The cost of war paid by the living
Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. And it’s a special Remembrance Day — the Armistice that ended the War to End All Wars came into effect exactly 100 years ago. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the guns fell silent. If only we could say that they had stayed silent.
They haven’t. They’ve gotten more lethal. With the Second World War. Then with the Korean War and the Vietnam War, both of which I think of as outbreaks of the first World Civil War, with an incessant parade of people taking up arms against their own people. In Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Kashmir, in Sudan…
And then there are the eruptions where outside forces get involved in local conflicts: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen…
To mark the anniversary, the Canadian Legion erected 240 crosses in Kelowna’s City Park, one cross for each Canadian soldier from this area who died in the two World Wars. The crosses are a more visible, and visceral, reminder than simply having names inscribed on the city’s Cenotaph.
“This being the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we wanted to do something a little different and special to remember the fallen,” explained the Legion’s John Cashin.
I applaud the effort. But by focusing on the fallen, I think we miss something important.
These were not just individuals. They were part of a community. They had families. Relatives. People they worked with.
During the 1950s and ’60s, I gather, psychologists debunked the idea that communities had any kind of collective consciousness.
Communities were a fiction, said the conventional thinking of the time.
Communities consisted of individuals, and it was only the individual who mattered.
The cult of individualism became so pervasive that author Robert Bellah mused, in Habits of the Heart, that the only way we could imagine breaking free of the individualistic mindset was to become even more individual. The tide may be turning.
Jonathan Haidt spends more than a chapter, in The Righteous Mind, documenting an increasing recognition that the group one belongs to, the group one affiliates oneself with, has a huge impact on what one thinks, and how one reacts.
His thesis is demonstrated every day in U.S. politics where loyalty to the group — whether Republican or Democratic factions — overrides people’s personal convictions about honesty, morality, compassion, and even common sense. Because it is unthinkable, literally unthinkable, to betray your group.
I suggest Remembrance Day needs to look not just at what those soldiers experienced in the mud and trenches of Vimy Ridge, the Somme, and Passchendaele; not just at the heroism of the Battle of Britain or Iwo Jima; not just at the suffering in prison camps in Germany, Thailand, and Hong Kong; we need to look also at the impact of war on the communities left at home.
The whole village of Walhachin, a prosperous colony of English settlers, died in the First World War, when its young men enlisted in the British army. Too few came back to sustain the flumes that brought distant water to the community crops.
If you look carefully, you may still see traces of those flumes amid the sagebrush on the hills west of Kamloops. But the last resident of what had been an affluent and stylish community left in 1922.
All Saints’ Anglican Church, on the hillside below my home in Okanagan Centre, died for the same reason. The priest had visions of a larger and more impressive building than the little Presbyterian church by the lake. But World War I took most of the young men he was counting on to complete the building. Never consecrated, it sold for a dollar in 1923.
Britain lost a whole generation of young men. So did Germany.
We all know that post-traumatic stress disorder can affect individuals for years. How long does PTSD take a community? A nation?
To be brutally frank, those who were left behind had to live with the death of their spouse, parent, lover, child, friend, and coworker for the rest of their lives. Those who died, didn’t.
I don’t say that to disparage the sacrifice those young men made. To give your life for a cause not of your making is indeed a huge sacrifice. But we also need to pay attention paid to the effects on their communities. How did it change their ways of running their lives? Their hopes and aspirations?
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.