The nightmare of war
I was fortunate to be spared the horrors of war, but will my grandchildren?
Whatever else I remember this Nov. 11, I will remember I did not have to follow my father and grandfather into a world war.
It was not always this way. From the time I was seven or eight growing up in 1960s Toronto, I was convinced my destiny lay in some foreign battle zone — fighting, perhaps killing, or even being killed.
Each weekday, I watched a neighbour hobble home from the bus stop on Yonge Street — on one good leg and the wooden one that replaced the limb carried off by a German shell after the Normandy landings. Each Sunday, the visit to my grandmother became a weekly ritual that ushered me through the door of her tiny duplex into what seemed a shrine to the Second World War service of her sons. The red pillows on her chesterfield bore the images of the naval ships two sons had served aboard. Tacked to the walls were gaudy pennants with the names of various Canadian military regiments.
Some visits, nestled on those pillows, I heard how my father, Carl, sailed the North Atlantic on convoy duty; or how his older brother, Uncle Chuck, fought his way up the Italian peninsula with Toronto’s famed 48th Highlanders. Or how Uncle Bill, on loan to the Royal Navy, fought at the Battle of the North Cape in 1943.
But whatever they’d gone through, the men of my family assured me it was nothing compared to the tortures endured by the soldiers on the Western Front, nearly half a century before.
My mother’s father, Wilf, was one of those veterans, fortunate enough to have physically escaped the carnage, unfortunate enough to have emerged psychologically damaged. More than once, in a severe thunderstorm in his later years, his family discovered him in a trembling heap beneath his bed where he had instinctively retreated, overwhelmed in sleep by the memories of a longago artillery barrage he never talked about.
Some of my family died in France in that war. A cousin from Hamilton was killed in the Pacific after joining
the American navy.
And throughout my baby boomer’s childhood, there were still veterans from both wars everywhere in Toronto. I met friends of my grandfather, frail, former brothers-in-arms, whose lungs had been scorched by mustard gas or who bore the scars from shrapnel and bayonets. They terrified me. The second war had been over nearly two decades. My cub master had fought in Korea in the 1950s. But always, the Cold War loomed in the background like an unwelcome, uninvited intruder. I remember, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when a teacher at my elementary school taught us how to duck beneath our wooden desks if the atomic bombs started falling.
When I was 12, I joined the air cadets, learned to march and become a passable marksman with a rifle. “Be prepared,” I’d been taught. Fate, I was sure, would eventually mail me a draft card. But I never went to war. And for that I would like to thank the wise people who I believe learned just enough lessons from history’s most horrific wars to somehow keep humanity from falling into the maws of the Apocalypse.
There have been, I know, terrible wars since 1945, wars in which millions of lives were lost. More than
40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in Afghanistan earlier this century and 158 of them died in this effort. But 960,000 Canadians served in the First World War and another 1.1 million in the Second World War. More than 100,000 of those Canadians died in that dismal pair of conflicts.
It turns out the First World War was not, as it was once called, “the war to end all wars.” Yet, perhaps, it and the even more destructive war that followed in 1939 quelled some of our species’ more violent inclinations. Imperfect though it may be, the United Nations provides a saner forum for arbitrating international disputes than a battlefield.
I will think of these things this Sunday, the 100th anniversary to the day of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I will be grateful to have lived life entirely as a civilian. But as I look around at the demagogues, populists and angry nationalists ready and willing to take a wrecking ball to the international order so carefully crafted after 1945, my optimism shrivels like a flower in a frost.
I escaped a world war. Will my grandchildren be so lucky?
John Roe writes: “I never went to war. And for that I would like to thank the wise people who I believe learned just enough lessons from history’s most horrific wars to somehow keep humanity from falling into the maws of the Apocalypse.”