Remembrance of things past … and present

It’s a peculiar thing, but part of the reason I value books and TV and movies and the people who create them so much is that I’m often affected far more by a fictional account than reality. Reality is so … messy. All that extraneous information and digressions and chaos and distance. Fiction puts a story in a powerful box and gives weight to the important ideas contained within.

I feel as though I know far more about the Holocaust from reading Elie Wiesel than from taking history in school. I was certainly more profoundly affected by his tales than the facts I learned. World War I is alive in my mind partly thanks the post-Green Gables Anne books and that “Green Fields of France” song that makes me choke up every time I hear the final verse, when you realize the narrator resting at the fallen WWI soldier’s graveside has a more recent perspective:

And I can’t help but wonder, oh Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing and dying, it was all done in vain.
Oh Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

When I was a schoolgirl, we were taught to honour Remembrance Day every 11th day of the 11th month with a minute of silence at 11 am — though since it was a holiday, the honour would actually take place over the intercom a day early or late, and the day itself was usually passed by sleeping in and enjoying the free day off.

My grandfather had exciting tales of adventure and camaraderie from his time at war, and proudly displayed a letter of gratitude from a town in the Netherlands that his Canadian regiment had helped liberate. He didn’t share any tales of horror with his young granddaughter, and I hadn’t yet heard the stories of how shell-shocked he was on his return. Like most children, I was idealistic. I knew war was a horrible thing, and adults were stupid for letting it happen, but the horrors of war weren’t real to me.

We wondered, my classmates and I, what would happen to our holiday when all the veterans of WWII and the Korean War had died off, as we watched impossibly old men march in parades and stand at cenotaphs. It never occurred to us that Canada could be involved in war again.

It’s different today, of course. Our young men aren’t being drafted. We haven’t declared war. But over 70 Canadian soldiers, men and women, have died in Afghanistan, many more have been wounded, and even more are in harm’s way, not necessarily with the best equipment we can offer.

I’m more of a defeatist than an idealist, now. I still think war is horrible, and we’re stupid for letting it happen, but I’ve lost that child-like certainty that it’s always avoidable. The reality is messy, though. Our reasons for being in Afghanistan and our effectiveness there are not necessarily clear-cut, and my instinct is to think that we shouldn’t be there.

But another fictional account has made the background at least clearer to me, if not clear-cut. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, recently released his follow-up, called A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s not about the war, exactly. It’s the story of two generations of women and how their lives intertwine over the backdrop of war after war in their beloved country. It’s an absorbing story of hope and hope dashed, and while the end point of the story of course cannot encompass the end of the current war, it offers a heart-wrenching perspective on what we’re fighting for … even if it’s not quite what the politicians are fighting for.

It’s no credit to me that it took reading a book to bring those issues to life, and it hasn’t turned me into a pro-war advocate — it’s not a pro-war book by any means — but it’s given me a taste of renewed idealism and the perspective of the people we’re theoretically fighting for.

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