11 o’clock on November 11, 1918 signalled the end of World War 1. As the guns fell silent putting an end to the first global conflict, the tidal waves of bereavement for the millions who perished in the trenches subsequently gave rise to Remembrance Day on November 11. This is the day we are meant not to forget the men and women who gave up their lives for their country. This is the day that should remind us that war is totally and utterly destructive. That we can rebuild buildings destroyed by war, but we cannot rebuild lives shattered by war.
The most moving sound at Remembrance Day ceremonies, to our minds, is not the long-held mournful note of the Last Post—hauntingly beautiful though it is. Nor is it the scorching sound of the flypast as the planes thunder overhead, tearing through the silence.
The sound that moves the soul, always, is the muffled clap-clap-clap of mittened hands as the parade of veterans streams by. At outdoor ceremonies held at cenotaphs on November 11 across the country, we hear sustained applause for fewer veterans every year—no WWI vets remain, of course, and there are fewer WWII vets every time. (Source)
This is the poetic opening of the editorial in a Canadian news magazine that appeared last week on November 5. I am sure you will agree that it is deeply touching. The uncanny contrasting sounds compel us to hear the de-escalation of searing noise paralleling an escalation of indescribable grief. It is not hard to envisage the veterans’ glazed eyes, who no matter how frail, no matter how inclement the weather, make it a point to turn up to pay their respects for the comrades who fell so many decades ago.
As we drop everything today to stand for a minute in silence to commemorate the millions of fallen on so many battlefields, my mind invariably harks back to two inextricably linked traits that characterise war veterans.
The first is their camaraderie:
… wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.
Apologia poemate meo (1917)
These are the words of Wilfred Owen, the British war poet who wrote about every possible war scenario before he was gunned down at 25 years of age just a week before World War 1 came to an end.
You may argue that focusing on real people rather fiction would make my commentary more authentic. I see the point. Yet poems written by men and women who lived through such conflict do not classify as fiction. Rather they are outpouring of incredibly interiorised pain (like any literature with a capital ‘L’). I believe that poetry speaks in a very special way; and we need to listen to it to understand, or at least try to understand. This is why I share my take on a number of poems including that of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ published yesterday to coincide with Remembrance Sunday. Here goes the link should you wish to read it; When Patriotism Becomes the Virtue of the Vicious
The second impressive characteristic is how the older veterans especially refuse to speak about the horrors they went through. Unsurprisingly, there are no words to describe the brutality of war; the unspeakable things soldiers do to kill otherwise they will be killed; the guilt of blood on their hands; the families and life they return to knowing full well that the trauma of war has radically changed their innermost being. For their emotional scars keep festering like open wounds. The nightmares which haunt them strike hard at the families they return to so that spouses, children, parents, siblings (who would have also changed in their absence) are traumatised too. In the ever-growing, gnawing silence, guilt, depression, suspicion, agitation, anger, bitterness, unpredictability, inability to heal hounds every minute of their lives and beyond the grave.
I grew up in a family that never ceased telling WW2 stories. My aunts especially.
Staggering stories of air raids, relentless bombings that made the London blitz pale in comparison, of my maternal grandmother’s pulverised house beneath which only a crucifix and a couple of family photos were found intact. Incidentally, it was the first time she together with her young brood had sought safety in a nearby shelter. Up to that fateful day, they would huddle all together beneath the dining table piled up with mattresses when the sirens screeched, and bombs pounded the island.
Stories of my fourteen-year old father picking up his dead three-year old sister crushed under the rubble, as well as his five-year old sister who died in his arms minutes after he lifted her up on the same afternoon. Of my paternal grandmother (then pregnant) getting kicked in her stomach by a British soldier when she went to protest against the clerical error that had forced my father into being enlisted in the RAF when he had barely turned sixteen. His near mono-syllabic citing of the Maghreb countries, Greece, and Italy where he was stationed. And how years later his very own mother would have left him behind the door had she not recognised his voice. For the porcelain-complexioned son she knew had returned darker than a raisin and she used to be afraid of opening the door to strangers. I sometimes wonder how he survived. The real reason of course, was that he was lucky not to have had a bullet with his name firmly written on it, and when there was, he managed to ditch it. I also have the feeling that his war experiences partly account for his getting married quite late in life.
There are more stories. Stories of stinking shelters, constant hunger and deprivation, the dregs of Operation Pedestal locally known as the Santa Marija Convoy limping into the Grand harbour on August 15, 1942 (hence the dedication to Our Lady) hours before starving Malta was about to surrender to Nazi Germany, and which had hundreds of citizens band together defying bombs raining on them as they formed human chains to help stevedores and military personnel to unload the desperately needed provisions and fuel before the three ships sank. It is a story that always makes my eyes well up especially when I hear of the entire nation congregating within hours on Valletta’s and Cottonera’s fortifications to cheer and pray in thanksgiving.
Stories of miraculous detonations one of which would have blown up an aunt, a toddler at the time, had it gone awry. Humorous anecdotes my father narrated about his years of military service which invariably brought a twinkle to his eye and a smile, but which always ended with lowering his head or turning away to avert our eyes. One day, he showed us the barely noticeable scars of having been shot across his torso and in his lower leg. There was no need to point out his burnt out eye lashes which never grew back.
What never burnt out was his unwavering kindness, gentleness, and generosity.
The most striking thing, however, was the total reticence about the grimy and gory detail of actual combat Cajoling, pleading – any nuance in between – my elder brother and I over the years tried every possible tactic to get a word out. But we never got past a stony silence which still fills us with awe when we talk about it. No doubt the pain was far too deep… and unfathomable.
Yet it is his silence which imparted the futility and tragedy of war’s death and destruction. There was no need for him to harp on about the evil of war. What he did do was to make sure that we watched war films which he would watch with us without breathing a word beforehand, during or afterwards. Somehow, my brother and I always intuited that the silence was not to be broken. Perhaps this provided him with some type of catharsis.
Today such a turbulent mix of repression and stoicism is inspiring more and more reach-out programmes to help men and women “whose minds war has ravished.” My father was fortunate enough not to have ended up unhinged or physically maimed by his war experiences. Like countless of his generation, he personified an extraordinary resilience – which does not mean he was left unscathed. I feel that he had gradually found a way of dealing with his war demons by living a life of unfailing unselfishness. Also, by not attending remembrance ceremonies. The only one I can remember him attending (and that was because my mother basically dragged him there) was the inauguration of the George Cross memorial built in our hometown to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historical event. It was around this time that he admitted that he had flung his war medals on some desolate rubbish heap soon after being demobilised.
I have no doubt that many people would disagree with his stance and I still recall feeling aghast. When I eventually plucked up enough courage to hint at the subject, he quietly told me: “Noemi what’s the point? They were meaningless. Still are. Always will be for me.” Something about the tone with which he spoke accompanying the snigger in his eyes uttered how he looked upon them as an insult. It was one of his typical deep musical note utterances that keep reverberating till this very day. This time round, his few words perfectly imparted how and why war strips people of all that is humane and sacred.
Yes, today is the day to fervently remember the fallen on all battlefields. Also, to reach out to the many veterans who may be manifestly suffering or suffering in silence. Above all, to pray and work for peace – starting in our everyday family life.