Given that war is fundamental to the human condition and the legendary status that great warriors can achieve, it’s no surprise that society has glamourized conflict. There’s something undeniably epic about grim soldiers testing their strength and skills against evil foes in a theatre of war, with the clashing of shields or the roar of gunfire in the background. Add a loving spouse holding a young child at home and you’ve got the makings of a blockbuster Michael Bay movie. People pay big bucks on war – at the theatre, the toy store and at the arms show.
If the glory of war doesn’t sell you, the patriotism might. Nothing stirs the heart quite like the sight of valiant soldiers hosting a nation’s flag on the field of battle. We’re proud to know our loved ones are protecting our shores and values, following the banner into fire while we keep the home fires burning. For some, the call to duty by King and Country or an Uncle Sam is an irresistible siren song beckoning them to be part of something larger than themselves, something that matters. Who doesn’t want to do their part in crushing the bad guys?
This leads into another reason for taking up the sword; the dire need to stop bad things from happening. I’ve already mentioned Hitler – he was the reason my grandfather signed up for service during World War II. Ed Carter-Edwards became a Canadian airman to stop the Nazi threat. The adventure implied in war also appealed to him, as did the sense of duty to answer when his nation calls. Believe it or not, there was a time when it was readily accepted that patriotism implied action, which people took willingly.
Ed flew bombing runs over Occupied Europe. His team took their Halifax deep behind enemy lines, smashing Nazi weapon depots and train stations, disrupting their supply lines to The Front. While these airmen knew they risked death with each mission, it always felt like a deflected threat – someone else would get it, never them. With each run, though, there were fewer fellow airmen coming home; the more you toss the dice, the greater becomes the chance of your number coming up.
Which, for Ed and company, happened in the early hours of June 8th, 1944. They had been deployed to take out a railway yard near Paris – a relatively light assignment, given some of their past engagements deep into Germany itself. They didn’t expect any surprises. Somehow, it’s always when your guard is down that things go horribly wrong. A German Focke-Wulf 190 crept up on them out of the darkness, tore one of the Halifax’s wing to shreds and sent the plane to a fiery grave on the French countryside below.
All hands escaped, parachuting out of the frying pan and into the fire – for below lay hostile territory. The Nazis had engaged in a divide-and-conquer strategy, turning communities against themselves and for the most part keeping the occupied in line. Worse – they had begun sending their own men to towns dressed as Allied soldiers, an attempt to both discover resistance cells and build local mistrust of would-be saviours. To the Nazis, tactics like this were fair game. After all, anything goes in love, war and politics – to them, victory was the only justification that mattered.
Despite the psychological stress and risk my grandfather had faced up to this point, he’d escaped the brutal violence that met those Allied soldiers who fought the ground war, pushing through bullets, bombs, bloody gore and a devastated countryside for every foot of turf they wrested from the Nazis. For all the mythic power of war as a concept, the real-world truth is anything but glamorous. There is nothing glorious about watching life bleed out of a body in wretched spasms, be it friend, foe or perhaps your very own. Whatever honour gets bestowed upon our veterans is small reward for the horrors they endure in the field.
War is a dirty, destructive, dangerous game in which there are no victories, only relief for those that endure it.
While my grandfather Ed escaped the ground war, he fell by tragic accident into the worst atrocity that war and man have ever afflicted upon humanity – the Nazi Concentration Camps. If you’ve heard of his story before, you know he and 167 other Allied Airmen were betrayed in Paris by a Nazi collaborator who had infiltrated the local resistance. These airmen were handed over to the Gestapo and incarcerated in Fresnes Prison. When the Allies moved in on Paris, the whole prison was loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Buchenwald.
Buchenwald, like all Concentration Camps, was hell on earth. Horrific, dehumanizing death was endemic. You cannot hear the stories of survivors without feeling some shame at being part of a species that can inflict such atrocity on its own members. For people like my grandfather, the horror of the Camps is compounded by a survivor’s guilt that forever imprisons part of their souls to private torment. To this day, the sound of a German Sheppard barking or even a few phrases spoken in German is enough to send shivers up Ed’s spine. Not quite the adventure he signed up for.
It would be very easy for Ed to hate all Germans – given the severity of his experience, you could even say it’s justified. But he doesn’t. There’s a good reason for this – my grandfather understands very clearly that hate is a trap that sets us on a slow march to suffering and war. After World War I, Germany was dealt a harsh hand by the victors; this led to a burning resentment among a frustrated populace that fuelled the rise of nationalist sentiment and ethnocentrism, best embodied by rabid anti-Semitism. You could argue that Iran today is starting to feel the same way.
It was this angry stew that birthed the systematic hate that was Nazism; not socialist sentiment, as the Political Right likes to claim, nor a rightist desire for dominance, as suggests the Left. Hate.
There is a swell of hate rising across the world today, with foes on many divides agitating for a fight. People that have no experience of combat are calling for revolutions as responses to democratic election results they don’t like. The kindling pile that is the Middle East has already caught fire; the flames look likely to spread. Neo-Nazism is gaining a foothold in European Parliaments, with some leaders telling us the “time for fear has come.” As always, the canary in the coalmine is the rise of anti-Semitism abroad and even here at home. This too has precedent.
War is an unfortunate but occasionally necessary tool in the box for political decision makers. There will always be fights that need to be fought, as World War II was, and threats that need to be suppressed – but the decision to engage must never be made lightly. While combat might be a policy option to elected officials and a mythic narrative for civilians far from the battlefield, it’s a lived experience for our veterans. No voice is more qualified to remind us of the consequences of war than those who have seen it first-hand.
Today, on Remembrance Day, we pay tribute to the veterans and soldiers in the field of combat for sacrifices made on our behalf in places far from home. I will be thinking of my grandfather when The Last Post sounds, quietly expressing my gratitude and regret for the burden he carries to this day. I’ll also be thinking about the men and women in uniform protecting Canadian interests somewhere out there out now.
The further removed from conflict we become through geography and time, the less we realize just how horrific it is. We condemn ourselves to repeat history when we forget the lessons it teaches us. Honouring our veterans and recognizing the value and nobility of their sacrifices on our behalf gives us reason to think about the causes and consequences of war. To me, they are embodied by the policy of hate represented by Buchenwald and the toll World War II took on my grandfather.
Ed’s not a warrior, grim or grand; he never set out to make a name for himself. He’s a man who sacrificed more than anyone should have right to ask for because he felt it was his duty. It says a great deal to me that not in spite of his experience but because of it, he has committed his life to finding common ground with his fellow man no matter how much they differ from him.
That’s the kind of adventure we should all be looking for.