I don’t think Veteran’s Day is celebrated in Asia much, but I’ve been thinking about it – more properly, about Armistice Day, the remembrance of a time when – briefly – nations laid down their swords and hope flared.
Radiofreerlyeh has posted a video and the lyrics to Eric Bogle’s song No Man’s Land (the one also called Private William MacBride). As I’ve read all of the posts for Veteran’s Day, that song has been going through my mind. I thought of posting it myself but stopped because the thing about that song is, it’s not really an artifact of WWI. As powerful and wrenching as it is, it’s more a Vietnam-era reaction to the horrors of war. Eric Bogle asks, “Did you really believe them when they told you the cause? Did you really believe that this war would end wars?”
I think one of the reasons WWI was such a turning point in Western history is that maybe it was the last time an honest, thinking man could answer “Yes” to that question – and that’s exactly why the ugly carnage of the trenches was not only a horror but such a disillusionment. In contrast, in A Quaker Book of Wisdom, Robert Lawrence Smith writes about his decision to enlist as a soldier in WWII despite his Quaker faith and pacifist beliefs. I don’t have the book here, but he says something like “Quakers are taught to revere the light within. When I thought about it, this war seemed like the most clear conflict between light and darkness that I would ever see in my life.” Of course, that’s a memory from decades later, but it’s still clear that he, as a young idealist, went into that war to fight against a particular evil. He may have viewed it as a manifestation of evil in general, but not as its root cause; he hoped his war would clear out a pernicious evil but not that it would end all wars.
L.M. Montgomery wrote Rilla of Ingleside in 1921 – just a few years after the war, before the failure of the League of Nations, well before German troops annexed Austria and rolled over Poland to prove the futility of dreams of an end to war. I don’t think the letter in it from Walter to his younger sister Rilla could have been written for any later war, even in fiction. An excerpt:
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here – freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything againnot of death – nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face – for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember – things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing – but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future – for the workers of the future – ay, and the dreamers, too – for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil – the future, not of Canada only but of the world – when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest – not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance – nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win – never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting – the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach – this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you – and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for – teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if youall you girls back in the homeland – do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us. ”
There have been wars for ‘the fate of mankind’ since, unfortunately, and wars for Ideas too – generally either the Idea of the right to kill your neighbor or the Idea that you shouldn’t. I don’t think there have been wars since to make the world safe for the poets of the future – at least not any that expected safety to be permanent.