Nov 11 2011
I found this piece the other day by accident… I wrote it eight years ago, on November 11, 2003, Remembrance Day, and it's still valid. I’ve always been quite heavily involved, one way or another, in Remembrance Day observances. My father was blinded on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and I grew up with first-hand awareness of the sacrifices made by so many for King and Country, and it occurred to me this morning, while I was watching the TV coverage of the ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Ottawa, that in those days, very few people would have dreamed of ignoring the call to arms. Times have changed, haven’t they? Those few who did dare to object, back in the days of the two World Wars, were known as “Conshies”—a term not too different in terms of sneering disdain and contempt from the McCarthy-style equivalent, “Commies,” in the Fifties. “Conshie” stood for “Conscientious Objector” and it applied to those remarkably brave people whose conviction and faith in what they believed was strong enough to enable them to refuse to fight, and to withstand the general abuse piled upon them by almost everyone else. Of course, in the context of the times, it would have been unthinkable for anyone to regard a conscientious objector as being brave. The degree of moral conviction required for anyone to take such a public stance at the promptings of his conscience and in defiance of society’s opinion would not be generally recognized as what it was for decades . . . It would take the disaster of Vietnam, allied with the political cynicism and opportunism of the Nixon era, to make people even begin to doubt the efficacy and truth of the old saw, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori… (It is a sweet and wonderful thing to die for one’s country.) Naturally enough, the first insult hurled at such people, pre-Vietnam, was that they were cowards, but that was manifestly not so, as can be quickly gleaned from the evidence attesting to the numbers of such people who served valiantly and honourably in non-combatant roles such as ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers. I had a distant cousin—his name was Michael—who was a Conshie, and the entire family was paralysed with horror when he announced his decision not to fight, saying right up front that he believed God had not been equivocating when He said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Michael went to jail, but was later released when he volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ambulance driver after reading Hemingway’s stories on the Spanish Civil War. We never talked about Michael at home, but I remember that everyone in the entire family—with the notable exceptions of my father and his brother Jack who had both served and been invalided out because of severe wounds—heaved an enormous sigh of relief when Michael took three bullets while carrying a stretcher under enemy fire in Normandy, soon after D Day. I met him, long after the war, and I really liked him. He was completely without pretension and utterly honest about who and what he was. He finally entered a monastery—Trappist, I’m pretty sure—and I never heard of him again. Today, in 2011, we’re all familiar again with the costs of war, this time in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and we’ve been seeing dead and mutilated Canadian heroes being brought home for years from alien places with names like Kandahar, but the term “Conshie” isn’t a widely-known word nowadays. The honour given to all our Veterans, however, is fresh in our minds again and I, for one, am grateful for that.