Some must risk their lives when others choose death

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:/ To you from failing hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high./ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.” If ye break faith ... On Remembrance Day we remember, first and foremost, the men and women who fought for our freedom. Whatever their specific experiences, all risked physical or mental destruction on our behalf and it is a debt we must acknowledge because we cannot repay it. Except, as John McCrae said, by remembering why they fought and by catching the torch.

By “why they fought” I do not mean primarily the specific threats of 1914, 1939, 1950, 1984 or 2001, nor why specifically various individuals enlisted. I mean above all the fact that there is evil in the world. Yes, evil. It takes different forms in different eras; the “scandal of particularity” affects bad as well as good in this world. But there is a ghastly family resemblance to its manifestations. Examined closely, they all look like skulls.

Consider North Korea, where peasants starve in ditches while smartly uniformed police direct imaginary traffic on 10-lane roads. As the Citizen reminded us last weekend, it is officially ruled by a dead man. Officially. Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 but was declared “Supreme Leader Eternal” in the 1998 constitution. It wasn’t a case of being stuck with embarrassing hyperbole enacted in his lifetime. They deliberately put a corpse in charge. Do we need to spell it out for you?

Of course sometimes they do spell it out. For instance, the Iranian president’s recent “I-s-r-a-e-l s-h-o-u-l-d b-e w-i-p-ed ...’’ Yeah, how about that Hitler?

Of course Nazism took a specific form. It had a program that was all-embracing economically, politically and religiously, and every bit of it was evil. Completely berserk. But chillingly effective. It seems death kills. Hitler was, unfortunately, not a fool. His mind was clear. It was his soul that was mad. Evil is insane but not “not guilty by reason of insanity.” If we choose death we are responsible. Hitler did, and I thank God and the veterans he was defeated.

Stalinism also chose death, as did its North Korean branch, whose 1950 war cost the lives of 516 Canadians. So did Maoism that killed untold millions of Chinese, and Pol Potism and al-Qaeda with its overt, boastful and quite mad love of death. Lest we forget.

Some try; consider the warm critical reception for the movie Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford’s preposterous, but apparently true, tale of a man traumatized by lack of combat. In a favourable review, Maclean’s said: “ever since Vietnam, serious combat films have had to navigate the same moral minefield -- delivering a violent spectacle of brothers in arms while brooding on the insanity of being at war in the first place. Every war movie is now about characters stuck someplace they don’t belong, asking: why am I here?” But this is pernicious nonsense: Not all soldiers are somewhere they don’t belong or understand. Soldiers stand between us and Genghis Khan and Philip II and Napoleon and Hitler and Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and they should.

People like the director of Jarhead seem to think they are the first to notice war is horrible. But older movies weren’t unaware of it. They were just (irony can be so ironic) able to deal with moral complexity, that sometimes good men must do this thing lest greater evil prevail. Right after seeing Jarhead I caught the Second World War classic The Dam Busters on TV. It ends with shots of the empty mess tables, bunks and personal effects of those who didn’t come back, the scientist behind the raid devastated that 56 men didn’t return, and finally a senior pilot with “letters to write” walking alone and pondering how to tell parents and wives their sons or husbands are dead.

Yes, it is insane that good men must go to war. But it is not insane that they do go. What is insane is the perennial urge to toss the torch into a puddle instead. In the 1930s, much of the intelligentsia reacted to Nazism by saying ha ha that wacky Hitler, and called Churchill a madman. Later, such people called Reagan a warmonger and George Bush a war criminal. (They are, perhaps, less numerous in France today.) If they were redoing St. George and the Dragon they’d be on the side of the dragon.

The culture of death exerts a peculiar fascination, including on many privileged members of our society. As sci-fi philosopher Philip K. Dick observed, the death wish “Thanatos can assume any form it wishes; it can kill eros, the life drive, and then simulate it. Once thanatos does this to you, you are in big trouble ...” Indeed. Hence the eerie contrast between McCrae’s acknowledgement that the dead can fight no more and North Korea’s insistence that they can rule. It depends what you’re trying to achieve. As G.K. Chesterton said, in the end we must all chose sides.

And some who choose life must then give theirs because others have chosen death. It is that we remember on Nov. 11. And pledge to keep faith, in war and peace, by choosing life in all its dimensions.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson