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.
December 18, 2011 @ 6:36 am
A book you may want to add to your reading list that I think is well worth the time is called ‘On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society’ by Lt Colonel David Grossman, a US Army Ranger, and clinical psychologist. It’s extremely insightful and made me cry in empathy with the pain our soldiers have endured. He had interviews with men who had served in WWII and remembered having had to kill and it’s aftermath as if it had happened only yesterday, after the lapse of 40 years or more.
Col. Grossman taught psychology at West Point, and was professor of Military Studies at the University of Arkansas.
FYI, in my reading, about 6 months ago, I ran across a website that claimed that the Commandment about killing is mistranslated. The Hebrew word in the original text of the Torah meant ‘to murder’ not generically ‘to kill’. That makes a huge difference, and for those suffering from guilt at having had to kill, here’s some vindication. If you had to kill to preserve your life, or under orders as a soldier or policeman, no guilt attaches. I did a search to corroborate and found several websites that supported the claim. One of those claimed that any 6th grade speaker of Hebrew would have translated it correctly. I found that very interesting!
FYI, Col. Grossman is on a crusade to outlaw first person shooter games. He claims the games are operative conditioning with positive reinforcement, without the oversight a soldier-in-training would get regarding rules of engagement and when one may shoot and when one may not. He supported his argument very well, and I find the ads on TV for these games highly disturbing.
Anyhow, great post!
May 17, 2012 @ 2:39 am
November 10, 2012 @ 7:33 pm
Do you know that there are about half a million minutes in a year (525,600)?
It doesn't seem particularly onerous to spend two of them in silence to remember those who, for good or ill, answered the call.
I don't support the politics of UK's presence in Afghanistan, but tomorrow I shall be at our local memorial to remember those who are there and all those lost in past conflicts or training for them.
I spent 24 years as military aircrew and lost friends practising for and sadly in combat too. Life can be a roulette sometimes and being in the wrong place at the right time does seem like a lottery.
But there is something deeply right about taking up those two minutes to silently reflect upon those gone, and those still here . . . and there.
You don't have to agree with the politics, but there are not many war-mongers in 'the trenches', just young men and women doing their best.
Let's remember them – and with dignity.
November 10, 2012 @ 10:53 pm
Well said, Brian: two minutes a year is not an onerous amount of time to spend remembering the sacrifices and the tragedies of the young people–and aren't they always young? My father was 22 when he lost his eyes–who stepped up to do what the politicians wanted them to do. I'll be at the Cenotaph tomorrow, too, standing beside you at 11.00 am in spirit, fi not in simultaneous respect. By the time I hear the bugle call, it will be seven pm where you are, and the poppy from your lapel that morning will be eight hours older than mine.
November 10, 2012 @ 11:17 pm
Alongside me Jack, will be my daughter's partner. He was a Sergeant Major in the King's Own Scottish Borderers.
We recently went to their Regimental Museum in Berwick (they lived in Kelso – hence the connection with the William Wallace book). He's in several of the photies.
Well done for going, as you say – you actually acknowledge your connection, so many people don't. I don't think they're bad or ignorant, I think they just don't realise.
Just because the politics are FUBAR, they forget the folks out there always ARE young (more often than not anyway although my mate was in his 40s).
November 11, 2012 @ 3:30 am
Brian, I hope you'll share this with your daughter's partner, because your mention of him stirred memeories I hadn't recalled in years. One of the most memorable men I ever knew since coming to Canada was a WWII KOSB veteran and a survivor of the Arnhem Bridge operation–the "Bridge Too Far" as Cornelius Ryan famously named it. Archie Muirhead came to Canada after the war and settled in Lethbridge, Alberta, where he became celebrated as the Drum Major of the local Pipes and Drums of the General Stweart Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lethbridge. I first met him in the second year after I landed in Canada, in the late summer of 1969, when I visited Lethbridge to sing in the Grandstand Show at the town's annual civic celebrations, and I knew him and enjoyed his friendship for the next twentyt-wo years..
When Archie died, his friend Morris MacFarlane, who had managed the Legion for years, came to me and asked me to "work on" some lines he had written for Archie… "Gi'e it a wee bit o' polish," was Morris's request, and here's what I came up with:
Drum Major Archie Muirhead
When big Airchie stepped forrit, oh man, he was grand,
In his braw feather bonnet and hackle;
He was Cock o' the North, at the head o' the band,
Starched and polished, an' rigid as spackle!
Aaron ance had a Rod; Moses wielded a Staff;
Airchie gained his renown wi' a Mace;
And he swung it, by God, like a Ghillie his gaff,
Wi' distinction, precision and grace!
The auld tunes of glory were nectar to Airch
Their music put the braggart in his step;
He could tell a whole story in one short, Slow March
And you'd smell the smoke o' Arnhem and Dieppe.
Aye, and many's the time he led proud legionnaires
On occasions that would glorify their names,
As he showed them off brawly at Galas and Fairs
An' at Festivals, Parades and Highland Games.
There was only one Muirhead; one “Airchie The Grand”
In this wee town, this Lethbridge o' ours;
Just one braw, perfect Drummie, the kind that could stand,
Sun or snaw, like a ramrod, for hours.
He's awa' now, ye ken, reunited wi' men
He ance knew in his days as a KOSBIE.
The sodjer's Valhalla will suit the auld fella:
White wings, and a kilt, plaid and Busbie…
For he stood wi' the best, this grand man o' the West,
Amang men o' high rank and proud Orders,
And his warm, gentle voice will mak' Heaven rejoice,
Wi' it's soft, Lawland lilt o' the Borders.
3 July 1991
November 11, 2012 @ 12:36 pm
Just got back from the Remembrance Parade and read that – there must be a lot of dust in the air . . .
You did him proud – thank you for sharing it, it will be my pleasure to do so too.