The night­mare of war

I was for­tu­nate to be spared the hor­rors of war, but will my grand­chil­dren?

The Hamilton Spectator - - Comment - JOHN ROE John Roe is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Kitch­ener

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.”

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