The HEART of War

This month we are exploring the theme of “What would it mean to live as a person of heart.  This Remembrance Day I chose to explore the place of heart and humanity in war.

I have never been to war, never worn anything more threatening than a sports team uniform.  No ancestor of which I am aware has ever been to war in six generations.  I don’t say that as a point of pride, for our family’s machine shop constructed materiel for the world wars and the workers were forbidden enlistment.

I say this to suggest that I know nothing of which I speak today, not first hand or even second.  I never heard the guns or witnessed the kind of carnage described in Major Diespecker’s poetic prayer.  There are some here who have much more direct knowledge than I do.

But I did grow up in a generation of young boys defined by war.  Our youthful television years were filled with “Combat”, “The Rat Patrol”, “12 O’Clock High” and even “Hogan’s Heroes”.  The first book I checked out of the school library at age 8 was “We Were There: Pear Harbour” a book about a little girl and boy witnessing the famous attack.  We never played Cowboys and Indians.  We played Allies and Nazis. For my ninth birthday Dad took me and my friends to see Henry Fonda in “Battle of the Bulge”, just one in a long list of war films that inspired a fascination with the genre.  And later that same year the Viet Nam war became a North American reality.  I do know young American friends who went off to that conflict.  I saw them return and discovered post-traumatic stress long before it became an identified ‘syndrome’.  It was them who caused me to first see the portrayal of war in all those films as largely a false thing, a recruiting and propaganda tool.

Those of us who have only known peace in our land can’t really understand what it means to go to war.  Perhaps that’s why generations of soldiers have returned and remained silent, keeping the struggles with their demons of memory to themselves.  One of the most powerful sequences to me in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” was that it was told as a recollection.  It’s a story of a squad sent to find and bring home a particular soldier whose brothers had all been killed..  Based on a real policy, the US government wanted to bring at least one son home to his mother.  Ironically six or seven men have to give up their lives to get him back.

The film opens with the now elderly Ryan visiting the graveyard of those comrades in France along with his family on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  He recalls – no relives the sacrifices the men sent to save him.  The 60 years of silence takes its toll.  Tears stream down his face as vividly comes back to him, a story I doubt he has ever spoken aloud.

There is no redeeming war.  There is nothing nice and neat and tidy about it.  The battlefield is a bloody, place, disgusting beyond our imagining.  It is inhuman in the extreme and there are different rules, different moralities at play.   People do things they would never contemplate doing in ‘real life’ – and yet war is also as real as it gets.  Those who have never known it – soldier or civilian – cannot truly comprehend.  It is an alternate universe where our peaceful laws of social propriety do not apply.  And for that reason, parenthetically, I do not think we have the right to judge, either.  Only those who have lived it have that right.

It would be easy to point from afar and argue that war is de-humanizing in the extreme.  The death and destruction and violence are bad enough, but what it does to survivors in some cases seems even worse.  It is a heartless business.  And I won’t argue with any of those statements.

And yet, it is a cauldron in which heart and humanity do exist.  Like dandelions that grow in the cracks of asphalt, like the larks that managed to fly over Flanders Fields, the human heart finds ways to keep steering us even in these most horrific conditions.   Christine Maxwell-Osborn’s story is just one case, a story of two friends, one who gives his life just to comfort his buddy who is dying.  It is a tale almost biblical in it’s morality.  To us in a peaceful world it may not make any sense, but like I said, who are we to judge what makes sense in a place where reason and compassion are by definition in short supply?

While I cannot claim the title pacifist in good conscience, I do not condone war.  But people go to war.  We always have, and while I love the hopeful hymns, people likely always will. But Remembrance Day is not the time to preach anti-war.  It is the day to try to understand the suffering and the sacrifice of the women and men caught in war.

We have an obligation to try to understand, for they are our countrywomen and countrymen.  Like it or not, they are fighting in our name.  I am proud that the citizens of Canada have come to understand that we can oppose the wars our governments conduct without hating the soldiers who fight them.  We saw the terrible price the US paid and is paying for shunning its Vietnam veterans.  We should not do the same thing.  Soldiers are willing to go to war, but few actually wish to do so.  We need to care for the beating hearts inside the uniforms.

What makes war fascinating – if that’s the right word- is that it tests the humanity of the participants as nothing else can.  We all learned growing up that fighting is bad, that killing is terrible, yet here is a whole consuming construct built on exactly the opposite moral vision.

War is kill or be killed.  And when those are arguably the only two possibilities available, where then, lies humanity?  Certainly there are pacifists who accept jail over combat, or work as ambulance drivers and medics.  That is an expression of heart in warfare, and sometimes  a very brave one

And there are those who through small acts of kindness or creativity or introspection try to tend their hearts, try to remember their values in every moment they can, in every moment when survival is not the critical issue.  I am not qualified to say whether or not there is honour in war, but there are certainly honourable people who go to war or who are overrun by it.

In the seeming psychopathic construct of the battlefield, there can be a desperate grasping for human contact, little gestures that affirm humanity.  In the limestone tunnels at Vimy Ridge even today you can find little works of art carved into the soft rock by some soldier reminding himself what beauty looks like.

There are countless stories of soldiers doing little kindnesses for civilians, and animals, and even for enemy soldiers, and the famous and poignant WWI tale where during a Christmas cease fire, Germans and Allies alike joined in singing “Silent Night”.

The heart that is at the core of all our values will creep out when it can, even in the most terrible times.

In June of 1916, Cpl. Alexander Robertson wrote a poem called Thou Shalt Love Thine Enemies about seeing the items found on a dead German soldier

They were not meant for too curious eyes

Or our imaginations to surmise

From what they tell much that they leave until.

Strangers and foemen we, yet we behold,

Sad and subdued, thy solace and thy cheer.

Even here we see these as thou did’st appear,-

Tall, with fair hair, blue eyes. Heinrich the name…

Thou had’st a wife and children: on this card

They are depicted; on another, marred

And soiled and crushed, thy mother too, we see.

And here are cards with rustic eulogy

Of scenes thou did’st know, old woods of pine

Through which doth pass a sunlit railway line.

These letters of thy wife, o warrior slain

No anguish tell, they give no hint of pain,

Cheerful her words, although the heart did weep

In solitude, thy babes of hers asleep…

Of thee, alas, thy children cannot keep

a single memory…

It seems that in the pauses between the skirmishes and attacks and major battles there are moments for reflection, moments for taking the heart out from under the helmet and touching our humanity like some reassuring talisman.

It is as if such simple gestures, musing on the life of a dead foe, handing a candy bar to a child, sharing a meal with a comrade, gazing again at a letter or picture from home, it is these heart strings that remind us of who we are while struggling to survive while trapped down some nightmarish rabbit hole of warfare.

Within a few days of writing that poem, Cpl. Robertson went missing in an attack near Serre in France on July 1, 1916.  His body was never found.

Perhaps the best handholds a soldier’s heart can grasp are twofold.  First there is the love of family and then there is a sense of purpose or hope.  To put oneself at such terrible risk demands a good reason.  In Canada’s world wars there seemed to be a widespread belief that our way of life was deeply threatened by those who made war on us.  Whether that is true or not is a debate for another day.  But we heard John read of Major Diespecker’s prayer for Victory, really a prayer for his and his nation’s humanity.  Let me close with his words

Then dear God, make us worthy of Victory.

Give us the strength to keep our pledge

To make a better world…

Not the world we’ve known,

The world of power against power,

The world of breadlines and bitterness,

A world that would not let a man work,

A world that watched unmoved

While the beasts of aggression 

Swallowed the little people one by one;…


Give us the power and purpose

To make children laugh;

To give work to the men who fought for us;

And comfort to the women who suffered;

And peace to the aged…

Hope to the devastated,

And release to the enslaved,

Food to the hungry,

And strength to the weak.

Let this hilltop be the world,

Soft, green and eternally at peace,…

This wonderful, magnificent human heart of ours is a most marvellous thing, my friends.  If we tend to it and listen to it, it can help us survive even something so terrible as war.