Note to readers:
This piece was first posted last March 5th (2014). I’m bringing it back this week in honour of Remembrance Day. Sadly of course, its themes: war and its aftermath, memory and trauma, continue to mar the lives of far too many across the world.
I’ve also added some new links, which you’ll find included below.
Last month, I heard American journalist David Finkel interviewed on Q. http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2014/02/19/thank-you-for-your-service-author-on-a-soldiers-afterwar/
I was so lucky to catch the show. I’m usually at work at that time.
Finkel’s 2009 book, The Good Soldiers, was an account of his time spent embedded with a troop of young American infantry soldiers in Iraq in 2007. But on this day, he was presenting his most recent book, Thank You For Your Service, a formidable, heartbreaking and uncompromising piece of writing about the fate of many of those same infantrymen once they returned home—fractured, fragile, alone and unprepared.
I have little interest in military history and am appalled by anything that smacks of military propaganda, but I’m drawn to stories of war at ground level; to those accounts that offer me a glimpse of the personal experience of war; to stories told from the soldier’s point of view.
I think this has to do with a desire to experience real empathy with all of the (mostly) young men who, generation after generation, have been put in harm’s way.
Maybe becoming more aware of the mad destructiveness of war and of the suffering of soldiers is also a way for me to bear witness. I only know that there have been certain works of literature from which I have been unable to look away.
Some years after its end, German author Erich Maria Remarque set pen to paper in order to relate his experience of the Great War. What emerged is one of the most devastating, modern and honest depictions of war ever written: All Quiet on the Western Front (in German: Im Westen nichts Neues), published in 1929.
I was encouraged to read it by one of my sons who was given the novel while he was volunteering at the Sainte-Anne’s Veterans hospital, spending time with the oldest veterans. He was just 18 years old then, and the book was a body blow to him. There’s something lovely about this, I think, and about the fact that I, too, consider Remarque’s elegy to the lost generation of soldiers of the First World War one of the most beautiful works of literature I have ever read.
This is so because of passages like the following two, which by their rhythm and their terrible honesty break our hearts and collapse the distance between us and the narrator, Paul Baümer.
“We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.”
“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces […]”
But this was not my first encounter with the literature of war. My most vivid and painful reading experience came from Sebastian Faulks’ novel, Birdsong (1993). Though it reaches back and then forth in time, it is the part of the narrative set in 1916, at the battles on the Somme and then later at Messines in 1917, that left an indelible mark on my memory, because it is there that I first became aware that there existed such people as tunnellers—those foresaken soldiers who had often been miners in their pre-war lives—who were condemned to live as human moles, spending the entire war digging the dark, dangerous and terrifying tunnels** that ran directly underneath the battlefield, planting explosives.
( * *06/11/14: Last September, The New York Times, in its special section, LENS, featured an extraordinary piece of photo-journalism titled ” The Hidden Cities of World War 1“, which presented the work of photographer Jeffrey Gusky, an American emergency room physician, explorer and photographer. Gusky was able to gain access to the astonishing underground cities, carved from stone, that were occupied by the soldiers seeking safety from the hell aboveground. His photos reveal a fascinating, haunting and profoundly human rockscape: a true light shining in the darkness).
It is unimaginable that such men as these eventually returned home to attempt “normal” lives. It is unimaginable that society asked this of them. And yet every surviving soldier did, or at least tried to. In waves, following WWI and WW2, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the wars in the Balkans, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, many soldiers—most of them very young—have come home carrying with them the burden once called shell shock, then battle fatigue, and now PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
This is what David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service is about.
PTSD and what it means to the soldiers and their families.
The inadequacy of after-war care and support for men and women our societies use and then forget.
The literature of war is abundant. There are many more beautifully written novels, memoirs, biographies and histories on the shelves, waiting for readers.
We recognize the ravages of PTSD in Sebastien Japrisot’s broken character, Manech, in A Very Long Engagement (1991); we follow the characters created by Pat Barker in her extraordinary Regeneration trilogy; we ache for the life not lived by Robbie, in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (2001).
Such is the power and truth of the subject that the line between fact and fiction, documentary, memoir and novel is almost non-existent. In his bestselling memoir A Long Way Gone(2007), Ishmael Beah introduces us to war’s ugliest face—that of the child soldier—through his personal story of redemption.
And here at home, General Roméo Dallaire stands as a martyr to the devastating toll that “peacekeeping” takes on the troops sent to accomplish impossible missions. As suicide rates among soldiers continue to rise, his voice can still be heard warning us and urging governments to do more.
The literature of war presents us with truths that we will never really own. Only the bands of soldiers who have been there and lived it can, and this explains the strength of the bond between veterans, as well as their frequently impenetrable shared silence.
In David Finkel’s book, this camaraderie emerges as a symbol of love and hope. In All Quiet on the Western Front, it provides the reader with small, heart-squeezing moments of comfort:
“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”
“They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.”
Finally, the literature of war deepens our understanding of the motto of the Royal Canadian Legion: “WE WILL REMEMBER THEM”. As David Finkel, one of the most recent contributors to this rich body of work concludes,
“Everywhere on this day, the after-war continues, as eternally as war itself.”
Note to readers: On February 25th, on the McGill Library News site, called Library Matters, a wonderful link was opened into the library’s blog archives, titled: “World War One Remembered” http://news.library.mcgill.ca/world-war-i-remembered/ featuring fascinating glimpses of archival material, such as a 1915 edition of the McGill Daily, the university’s war pamphlet collection, preserved photographs of the students who served, and examples of the library’s war poster collection.
Update, 06/11/14: This evening, CBC’s Doc Zone (with Anne-Marie MacDonald) is presenting “Forgotten No More: The Lost Men of the 78th”, described this way: “When a French teenager discovered the remains of eight Canadian soldiers from the First World War in his back garden, it started a chain of events that not only opened an investigation by the Department of National Defence, but brought together distant relatives from around the world, some who didn’t even realize that they had relatives that died in the war.”. Go to the CBC link to read more about the story.