I can recall television reports from war correspondents in
Viet Nam. I have vague memories of radio reports on the Korean
Conflict. But I confess that I am not old enough to have memories
of the Great Wars.
only vivid images of war which are part of my personal life
come from stories told to me in my childhood by my grandmothers
brother. Michael was a veteran of the First World War. I will
never forget how strange it felt to look into his empty eye
sockets as he described how, after being shot, he lay for
days in the muddy trenches.
I still have a letter postmarked November 2, 1917 which he
wrote while in a military hospital being treated for his wounds.
It was addressed to his younger brother, Alex, who was serving
in France as a Private with the 24th Infantry Battalion. When
Alex was shot and killed just two weeks later, Michaels
letter was in his pocket. There is a hole through the letter
from the bullet and his dried blood is on the envelope. The
medal given to his mother says that her son died for freedom
From hearing about these events, I learned that, however
noble the cause, however necessary the action, war is ugly.
Oh, there may be heroic tales of bravery, victories at great
cost, enemies defeated. But in reality, war is not a game
to be won, a competition of might between nations; it is man
against man when to each, the other is defined as the enemy.
It is proof of how cruel people can be in the face of enmity.
Remembrance Day is not just a day to honour the fallen and
cherish the victories. For many, it is a day to recall again
the hellish deeds they committed and the atrocities they witnessed.
These private horrors are often left unspoken and tend to
be overlooked in fictionalized versions of the battles.
Those of us who were not there can know only that young men,
those that "shall not grow old," fought and died.
We can read about it, watch movies and conger up images from
what we know of history.
But the veterans were there; their memories are based on
events that were real. They felt the fear, the cold and the
injuries and they know the pain they caused. They know that
in war, one must do things that are inhuman.
"War is at best barbarism," General Sherman said.
"Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have
neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the
wounded who cry aloud for blood, ...war is hell."
It seems impossible to conceive that their joyous sense of
victory would not be poisoned by such memories. For periods
of time, horrific images can be mercifully blanketed with
forgetfulness but certainly there are times when they can
rise up. The occasions for these recollections are many, not
being restricted to Remembrance Day. A successful architect
when he retired began to have combat nightmares from the Second
World War. Another man, when his wife died, found that memories
of war flooded his lonely mind.
Such instances lead psychologists to suggest that these men
are suffering from delayed cases of "post-traumatic stress
They theorize that, after the war, many veterans had "basically
toiled themselves to such a state of exhaustion that they
had no time or energy to preoccupy themselves with wartime
recollections." And that now, with more time on their
hands, they are ripe with the symptoms of an overlooked mental
Psychologists predicted that events such as Stephen Speilbergs
1999 movie, Saving Private Ryan, would evoke similar traumatic
Deborah Richter, head of the Portland Vet Center, described
the movie as "the ultimate trigger for posttraumatic
experiences." In anticipation of this, the U.S. Department
of Veteran Affairs established a toll-free counselling hot-line
to deal with a flood of calls from anguished veterans.
But, when asked about veterans responses, VA Public
Affairs officer, Joel Preston Smith admitted that it was "actual
pretty minimal." These men did not crumble as predicted.
Having survived the war, they survived the movies and went
on with their lives.
In honouring our dead on Remembrance Day, we must also honour
those who survived the wars. They are our "Brave and
Strong;" not just in battle but in living with their
memories. War veterans live civilized lives in a world that
they know can be most uncivilized.
They do not deserve to have the complexity of their private
recollections reduced, for our convenience, to the simplicity
of a diagnostic label. They deserve, instead, our respect
as best expressed in a moment of enduring silence.