoms constitute the very essence of our national liberation and socialist objectives and they clearly imply political pluralism…

It follows that, in truly democratic conditions, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for a party claiming to be the political instrument of the working class to attempt to lead its constituency in democratic contest for political power against other parties and groups representing other social forces. And if it wins, it must be constitutionally required, from time to time, to go back to the people for a renewed mandate. The alternative to this is self-perpetuating power with all its implications for corruption and dictatorship…”

As for Mandela’s pacifism, it beggars the imagination that anyone would think that it was easy for a man whose friends had been murdered, whose people had been confined in a social prison of racial segregation and forced labour, who had spent 27 years in prison to seek peace and reconciliation with the murderers and jailers. When Western radicals, as well-intentioned as we might be, speak of “bourgeois pacifism,” we articulate a notion that pacifism is an easy way out. A real revolutionary would stand and fight to the bloody death.

It is the infantile – and dare I say it, the bourgeois – fantasy of the Left, a Left of which I count myself a part, that resistance and revolution must be a moment of immediate apocalyptic reckoning, singed by flames and bathed in blood. That is the great romance in seminar rooms and drum circles. That’s how it looks from behind the gas mask and bandanna as we all line up – students, professors, hipsters and bloggers – with our fists raised and our banners flying, ready to take pepper spray in the face, a knock on the head, and a night in jail, to put our “bodies on the line” and fight the power. And sometimes that is how it has to be. But after we’re booked at the police station, or spend a night in jail, we get to go home to our classes, our jobs and our families afterward to lick our wounds.

Neither Mandela, nor any of the other activists of the ANC had anywhere else to go. There was no retreat. Mandela knew that the rubble left after an apocalyptic confrontation would be the rubble of his own home, in the largest sense of the word. He also knew that there could be no freedom for his people unless that included all the people – Black, “coloured,” and White – in South Africa.

Peace, reconciliation, democracy were neither a “capitulation,” nor an easy way out, nor a failure. They were the most difficult things in the world, and they were the only way to ensure that his personal freedom, and the freedom of his people, meant something.


Mandela did not storm the barricades and crush neo-liberal neo-colonialism. He did not establish a worker’s paradise-on-the-Cape. South Africa today remains a troubled land, in many ways, and it seems that, to some people, that is an indictment of Mandela’s “failure.” But that ignores something that the great man knew better than almost anyone: that revolutionary transformation is a process and not an event, that the path to change is rarely short and straight. “I have walked that long road to freedom,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” South Africa has a long way to go, but thanks to Mandela, it is on its way.

Despite all the soft-focus samplers and aphoristic remembrances, he was not a saint, but practical man deeply committed to a political ideal. Shortly after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, George Orwell wrote, “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell, ever prickly, had no stomach for Gandhi the saint, but he expressed deep admiration for the human being.

Although I know that my Image of Mandela is a problematic as anyone else’s, that I never knew the man apart from his mark on history, that is how I choose to remember him: as a human being. But what a human being! He was a great man, the greatest I have ever known. I feel privileged to have lived in his times. If all of our leaders – if all of us – were as committed to peace and decency, as intolerant of oppression, as courageous, as principled – as human – then we would not need people like Mandela to change the world.

Thank you, Madiba.

Joe: A Remembrance

 I marked Remembrance Day in 2010 by sharing the story of my father’s experiences in the Second World War with my friends on Facebook, in the form of a day-long series of status updates. I shared the whole narrative again in 2011, and I present it here, revised and expanded. Through this story, I remember the generation Canadian men and women who served, their sacrifices and their valour. I believe that we serve the cause of peace by remembering the horror and hardships of war and the courage of the men and women who served.

This is my act of remembrance.


Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Early in 1943, Joe Friedman informed his parents that he was going to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. There was a war on, with opportunities for excitement and glory, and as far as he was concerned the question was not open for debate. However, as he was only 17, Joe needed his parents’ permission to enlist. His mother refused.

Joe did what any headstrong teenager would have done: he lied about his age at the enlistment office. Dorothy Friedman, horrified at the thought of losing her son to the war and in any event never inclined to take challenges to maternal authority lightly, was livid. She was determined to set things right and expose his lie to the Air Force recruiter.

Undaunted, Joe announced that if he could not join the Air Force he would enlist in the merchant navy instead. Having lost more than 100 ships in the North Atlantic convoy in 1943 alone, the most dangerous service was desperate for manpower and would be willing to overlook the fact that Joe was only 17. His mother gave in.

Joe’s enlistment in the RCAF was actually something of a foregone conclusion. Canadian resolve had not weakened after four years of war. The CBC’s Lorne Green – the “voice of doom” – intoned that “there is a job to be done,” while Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck showed how good old Canadian pluck would ALWAYS defeat Nazi villainy, at least in the comic books.

The Air Force gave a youth from the dirty streets of Montreal’s Mile End district the opportunity to seek adventure and see the world. For a Jewish teenager, it also offered empowerment – a chance to get back at Nazi anti-Semitism. 20,000 Jewish Canadians served in the Second World War, a number exceeding their proportion of the Canadian population and in numbers far outstripping the national average.

In any event, Joe had the examples of his older brothers Melvin and Jack, and his older sister Ruth to emulate. By 1943, all three had enlisted in the RCAF. A photo of all four ran in the Montreal Star with the caption, “The Fighting Friedmans.” By the summer of that year Joe, like his brothers and sisters and hundreds – if not thousands – of young men and women who had attended Montreal’s Baron Byng and Bancroft schools, was in uniform.

The Fighting Friedmans in 1943: Melvin, Ruth, Jack and Joe

It’s remarkable how quickly the RCAF molded teenage toughs like Joe into disciplined airmen. After a few weeks of basic training, Joe was assigned to RCAF Mont-Joli Station as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan for training as an air gunner. He excelled in his training, and by the winter of 1944 was sent overseas to Newfoundland with the rank of corporal to join the bomber crew of an Active Training Unit.

Shortly after his 19th birthday, in the summer of 1944, Joe was shipped to Britain for two months of operational training before finally being posted to a No. 195 Squadron, a composite RAF/RCAF unit based at RAF Wratting Common, as the tail-gunner in an Avro Lancaster Mk I bomber.

Mark Goldwater, an old schoolmate from Montreal who had dropped out of Sir George Williams University to join the RCAF, joined the crew as mid-upper gunner. The Flight Engineer was 19-year-old Sergeant Douglas Cullum from Waddon, Surrey. Flying Officer Norman Waring, from Caernarvon, Wales, joined the crew as bombardier. Sitting in the position behind the cockpit was the wireless operator Sergeant Bernard White of New Southgate, Middlesex. Flying Officer Richard Barry, a school teacher from Fredericton, NB was the navigator. Of the seven crewmen, four were still teenagers. The skipper, Robert Tait Roth, a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, ON,  was the “old man” at 24.

RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any allied service in the Second World War. A bomber crewman had only a one in four chance of completing a 30-mission tour of duty without injury. He was almost twice as likely to be killed in action. Joe’s life expectancy when he joined his operational squadron in England was six weeks.

Bomber Command’s thousand-plane raids were organized partly in response to the bombers’ vulnerability to fighter attacks and the horrific casualties among bomber crews. There was strength in numbers, of course, but more importantly, with an expected 50% aircraft loss rate, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris reasoned that huge raids could still deliver massive destruction, regardless of the cost in aircrew lives.

Joe Friedman (bottom left) with his training unit crew, including Tait Roth (second from left, top) and Mark Goldwater (bottom right).

The tail-gunner’s turret was the most vulnerable position aboard a Lancaster. Although Joe was armed with four .303 machine guns, his odds of actually hitting a moving target from his unstable position were infinitesimally small. However, seated at the point from which the vast majority of German fighter attacks came, he was by far the most likely crew member to be killed or injured.

By November 1944, Joe had come out of three raids unscathed and was promoted to sergeant. The Luftwaffe was running out of fuel and had made the strategic decision to not deploy fighters to defend cities like Essen, Duisberg and Dusseldorf. They had already been repeatedly carpet-bombed into kindling and no longer had any value to the German war-effort.

The briefing for Joe’s fourth raid identified the target as Witten, a city of 50,000 in the Ruhr Valley which, to date, had not been bombed. However, there were very few cities of substantial size left unscathed by late-1944 and, in the interests of keeping up the war effort, Bomber Command chose to send almost 500 aircraft to obliterate the town’s small arms factory.

The raid began uneventfully as 500 Lancaster and Halifax bombers of more than thirty squadrons executed a flawless rendezvous en-route to the target. Each aircraft carried 14,000 lbs of high explosive and incendiary bombs and a crew of seven men. 3,500 Canadians and Britons were sent to drop 3,500 tons of explosives on 50,000 German civilians in the early hours of the morning of 12 December 1944.

The bombers encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire  as they approached the outskirts of Witten, flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. As wave after wave broke from the main force and reduced speed to begin their bombing runs, they encountered unexpectedly stiff opposition from four Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.

Joe could see nearby bombers break formation, shudder, and sport plumes of black smoke as they were hit by enemy fire. Within minutes, his own ship banked into its bombing approach. The chatter on the intercom about incoming fighters was so thick and incomprehensible that the old man called for quiet. Joe scanned the brightening sky. He stopped breathing when he saw the fighter.

The Focke-Wulf 190 approached the Lancaster from behind and slightly to starboard. Joe squeezed off one burst of machine gun fire after another, but his target was too fast and too nimble. His turret suddenly dissolved in a cascade of broken glass and shards of steel as bursts of the fighter’s tracer fire and exploding 20mm cannon shells crashed into the bomber.

Joe felt the aircraft shudder. He could just make out the old man on the intercom over the howl of the wind order the crew to abandon ship.  The fighter’s attack had cut the hydraulic lines  so he had to laboriously crank the gun turret manually, climb into the fuselage and make his way to escape hatch. As Joe crawled along the gangway, he felt the Lancaster nose down and begin its death spiral.

The Lancaster’s tail-gunner was isolated half an aircraft away from the rest of the crew, and Joe had no idea if any of his comrades had bailed out successfully. What he did know was that the aircraft was ablaze and minutes from crashing to earth when he finally made it to the escape hatch. At that moment, he realized that he had forgotten to strap on his parachute in his panic.

Joe crawled back along the gangway. The aircraft was hit by another burst of cannon fire, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel into his head, arms and shoulders. Bleeding and in pain, his hands freezing, he clipped on his parachute, made his way back to the hatch and pushed. The steel door was bent and wouldn’t open. He pushed again and finally kicked it open with all of his strength and bailed.

The next day, Joe’s brother Melvin, stationed in Britain with the RCAF, received an Air Ministry telegram informing him that “F/SGT Friedman, J.A. has been reported missing in action.” The week that followed was extraordinarily difficult for the Friedman family. While they knew there was hope (about 10% of aircrew reported missing were later found in POW camps) the hope was faint and the waiting was agony.

Joe remained missing for several days and was officially presumed dead until a Red Cross inspection team located him in a German transit camp in late December, 1944. His mother received the welcomed news in a telegram that arrived on 19 December 1944. The last day of Chanukah.

Neither Rose and William Goldwater, nor the families of Joe’s other crewmates would learn until 1946 that their sons were buried outside of Dortmund. They would be re-interred later that year at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Kleve, Nordrhein.

POW index card, 1944.

Joe had parachuted to the outskirts of Witten. Badly injured and bleeding, he made a rough landing near a road. He dimly noticed two groups of Germans rushing toward him – a crowd of survivors from the city he had just bombed wanted revenge. A platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers approached from the other direction. The soldiers arrived first. By a matter of seconds.

Following his capture, Joe was taken to a German field hospital near Duisberg to have his injuries – shrapnel in the head and shoulders, multiple lacerations and burns – treated. From there, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft transit camp for interrogation. It was probably during this time that he contracted tuberculosis and was spotted by Red Cross officials.

Joe was finally transferred to Stalag Luft I, a Luftwaffe prison camp outside of the town of Barth, Pomerania that housed 9,000 captured allied airmen. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in memory, and Barth was two miles from the Baltic coast. On a rare clear day, you could see Sweden across the straits from the beach north of the camp. Assuming, that is, that you were outside the wire.

The camp was divided into four compounds, each housing around 2,000 prisoners. Joe was assigned to the West compound, in a 16’x24′ barracks room with 23 other POWs. The barracks were uninsulated clapboard shacks, and each room was heated with a single wood-burning stove – when there was wood to burn. With the nightly temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit, Joe learned to sleep in his clothes, like the old timers.

Roll call at Stalag Luft I.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were constantly hungry. The German government claimed to the Red Cross that every POW was fed 1200 calories per day, but in the last months of the war, with endemic food shortages throughout the Reich, expending even that level of resources on enemy airmen seemed excessive to German officials. In reality the prisoners at Barth were fed no more than 1000 or even 900 calories per day.

Meals usually consisted of bread heavily adulterated with sawdust, thin turnip or cabbage broth and, very occasionally, boiled potatoes. Joe developed a lifelong aversion to turnips. Prisoners could supplement their prison rations with their Red Cross packages – but only when those packages arrived without having been first pillaged by the starving German guards… or when they arrived at all.

German discipline was harsh. Virtually every infraction, from failing turn up for the many daily roll calls, or showing inadequate respect to a guard would result, at minimum, in a week or month in the cooler, a block of unheated brick and stone cells. Other infractions, like crossing the first line of fences, or remaining in the compound when ordered into barracks, were usually grounds for summary execution.

The line of fences at Stalag Luft I.

In many ways, however, the worst part of life in Stalag Luft I was the boredom. Young men like Joe found themselves removed from a life of daily peril, with bursts of intense excitement, to a carefully controlled and disciplined sedentary existence. By the time Joe arrived at the camp, the prisoners were under orders from their own offices to not event attempt escape.

For the most part, Joe played cribbage on boards fashioned out of wood scraps pulled from the walls of the rickety barracks buildings. He read, mostly late-romantic and Victorian poetry in books provided by the YMCA. Under the title “my favourite poem,” he copied Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the pages of his journal. A fellow prisoner drew an illustration.

The camp was also home to the POW WOW, the largest-circulation underground newspaper in Germany. Distributed with the warning “TO BE READ SILENTLY, QUICKLY AND IN GROUPS OF THREE,” the newspaper contained news gleaned from German newspapers, camp PA announcements and especially from BBC news broadcasts heard on the secret radio, built from smuggled parts and hidden in the North compound chapel’s altar.

POW WOW correspondents would secretly listen to the radio, transcribe news onto sheets of toilet paper, and hand them to a “compositor” who typed up the daily issue on legal-sized tissue paper, duplicated with carbons on a stolen typewriter. When carbon paper became scarce, the editorial team improvised their own by holding sheets of paper over kerosene lamps to coat them in oily soot.

Joe was always thinking of food. West Compound organized an Easter feast, collecting part of every man’s rations and Red Cross packages to make a corned-beef and liver-paste soup and bread pudding with raisins. But that was rare. Mostly, Joe copied recipes in his journal for imagined luxuries like Welsh rarebit, and daydreamed of the delicacies back home in Montreal, like the Laurier BBQ’s coconut cream pie.

The 14 April 1945 issue of POW WOW, reporting on Patton’s push into Saxony.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were in unusually good spirits by the middle of April 1945. Part of that might have been due to delirium caused by the reduction of prisoner rations to 800 calories per day. But the main cause was news – published in POW WOW – that Patton’s 3rd Army had driven into Saxony and the Western allies held a 100-mile front along the Elbe. The war, it seemed, would soon be over.

Joe also noticed that the camp guards were becoming increasingly tense and restless. The prisoners could faintly hear artillery fire and explosions from the east of Barth as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Pomerania. Most Wehrmacht units in the area had already been withdrawn toward Berlin, leaving the camp’s garrison to face the inevitable Soviet attack virtually alone.

On 30 April 1945, Oberst Warnstadt, the camp commandant, called the Senior Allied Officer, Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke (USAAF) and his senior officers to the camp headquarters. Warnstadt had been ordered to evacuate the camp several hundred miles to the West to escape the advancing Red Army. Realizing that he was in an untenable position, the Oberst requested the prisoners’ cooperation.

Zemke refused. He knew that, after months of half rations, and with allied bombers pummeling every road in the Reich with bombs and rockets, the evacuation would be a death march. After conferring with his officers, Zemke informed the commandant that the prisoners would not leave the camp willingly. If Warnstadt insisted on an evacuation, he would have to use force.

The prisoners expected force. Facing capture by the Red Army, the camp guards had become increasingly aggressive and brutal in their treatment of the POWs. Zemke had secretly organized a prisoner strike force and had been stockpiling homemade explosives and knives for several weeks in the knowledge that German officers had been ordered to execute allied prisoners if necessary.

Ultimately, Warnstadt secretly agreed to surrender the camp to the POWs. At 8:00 pm, 30 April 1945, all prisoners were confined to barracks. At 10 pm, every light in the camp was turned off. The garrison quietly mustered at the West gate, and marched out of camp, leaving the gate unlocked. When Joe awoke on the morning of 1 May he and the other 9,000 prisoners found that they were alone in an unguarded camp.

The senior allied officers ordered the prisoners to remain within the camp to await liberation by the Red Army and set up a Military Police unit to maintain order within the camp. Crews tore down the barbed wire fences and Col. Zemke sent scouting patrols to the East to make contact with the Soviets and inform them that the camp was now in allied hands.

Col. Zemke (centre) with Gen. Marozil (second from left) and staff on 8 May 1945.

In the next few days, advanced units of Marshall Rokassofsy’s First Ukrainian Army entered Stalag Luft I. None stayed but Col. Zemke used the opportunity to send his officers back with them to locate the Soviet commander. Short of food, the POWs were becoming impatient. About 700 left the camp on their own, about a dozen were killed in the crossfire of the dying days of World War II.

Red Army Gen. Marozil officially liberated the camp on 4 May 1945. The Russians provided the POWs with flour, potatoes, eggs and about 100 head of cattle expropriated from nearby German homes and farms. The POWs ate well. The Russians provided entertainment and vodka. Overwhelmed by the sudden intake of food and alcohol, Joe and his comrades were quietly, violently sick… but ecstatic nonetheless.

Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The next day, B-17s of the 91st Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces began ferrying the liberated POWs to Britain as part of Operation Revival. Each aircraft carried a dozen passengers, and the evacuation took almost a week. Joe was one of the last Stalag Luft I POWs to be evacuated to Britain on 15 May 1945.

Malnourished and suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, Joe was hospitalized in Britain before being debriefed by RAF Intelligence in June. Due to the scale of demobilization, he would not be able to return to Canada until September. Released from hospital in time for his 20th birthday, and retroactively promoted to Flying Officer, Joe relaxed in London, spending his back-pay.

He was repatriated to Canada in early September 1945. Joe spent a few weeks recuperating at a sanatorium in the Laurentians before returning to Montreal. He would be in uniform until the end of 1945. During that time, few Montreal restaurants would let him pay for his meals. Not even for the coconut cream pie at the Laurier BBQ.


As readers of this blog know, Joe Friedman died in the spring of 2012 in Montreal at the age of 86. He is buried in the National Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, Quebec, in the company of veterans of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. There is a monument to peace a few metres from his final resting place.

Robert Tait Roth, Mark Goldwater, George Barry, Douglas Cullum, Norman Waring, and Bernard White are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetary in Kleve, Nordrhein, Germany.

To quote the lines from the “Ode of Remembrance:”

Sgt. Mark Goldwater, 1925-1944

F/O Robert Tait Roth, 1920-1944

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.



Originally posted 11 November 2012