Sunday, November 11, 2012

# 23 The Sins of Our Fathers

   Today, I attended the last Remembrance Day service of my teaching career. If I add all of these assemblies together, as a student and as teacher, it is quite a sum. In all of the nine schools I have worked in the difficult task of writing, directing and performing these services is usually awarded to a drama or history teacher who then enlist the help of a few dedicated students. I have always admired their skill of saying so much with very few resources and doing it in 30 minutes or less.

   In general the audience (the students) have been very respectful of the occasion. This in spite of the fact, most kids are without an immediate emotional connection to people who have served in formal national wars. So, my praise goes out to all of them for being so patient with the performers and the message being presented. However, I've always felt there is something missing from these services and today I have been trying identify the missing element. 

    My father was a sixth generation Canadian. Like so many of his friends and neighbours, he enlisted in 1940 after watching the propaganda news reels which played between the Saturday night double bill at the local theatre. He was trained in Canada and England to do code and cypher and then shipped to North Africa where he served four years as a Canadian officer under British command.  He never did up close combat, never fired his Sten gun, but when he came home his red hair was snow white, he had survived dysentery, his weight was under a hundred pounds and he had permanent hearing loss. I realized many years later that those four years were traumatic and lasting experiences for him and his family. As my mother told me many times in adulthood, "Your father wasn't build for war. Nobody is."

    But as a young boy I thought I was perfect for the activity, as did many of my friends. Before I reached adolescences I would meet with a few other boys in my neighbourhood and we would play games which revolved around killing. We played Cops and Robbers with cap guns retrieved from our toy boxes, and purchased rolls of explosive caps with money earned from collecting discarded pop bottles at construction sites in the growing neighbourhood. Someone was always shot and killed during these games as a dramatic death was one of most appealing skills.

   We would also go into a local wooded area we called "the forest" for games of Cowboys and Indians. We would hack off green branches from trees with our pocket knives, attach string to the ends for a bow and fashion arrows from appropriate sticks (these were never powerful or accurate)  Sometimes we would make sling shots, using a piece of inner tube from our old bike tires and then fire green pine cones or stones at each other. One time we stole cigarettes from our parents, built a fire in the woods and told tall tales while we created a great arsenal of these weapons and ammunition.

   It wasn't all filled with fun though, there were tragedies. One time while sitting around a fire we built with twigs and lit with matches taken from the kitchen, my neighbour, Frankie, announced that he needed to 'go number two' and he 'needed' to go home. He pleaded, "Would we wait?" In unison we yelled, "No! Go shit in the forest like a soldier!" So, we watched him as he carefully headed into the forest, turning periodically to gauge his distance from us. Well, I guess he didn't pull his pants down far enough and instead of defecating on the forest floor, his stool ended up in his pants. Unfortunately for Frankie he didn't realize his poor aim and yelled out 'What do I wipe my ass with?' One of the gang, Alfred, yelled back 'Leaves, asshole!'  So, Frankie did just that, but he used dried leaves which scrapped his rectum bad enough that he yelped and jumped back up. When he stood up, his stool fell into the leg of his pants. He hurried back to the group like nothing had happened, and then confided his mishap. As he was relaying the details, his squished stool fell out of the leg of his pants, right beside the fire. In disgust, we all said 'You smell like shit!", "Go home!" He begged us to wait and we agreed. So, he jumped on his bike, raced home, but never returned. We assumed his mother imprisoned him in his room.

   Those were wonderful days of adventures for all us with the social glue being battles. We all owned and knew how to use weapons like: pea shooters, cap guns, water pistols, sling shots, jack knives, BB guns, hunting knives, even guns we had carved from blocks of soft pine, but nothing compared to the real thing! Our favourite game was "Army man". It was really just a repetition of the other battle games, but we loved it more because the props at our disposal were real!  My dad did not retain any of his war gear with the exception of his medals and hat, but the other boys had real war gear like: helmets, bayonets, gun belts, canteens, gas masks and jackets. Frankie would 'borrow' a real German Luger from his dad's sock drawer, unloaded of course. We would meet in the empty field that bordered our suburban neighbourhood and create teams or "sides" as we called them. Then the war games would begin: sneak attacks, full frontal assaults, taking of prisoners and very, very dramatic deaths. It's difficult to imagine that we were really only a decade away from being allowed to actually join an army and fight in a real battle!

   We all had fathers who had served as officers in the military during the Second World War. Some were bomber pilots, tank commanders, among other positions. None of that really mattered to us because we were never told anything first hand about the war and got most of our information from American movies, comics and TV.  For us war was just a game and most adults tacitly approved of our participation in the fantasy.

   Many years after our war games, I ended up with many of those guys in the kitchen of a house party. We were all leaning against the counter, drinking beer, telling stories and doing a lot of laughing. It was inevitable that our conversations would drift back to those battle games. Then, we shifted into the topic of our father's war gear and on to their war experiences. We discovered, it was universal, our fathers didn't talk much about their war experiences. In addition, we realized other common experiences; our fathers were psychologically damaged from their service and they existed with those scars as did everyone who lived with them. There were trauma symptoms like drinking, rage, depression, sleep problems, emotionally distance and a few others which we concluded were attached to their lives in the war. They never talked to therapists, and never received help from the government, they just lived with it.

   I've heard and read many arguments for and against war over the years and while some of them have a thin appeal of merit, none of them passes the test of reason. War is about attaining 'booty' nothing less. This usually includes going into another country, destroying the infrastructure, killing some of the inhabitants, installing control and coming home, and in the process we lose loved ones. We are told by our politicians and many hypocritical religious leaders that just this once war will be just and will you please offer up your kids, mostly boys, to do the dirty work. In spite of the lies about building schools or securing the right to vote etc. every generation or so we send our kids, mostly boys, to sacrifice their lives for us. War is about attaining money and power and in an effort to keep the population prepared, we glorify it, and we glorify killing.

   Don't get me wrong, I don't consider myself a pacifist; I don't agree with passing on the fist when the confrontation warrants such a defensive response. However, I think my mother made an insightful comment all those years ago, we aren't built for war, people killing people is an unnatural. If it were normal we wouldn't need to send our kids off to basic training to learn how to do it. I can't help think that deep down inside the psyche of all the men and women who have killed people on our behalf; there must be a feeling that they have committed a primal sin in some way.

    So, now, I think I know what is missing from Remembrance Day services. They are promoted as a service to celebrate the sacrifices our kids make, but the true motives of maintaining or 'improving' our chosen lifestyle is rarely mentioned. One thing is for sure, when the next war that we send our kids to fight is over; there will be a celebration with lots of inspirational speeches from our leaders, a highway will be named in honour of the fallen, a statue, maybe a public building and then we will forget it all, until every November 11th when the memories are revisited.