*The title for this article is taken from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Death”
*The above video is an excellent source of information on the daily lives of soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War. If you cannot read this article, I implore you to watch this video.
Today is Remembrance Day, and in the past I have written of
sports figures who had forgone prestigious or rewarding sports careers to serve in the military during times of war, the impact of past post-war treaty negotiations
upon the modern world, and unlikely truces.
Today I’ll be writing on the personal experience of war,
from ancient times to the present. Soldiers, both fallen and the wounded, as
well as civilians caught up in conflagrations have all left behind fragments of
the lives destroyed by war.
Our Past Echoes In
In 490 BCE the Persians invaded Greece to punish Athens and
the Greeks for supporting a local uprising in what is today Turkey. The Persians
laid siege to the city of Eritrea on the island of Euboea for six days before
they were betrayed by a group of citizens hoping to curry favour with the
The Persians enslaved the entire population and transported
them to Ardericca by Cissia, near the Persian capital city of Susa in what is
today Western Iran. Separated from their home, language and even the ocean that
defined them as a people, they mourned the loss of their city and longed to
return. Nearly 800 Euboeans were captured and forced to march across the
mountains of modern Turkey down to Cissia, roughly half those captured died
along the 3,000km journey. Hundreds of years later there remained an
inscription upon the tombs of those who survived the journey:
“We who once ploughed the deep Aegean Sea, Now rest entombed in
Persia’s dreary land. Farewell, Eretria, best-beloved and free; Farewell
Euboea’s neighbor Athens: thee we see no more, nor thee, our native strand.”
(Life and Times of Appollonius of Tyana by Charles Parmalee Eells, 1923,p24)
In a very similar story, in 605 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar of
Chaldea sacked Jerusalem and enslaved the population, relocating them to
Babylon. In both cases the people were separated from their home, their
religion and the landscape that had defined them as a people.
The experience was profoundly traumatic, as recorded in
Psalm 137, lamenting the loss of home and identity:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…There
on the poplars (willows) we hung our harps for there our captors asked us for
songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy, they said, “Sing us one of the
songs of Zion”! How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
The sadness and lamentation at what has been lost, be it
home, religion, or family is palpable in all the scenes above.
Today we are witness to one of the largest mass migrations
in modern history as a result of war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and
Africa. The loss of home felt by refugees today is illustrated in the lines
Remembrance Day offers us the opportunity to not only
connect ourselves with fallen soldiers, but also with those innocents who find
themselves tossed about on the waves of a larger conflict.
Neither Nation Nor Era
Something that many soldiers come to realize is their
kinship not only with their brothers-in-arms, but occasionally even with their
opponent as well as soldiers from ages past.
Much of military code involves tradition and a harkening
back to the past. The service and death of predecessors is a strong unifier for
a corps. This extends well beyond a single unit, or even a nation and provides
great comfort in a profession steeped in the sanctioned use of terminal force
and a call to lay down one’s life in service to their country.
Today we can look back to records of fallen soldiers and
feel a strong connection to the sentiments shown by their brothers-in-arms.
Homer’s Iliad is perhaps one of the most poetic and enduring
examples of man’s fragility before our own brutality and the frivolous nature
with which fate seems to deal out our grim end. There are so many deaths
described in the Iliad, almost all are personal and intimate in ways that
astonish and touch the reader even today. But among the most wrenching is the
mourning of Achilles for his lover and fellow soldier, Patroklos, killed by the
noble but doomed Trojan hero Hektor.
Of this Homer says:
[Achilleus] spoke, and all of them assembled moaned, and Achilleus led
them. Three times, mourning, they drove their horses with flowing manes about
the body, and among them Thetis [Achilleus’ divine mother, unseen] stirred the
passion for weeping. The sands were wet, and the armour of men was wet with
their tears. Such was their longing after Patroklos, who drove men to thoughts
of terror. Peleus’ son [Achilleus] led the thronging chant of their lamentation,
and laid his manslaughtering hands over the chest of his dear friend:
“Good-bye, Patroklos. I hail you even in the house of the death god”. (Book 22,
lines 12 – 19, Richard Lattimore translation¸c1961)
Much of the ritualization and sanctity that accompanies this
funeral is still present in various forms of military honours today, including
our Remembrance Day ceremonies. We play music, have an honour guard in
attendance, commit a farewell to the fallen, and weep for our loss.
Condolences From the Bereaved
At times we have the words of the soldiers themselves to
help bridge the gap of time and understanding. We can read their last words,
what thoughts crossed their minds and their feelings for their absent loved
ones in letters and diary postings left behind. Occasionally, in them we can
find both consolation and a chilling sadness.
On April 16th, 1917, near Vimy Ridge in France, Private
Percy Winthrop McClare of the Halifax Rifles, aged 19, writes to his mother in
“My dear Mother, I can only write a short letter this time, but hope I
will be able to do so soon. I have not written a letter for over a week and a
half as I have been in the trenches for 9 days, and it is impossible to write
You have no doubt heard before this of the big advance of the Canadians
and the capture of Vimy Ridge. I was in the whole of the battle and it was
Hell. I got a small splinter of shrapnel through the fleshy part of my
shoulder. It was very slight and I went through it all with it. It was some
battle and I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the
biggest things in Canadian history.
We are out for a few days rest, and, believe me, we need it. I don’t
know how Roy and Lyle came through it. I have not seen them yet but expect to
Well, Mother, if you can, please send me some socks when you can and
anything else you care to send in the line of eats.
I got about all my mail last night. There was 21 letter and the parcel
of gum and the family H. Thank you very much for them.
Well, Mother Dear, please don’t do any worrying as it does no good. But
remember me in your prayer. I know you do that, and it helps me a lot.
Well, Mother, I will close now. Give my love to all.
Your Loveing[sic] Son,
On May 5th, 1917, within a month
of his arrival on the front lines in France, Private Winnie McClare was killed.
He has no known grave and was one of thirty-one soldiers killed that day in a
German attack near the French village of Acheville. (Intimate Voices from the First World War by Svetlana Palmer and
Sarah Wallis, 2003, HarperCollins).
The Great War (1914-1918) resulted in 11 million military
dead and 7 million civilian dead due to both direct and indirect (famine,
disease, genocide) causes.
Its successor, the Second World War (1939-1945) resulted in
somewhere between 21 and 25 million soldiers killed and 50 to 55 million
civilians dead (it becomes difficult to tally all those bodies after 50
million, I suppose). Approximately twice as many civilians died in the Second
World War as all those who died in the First World War, both soldier and
This is partially due to the extraordinary expansion of the
theatre of war to include virtually every part of Europe, Africa, the Indian
subcontinent and Asia. When one factors in the genocides carried out in Europe,
Africa and Asia, the Second World War becomes, perhaps for the first time since
the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century, notably tilted towards a deep and
traumatic experience of civilian suffering of a kind on par with the experience
of those soldiers in combat.
This experience is often overshadowed in Remembrance Day
ceremonies here in favour of the narrative of liberated exultation, yet
nevertheless it exists and is a dominant unconscious theme in many of the
countries who experienced that trauma, both the occupied and the offenders.
What Of The Returned?
The wages of war cannot all be tallied with headstones and
body counts. Many of the soldiers who have gone to war return but they or their
families will often say that some part of them is left forever on that
battlefield. These men, in the past many of them non-professional soldiers,
lived through the act of war, of killing and trying to not be killed, and then returned
to the larger society with the expectation they would simply pick up where they
left off. If anything they should be able to inform us better than any recorded
history of the realities of warfare.
The exigencies of war are such that men and women are called
to embrace a part of human nature that ten thousand years of human civilization
has worked to subjugate and compartmentalize. The aggression and tribalism
needed to carry out the act of killing has been formalized, packaged, and
ritualized into safe conduits where it can be diluted and monitored by society
through religion, sport, politics and other acts of social participation – then
to be unleashed when necessary. But the toll of the release upon the individual
can leave them crippled psychologically, sometimes manifesting itself
Today we call this Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),
previously it has been called shell-shock after the experience of soldiers in
the First World War, and almost certainly it will have other names in the
future as traumatic experiences change and diagnoses adapt.
The first recorded instance of PTSD comes from Herodotus who
wrote his Histories in the 450s BCE
recording the events that led to the Persian Wars with Greece (popularized with
great dramatic flair and poetic license in the movies 300 and 300: Rise of An
Empire). The Persian army had just landed their force of somewhere between
25,000 to 48,000 men collected from across the greatest empire in the world on
the plains of Marathon north of Athens. There they were met by a relatively
small citizen army from Athens and its close ally Plataea, together numbering
just over 10,000 men.
The Greeks were outnumbered and fractious facing the
greatest military force in the world at the time commanded by a single military
leader. The ensuing battle had the
Greeks on the offensive, rushing the Persian lines at a full run with two sides
flanking the Persian left and right. Defeat for the Greeks meant the
destruction of their city of Athens and the subjugation of the early flowering
of Greek civilization.
It was a chaotic, terrifying experience for many of the
soldiers, some of whom had never been any further from their homes than they
were that day, facing men from Africa, Egypt, Indus, the Black Sea, Mesopotamia
and a dozen other nations that were until that day more myth than flesh. In the
midst of the battle, the experience of one soldier in particular, Epizelus, is
“In the battle at Marathon about six thousand four hundred men of the
foreigners were killed, and one hundred and ninety-two Athenians; that many
fell on each side. The following marvel happened there: an Athenian, Epizelus
son of Couphagoras, was fighting as a brave man in the battle when he was
deprived of his sight, though struck or hit nowhere on his body, and from that
time on he spent the rest of his life in blindness. I have heard that he tells
this story about his misfortune: he saw opposing him a tall armed man, whose
beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man
next to him. I learned by inquiry that this is the story Epizelus tells.”
(Herodotus Histories, 6.117.3)
In his book Autopsy of War: A Personal History (St. martin’s Press, 2012), former military medic and
Vietnam veteran John Parrish recounts in grisly detail his experiences in a
field hospital as well as his inability to transition from that role back to
his civilian life, including his marriage, children and medical profession. He
describes his own obsessive compulsion to watch violent Vietnam war films,
vicariously reliving his own gory experiences in the process as well as his
emotional alienation from his family to the extent that he became as unknown to
his wife and family as a stranger off the street.
He speaks of returning to the U.S. and after several years
of trying to fit back into society:
“I was angry. I wanted to attack those who were comfortable with war
more than I wanted to comfort those who were afflicted. I wanted to display
young men’s arms and legs and viscera in churches and boardrooms and government
chambers and executive offices. Sometimes I wanted revenge. At the very least I
wanted an explanation.” (pg 208)
These experiences began to manifest symptoms both physically
“When I made eye contact with a homeless, physically disabled or
intoxicated man, I suddenly began to feel a painful pressure in my midchest,
and my throat would swell. A picture of the Vietnam War Memorial, or any kind
of war memorial, would bring me to tears. The sound of a helicopter made me
physically ill. I no longer felt safe. In public places, restaurants, and
meeting rooms, I had to sit with my back to the wall and have an unobstructed
view of the door.” (pg 212)
“I also began to exhibit other symptoms. I was never physically wounded
in Vietnam, but out of nowhere, with no outside stimulus, I would spontaneously
begin to drag my right leg as I walked, as if I had been wounded and was
severely disabled. In a way, I was. I made sure no one ever noticed my
partially paralyzed leg.” (pg 213)
Parrish’s descriptions fit, almost to a tee, everything we
know about PTSD, both anecdotally and from modern research.
You can see examples of it in the video above of the soldier
from the First World War, his extreme muscle rigidity and near-catatonic state
at the beginning. Even once he has had treatment and time has passed, he still
struggles with a painful gait and does not appear to have full motor control.
His entire nervous system, extending from his muscle control to his emotional
state, has been compromised, seemingly irreversibly damaged.
Modern psychiatric treatment for veterans is available, and
certainly the experiences of Parrish and the many men who have gone both before
and after him have helped to lay that groundwork. Yet, for so long as soldiers
are sent to kill or be killed, to intervene in peacekeeping situations, to
respond to catastrophe and see men and women and children in desperate crisis,
they will come home carrying with them some parts of that place they had gone
and those things they have seen.
More recently, and more locally, the well-documented
experience of former Lt.-General and now Senator Romeo Daillaire in Rwanda has
helped to bring to light the extraordinary suffering of soldiers, of all ranks,
in times of warfare. His book, Shake
Hands With the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003 and
co-written with Maj. Brent Beardsley and Sian Cansfield) recounts his leading
the UN mission to Rwanda that served as a passive, neutered witness to the
genocide of around 800,000 Rwandans during 100 nightmarish days in 1994 – that averages out to 8000 killed each day, for the mathematically-inclined. In his introduction he writes:
“It has been nine years since I left Rwanda, but as I write this, the
sounds, smells and colours come flooding back in digital clarity. It’s as if
someone has sliced into my brain and grafted this horror called Rwanda frame by
blood-soaked frame directly on my cortex. I could not forget even if I wanted
to. For many of these years, I have yearned to return to Rwanda and disappear
into the blue-green hills with my ghosts. A simple pilgrim seeking forgiveness
and pardon. I did try to write this story soon after I came back from Rwanda in
September 1994, hoping to find some respite for myself…[i]nstead I plunged into
a disastrous mental health spiral that led me to suicide attempts, a medical
release from the Armed Forces, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder,
and dozens upon dozens of therapy sessions and extensive medication, which
still have a place in my daily life” (pgs 4-5).
And later when describing his visit to King Faisal Hospital that was sheltering seven thousand Rwandans and had been recently hit by a mortar strike directly into the open-air compound where they had been gathered:
“As I walked among the sick they were begging on their knees, pulling at my clothes, holding their babies up to me. I had nothing to ease their plight…[t]here were traces of flesh, brain and blood in the immediate area…[d]eath was all around them, and now death had started to invade from the sky. I wanted to scream, to vomit, to hit something, to break free of my body, to end this terrible scene. Instead I struggled to compose myself, knowing composure was critical with so many despairing eyes upon me. I thanked the medical teams for their efforts and promised them all supplies as soon as I could get them.” (p 303)
Dallaire leaves no illusions about the horrifying nature of
his experience in Rwanda, nor the deep, almost fatal shock it had on his soul.
On a personal note, I have read extensively on warfare
throughout history, including entire volumes on the history of genocides dating
back to prehistory. Dallaire’s accounts were more unnerving to me than any I
have ever seen. I am not squeamish about the many atrocities that lie in human
history, but I have struggled to complete Shake Hands With the Devil, and, as was his goal, I feel it will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is as unsettling and ominous an
account of those events as it is imperative to be witness to them.
The object of war is to kill more of your opponent’s
soldiers than he does of yours. It is brutally simplistic in its most
boiled-down form. The act of killing is another matter entirely and we
suffer the consequences of a shattered psychological landscape as a result. But
when that act is carried out face-to-face, sometimes the better angels of our
nature show a glimmer of light in the darkness of war.
“I came in haste with cursing
And heart of hardest steel;
But when I saw thee cold in death,
I felt as man should feel.
For when I look upon that face,
That cold, unheeding, frigid brow,
Where neither rage nor fear has place,
By Heaven! I cannot hate thee now!
-Alfred Lord Tennyson, On A Dead
Where the Rivers Pride And Stoicism Turn to the Ocean of
This speech is one of Shakespeare’s finest and is the model
for many military, and pseudo-military, inspirational speeches today. The sense
of fatalism subsumed in a sea of pride and bravery delivered in a deft
patriotic tenor that treads just short of bombast is of a kind with some of the
military ceremonies available around the world.
The St. Crispin’s Day speech is included here because it
represents the romanticization of war through camaraderie and noble sacrifice.
It presents one of two outcomes as certain victory: glory guaranteed either in
dying in a lost cause or by surmounting such wild odds.
The speech resonates so well with audiences because it
allows us to imagine war as a great dramatic event with noble causes, heroes, and
conflict all sanctified by the sacrifice of brave men-at-arms. The dominant
experience from many who fought in the First World War was that once absent a
noble cause, the rest of that equation quickly falls to dust, leaving only
It is my belief that the stoicism shown by the first
generations of soldiers who had fought the First and Second World Wars has
since been misinterpreted by later generations innocent of that experience.
Today we emphasize the concepts of sacrifice, honour and mouth the platitudes
of dying for vague concepts such as freedom or an undefined way of life.
Forgotten is the actual experience of loss and how that informed the men who
witnessed it firsthand as to the vast efforts that must be taken to avoid it
for future generations.
It has been 70 years since any great power engaged in open
conflict with another, and Canada, while having deployed forces overseas, has
not experienced a state of war in a national sense since the conclusion of the Second
World War in 1945. Several generations have grown up now outside of the old
cycle of national mobilization and conflict every 25 to 30 years.
Mercifully, we appear to have broken, or at least abated,
our species’ habit in this regard and most of us no longer trace our lineage
through forebears who had fallen on this or that battlefield to one enemy or
another. Our experience of loss, while still very real and recent for many, is
no longer the shared experience to the extent it once was.
This is a tremendous accomplishment brought about by a
number of factors, notably the 70th anniversary of the United Nations and a
concerted international effort towards negotiations and diplomacy.
Simultaneously, it does present challenges to the global society that built
those institutions which safeguard us today to somehow convince the major powers that they have a vested interest in preserving that peace.
Specifically, how does a society memorialize something from
which they have grown so distant? Mythology and shared narratives usually fill
these gaps. Americans have enshrined such a memory into their national anthem.
Russians discuss the Great Patriotic War, their term for the Second World War,
in almost the present tense. The Greco-Roman civilizations of the ancient world
leaned heavily on the Iliad to help define their, at times, disparate and fractious
cultures. But these are all militarist approaches.
A Peace Built Upon
The Graves of Our Grandfathers
I and my family are fortunate. While I have had several
great-grandfathers and grandfathers who fought in the wars of the previous
century, they all returned home. In some cases they came back with ghosts of
their own, but outside of some peculiar stories and a lot of memories that they
took to their graves, the rest of the family was not really marred by the
I have some more distant relations who served in the Armed
Forces, voluntarily, while one of their parents was interred on suspicion of
sympathizing with the enemy due to having been born overseas despite having
immigrated to Canada at a very young age.
Almost everyone I knew who had served or had a close family
member serve in some capacity in either of the two World Wars had a story about
losing a friend or knowing someone who came home a very different person than when
they had left. When they would speak of it invariably their mood would change,
they would become quieter, more reflective. There was a sense of sanctity in
revisiting that memory.
That sanctity has always been, for me, a key element of
Remembrance Day ceremonies. As much as we recite the phrases of honouring the
fallen and recognizing their sacrifices, it is the act of mourning both the
dead and the living that resonates with me – mourning not only their death or having been wounded in
conflict but also the very nature of the cause which brought them to that end.
We cannot know, outside of having experienced it ourselves, what it is to fight
in combat, to kill or see those around us killed in the chaos of war.
Many of the soldiers who survived the First World War went
on to cite that their one desire in return for their service and that of their
fallen comrades was that future generations need no longer have need to resort to such
means. They wanted the whole damned mess done away with forever because they
had seen it in the most grisly detail. There was no valour, no great glory to be had
in the moment. It didn’t matter if they were watching a friend or foe fall in
front of them.
We are nearly a century removed from the day the guns fell
silent on the Western Front in Europe’s Great War. That date and time is marked
even today with a moment of silence for those that fell during four years of
sickening violence. Canadians’ observance of this day is admirable in its
commitment and consistency and our recognition of the Armed Forces is
noticeably different from that of many other nations. The one facet of
Remembrance Day memorials that must never fade is the determination amongst
future generations to learn from the loss of those previous and use every
effort to avoid the bloody follies of our past. Otherwise the dead will be
truly silenced, their loss of life having been for naught.
We have no shortage of material – stories, poetry, letters
and fiction – to show us the terrifyingly mortal face of war. At least on this
one day let us be mindful of it and recall the appalling cost at which our
current peace has come and to not belittle it with eager and naive returns to