Give Peace A Chance: An Experiment in War Remembrance

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Charles Sorley (1895-1915)

 

On Friday, September 21 – United Nations International Day of Peace – Cape Breton University, in partnership with Peace Quest Cape Breton, joined The World Remembers, a compelling international experiment in commemorating the ‘Great War’ as the truly global, human tragedy and disaster it was.

The aim of the project is both simple and radical: to show, in the months leading up to the five Remembrance Days of the Great War Centenary (2014-2018), in as many places and countries as possible, as many names as possible of the over 10 million people who served and died, on all sides and fronts of the fighting,

The first military funeral from Sacred Heart Church during World War 1. Photo shows a crowd of non-military men, women, and children, likely following the procession. (Source: Beaton Institute)

The first military funeral from Sacred Heart Church in Sydney, NS, during World War 1. Photo shows a crowd of non-military men, women, and children, likely following the procession. (Source: Beaton Institute)

Some 16 nations are now involved, former allies and enemies, colonizers and colonized: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. And at different times from September 11 to November 11, varied venues – universities, schools, museums, libraries, high commissions, embassies, town halls, community centers – will display the names of over one million of the war dead from 1918, the bloodiest year of the conflict. At CBU Library, the names will run for 12 hours a day for 49 days, until Friday, November 9.

While global in scope, the idea was that of one person: the Canadian actor R.H. Thomson, author and star of the acclaimed one-man play, The Lost Boys, based on the letters and experiences of his five great-uncles who served on the Western Front (two of them becoming ‘names’). Their story is reconstructed by a character known simply as ‘Man,’ engaged in a lifelong struggle to ‘remember’ a horror he can’t comprehend or conceive of enduring. ‘Man’ visits the massed ranks of graves at the official war cemeteries, but while “peace and order were what I saw…they were just a small part of the story. The larger part of the story was that everything beneath my feet was moving. The larger story is that the earth is not at peace. The earth is reworking its memory of the war.”

The reference is to the constant physical surfacing of the war in the grim form of bullets and bones, human and other remains; but what Thomson, in his art and his project, is reaching for is a ‘reworking’ of Great War remembrance itself. “As far as we are aware,” he notes on the project website, “no other organization has seen the need for such an inclusive and comprehensive commemoration.” After this year’s display was launched in Ottawa in September, Thomson told the Globe and Mail’s Laura Stone:

If you only remember your own, you’re only remembering part of the story. So you have to remember everybody. It’s the people that matter, and no one’s named them.

Certainly, no one’s named so many of them, though 600,000 names of the Great War dead are engraved alphabetically, irrespective of rank or nation, at the Ring of Remembrance Monument for Peace in Lille, France, opened in 2014. And The World Remembers, of course, doesn’t and can’t name ‘everybody.’ Some major combatants are not taking part – Austria, Hungary, Russia – and there is only one participant, for example, from Africa, from which large numbers of ‘colonials’ were dispatched to distant killing fields, and in which, while ‘only’ about 30,000 soldiers died, 10 times that number of conscripted native porters perished. Nor does the display convey the vast numbers of civilian dead: hundreds of thousands in Germany alone, blockaded and starved by the British (including for six months after the Armistice). But the project doesn’t have to be perfect to powerfully evoke the scale of what the War poet Siegfried Sassoon called “the world’s worst wound.”

 

In Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong, a young man, Stephen, writes to his lover while waiting to go ‘over the top’ on the first day of the Battle of the Somme:

Like hundreds of thousands of British soldiers in these fields I am trying to contemplate my death. … Some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers – fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.

Minutes before ‘Zero’ (“Stephen on his knees, some men taking photographs from their pockets, kissing the faces of their women and children”) the “bombardment reached its peak”:

The air overhead was packed solid with noise that did not move. It was as though waves were piling up in the air but would not break. It was like no sound on earth. Jesus, said Stephen. Jesus. Jesus.

The mine went up on the ridge, a great leaping core of compacted soil, the earth eviscerated. Flames rose to more than a hundred feet. It was too big, Stephen thought. The scale appalled him.

By the end of the day, 20,000 British Expeditionary Force soldiers were dead; another 40,000 wounded, many abandoned to die, or wish they could, in No-Man’s-Land. And it went on for four more months, ending in a stalemate followed by even greater and more futile, mechanized slaughters. It was too big: for words, thought, philosophy, religion, art, remembrance itself. So how on earth, a century later, can and should ‘the world remember’?

Interior of Moxham Castle, Sydney, NS, which served as a hospital during WWI. (Source: Beaton Institute)

Interior of Moxham Castle, Sydney, NS, which served as a hospital during WWI. (Source: Beaton Institute)

On 10 August 1914, the 20-year-old poet Charles Sorley, who would be killed by a sniper in Flanders two months later, wrote to a friend:

But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants there aren’t one in twelve who really want it. And ‘serving one’s country’ is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point.

How optimistic he was: by November 1918 (itself not the end of fighting in Eastern Europe or elsewhere) 72 million men and women had served, nearly 12 million for Britain alone, roughly one in 12 of them dying. Six hundred thousand Canadians served; one in 10 of them died, an almost exact decimation. And in addition to the combined military/civilian death toll of at least 15 million, compelling evidence exists that the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 – in which tens of millions of people suffered symptoms which eerily resembled those of poison gas attack – was, if not caused, dramatically exacerbated by the conditions and consequences of global total war.

You can’t ‘remember’ what you can’t imagine. You can’t pin with a poppy or shine with a rhyme something unthinkable and unspeakable even to most of those who survived. But you can begin to share a sense of how big it was, how many untold stories, tiny but telling details, our often airbrushed, photo-shopped picture of the War conceals. Because by ‘the war’ most countries, for reasons both pragmatic and propagandistic, mean their war, with their front (often glorified and simplified) front and center.

 

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way of revitalizing remembrance even of the part of the War we think we know best may be to finally place it in transnational, ‘post-patriotic’ perspective. In their influential 2005 book, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, American historian Jay Winter and French historian Antoine Prost, lament “the national framework which still dominates historical writing about the war,” urging instead a turn towards that “more European history which one day must be written if Europe is to forge its own identity.” But to place the War in European perspective means placing Europe at the unstable center of the global imperial struggle which triggered and sustained the killing: the struggle, primarily, to win or keep the ‘right’ to rule non-white non-Europeans in the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

Not only did the cancer of the war spread out from Europe, the fate of the war in Europe was profoundly influenced by imperial troops. The 1918 display, for example, includes the names of 2,425 members of the Chinese Labor Corps, men thrown by their government into the meat-grinder of the Western Front in the hope their ‘sacrifice’ would buy post-war influence and concessions (it didn’t); and 30,997 names of men from India, their lives likewise ‘spent’ (in Europe and the Middle East) in a bid to win respect and autonomy in the British Empire (it failed). The same futile hope, of course, motivated many indigenous and other non-white men from Britannia’s four ‘White Dominions’ to volunteer. And in its bitter end, the War was decided not by battlefield heroics but the power of British and French colonies (and the world’s settler-Superpower, the United States) to supply not just cannon-fodder but food and fuel to their ‘motherlands,’ while denying other ‘mothers’ the chance to keep their ‘children’ fed, clothed and armed.

But the greatest tragedy of nationalized remembrance is that it prevents not just a European, or international, but a human perspective emerging, a re-definition of our political selves as People of this Place, the Earth, so thoroughly menaced and violated by conquest and war. In What I Believe , an essay written in the 1920s, British novelist E.M. Forster notoriously declared: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” He was writing, of course, in the wake of a slaughter in which many of his friends had been, he believed, betrayed. Can, though, the concept of ‘country’ be reclaimed as a form of community, a collective endeavor to imagine a more humane future for all its members? If so – and I don’t know that it is – the best expansion of the term remains that of Virginia Woolf, writing during World War I:

As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.

And while the cultivation of such global consciousness is a movement traditionally and currently led by women, it needs male as well as female followers, people who have and want no country except the Earth.

Not everyone participating in The World Remembers would go so far or say as much: by design, indeed, there are 16 national versions of the software, each configured to show more prominently (and for longer) the names of the ‘home country’ dead. While the gesture doesn’t privilege any one nation, it still privileges a national frame-of-reference. In an August 29 World Remembers press release, for example, Canadian Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez referred to the project as “a wonderful example of the values of inclusion and openness that we cherish as a nation”. Worse, “Mr. Thomson” himself, according to Laura Stone, “says he is convinced that such a project could only be conceived by Canadians,” quoting him crowing:

When the Canadian turns up in Bucharest or Prague or Budapest or Brussels or London, the person from that country goes, “Oh yeah, Canada, you’re everybody.” Canada is in a perfect position to actually say everyone should be part of this project, because everyone’s part of Canada.

Such smugness denies both the contemporary cosmopolitanism of London and many other non-Canadian cities, and the struggle of many Canadians – and most Indigenous peoples of this colonized place called ‘Canada’ – to be properly welcomed and respected. It also seems to imply that ‘the Canadian’ of a century ago fought not for Empire but for nation, and a wonderful new kind of nation at that. To be fair, Thomson doesn’t actually make the absurd claim that what Canada stands for now (in his view) is what it stood for then. Neither does Toronto Mayor John Tory, declaring (on a project poster) that The World Remembers “reflects the values of our country: that all people are equal, all people are welcome and all people are respected.” But both do appear to reaffirm a self-congratulatory national narrative doubtless dear to the hearts of other prominent endorsers: former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, for example, or former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, or retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, booster-in-chief of the ‘Mother Canada’ project seeking to build here in Cape Breton a towering memorial overtly celebrating the World War I as the war that made Canada great.

 

Two other distinguished supporters of The World Remembers though, are scholars aware of the dangers of such simplification: Margaret MacMillan, whose recent Reith Lectures in the UK offer a powerful antidote to national ‘narrative-itis,’ and Professor Jonathan Vance, who argued (in the same press release as Minister Rodriguez) that:

The World Remembers offers a profound reminder that the Great War was, first and foremost, a human tragedy. To see all those names is to appreciate that behind every one of them is a life and a story.  We must never lose sight of the fact that history is not the history of nations or ideologies, but of people…

Vance’s Award-winning 1997 book, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, is an invaluable cultural history of how the conventions of ‘Canadianized’ remembrance rose to prominence, withstood periodic challenge, and persist to this day as the dominating “version of the War” as “a traditional, Victorian conflict, full of the High Diction concepts” supposedly “validated by the experience of the trenches”; a “compelling story,” he concedes, “but one that has little to do with the reality of the First World War and everything to do with the Great War as it was interpreted in the” official nation-building “myth” – an essentially “nineteenth-century” misremembering “of this very twentieth-century war.” Perhaps, then, he sees in The World Remembers a way to begin to dispel that myth in this country, and indeed, others long-fallen into the same, flag-draped trap of thinking of the ‘fallen’ as either more (‘Johnny Canuck’) or less (‘Hun Robot’) than human.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres rings the Peace Bell at the annual ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September 2018). United Nations, New York (UN Photo)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres rings the Peace Bell at the annual ceremony held at UN headquarters in observance of the International Day of Peace (21 September 2018). United Nations, New York (UN Photo)

Another, related trap is reading the names as belonging only to the victims, never the perpetrators, of extreme violence. Though less than 1% of combat deaths were the result of man-to-man fighting – sometimes, disturbingly, labelled intimate killing’ – that still leaves battalions of ghosts to haunt survivors’ nightmares. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” as Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) imagines a dead German telling him:

I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned;
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Such murder, of course, is the ‘normal,’ sanctioned business of battle; in addition, some of the names will surely have engaged in the prisoner-killing and other war crimes (often tacitly tolerated) committed by all sides, while others may have executed ‘spies’ (often wrongly-accused) and ‘deserters’ (often shell-shocked). And though the main way the War was so “very twentieth-century” was that the heavy artillery’s ‘storm of steel’ took most of the lives – a mass production of mass-destruction only surpassed (so far) in its all-too-predicable sequel, World War II – the ‘Monsters’ still needed humans to feed and fire them.

The United Nations was formed, in the traumatic wake of that ‘sequel’ – and with ultimate, atomic destruction looming – with the prime objective not of regulating but abolishing armed conflict, saving ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ As Cape Breton University joined the World Remembers community on September 21, Secretary-General António Guterres opened the UN’s International Day of Peace by ringing the ‘Peace Bell,’ cast in Japan in 1954 from coins donated mainly by schoolchildren from over 60 countries. Guterres’ message was somber but defiant:

We see conflicts multiplying everywhere in the world. We see links between conflicts and terrorism. We see insecurity prevailing. We see people suffering. But we don’t give up.

We know that when we appeal to combatants to have a pause to respect this day, we know that many will not respect it. But we don’t give up…

Peace is the unifying concept that brings us together at the United Nations. Peace is at risk. Peace is violated in so many places. But we will not give up.

When war is misremembered, ‘peace is violated’ and the world placed ‘at risk.’ To truly ‘give peace a chance,’ we need to revolutionize remembrance: to reimagine the unimaginable.

 

Sean Howard

 

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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