Friday, November 10, 2006

Ardent for some desperate glory

Every year, the ritual was the same.

The Headmaster read the lists of the school's dead from each world war, and the shorter list for Korea. WASP name after WASP name -- in the Great War, it must have been half the graduates. The letter from the school founder to the "boys," the cheery and sentimental Edwardian voice framed by the easy irony of his death in the trenches a month later. And then the poems: always two, always the same. Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est and John McCrae's In Flanders Fields.

I can't remember which year I realized that the two poems were saying exactly the opposite thing, that the two poets would have despised each other. No doubt I was pleased with myself for noticing the first time, and then self-righteously indignant the next times. But at middle age, I suppose my elders were right. Many of them were still of the generation that fought. It really is ambiguous how we break faith with those who die -- whether by failing to take up their quarrel with the foe or by colonizing a gruesome death with noble words.

Owen was the better poet, and had the more lasting impact on his culture. Even in my generation, there are people to whom that old Edwardian idealism speaks. Forty two Canadians younger than me have died in combat since 2002. To them, honour and valour still mean something other than the con game Owen perceived. And I am glad they exist, since we are probably burning up our stores of those virtues, with God knows what consequences when we come to the end of them.

Owen doesn't say anything about why so many men have loved war, why it is so liberating. Freud may not have been a scientist, but how well he understood that feeling, that joy in destruction and in the overthrow of civilization.

But what he gets right is the contrast between the technology and bureaucracy of war -- and the ugliness of death -- with the adolescent notions that get us there.

I have no real idea what my elders thought they were doing with that ritual, whether they were shaming us for our peaceful bourgeois lives or warning us against militaristic folly. They probably didn't know either, and they seemed uninterested in the effect of these things on us.

A surprisingly large number of my class did join the armed forces, especially considering how low prestige and ill-paid it was in those days. They were definitely among the most square. It seemed unlikely that there would be much glory in it then: if a real war came, we assumed we'd all -- civilian or otherwise -- be dead virtually instantly. In the meantime, there didn't seem to be much other than policing duties in Cyprus. Canadian offensive military power was a joke. Still is, I suppose, but the one guy I know from those days who is still in the Armed Forces seems to have seen a lot of violence in a lot of places.

Another group of us spent the next decade marching, getting into fights with obscure far right cranks, workers in resource industries and occasionally the police. When we opposed logging, we learned defence in depth -- when we opposed overseas wars, we seemed to do a lot of marching. Since we all smoked, we had to get our exercise somehow. John McRae would have hated us, and maybe Wilfred Owen would have too. No doubt we avoided taking real risks. But our cowardice mixed with an ardour for desperate glory. And we didn't lack for lies.

For the first time in my lifetime, Remembrance Day comes with a Canadian people aware that we are in a serious war. The old generation of vets that were such a dominating presence in my childhood thins out. Another, much smaller, one is being forged, and may have a lot to say in my middle age.

Even a conservative Anglo-Canadian private school in the 80s could not quite get away with incorporating Kipling into its ritual. But the old bastard managed to combine commitment to his to us misguided loyalties with awareness of how insignificant what he was loyal to ultimately was. So I'll end this year with him and Joe Strummer.

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations spare us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

If drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not thee in awe--
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Of lesser breeds without the law--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet
Lest we forget -- lest we forget.

From the Hundred Years War to the Crimea
With a lance and a musket and a roman spear
To all of the men who stood without fear
In the service of the King

Before you meet your fate be sure you did not forsake
Your lover may not be around any more.

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