By Ken Wylie
This week Canada is marking the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge during World War 1. On our screens are images of the now green but still crater-marked fields and hills where the fighting took place. We see the monument that pays homage to the courage and valour of Canadian soldiers during that battle, and hear the numbers of those who died in a fight for the freedom we now enjoy. Their names are embossed and accounted for. While these thoughts are valid and true there is something that is not being fully numbered in our collective memories of these events.
I was six years old when my kindergarten teacher organized a concert for our young voices to sing at Colonel Belcher Veterans Hospital in Calgary. The event pushed me hard. We were ushered into the hospital and organized on a makeshift stage to look out over a seeming sea of wheelchairs. There were men with no legs, no arms, and seemingly no hope, until we began to sing. Our young voices filled the room with life which penetrated the souls of the men who were, for those short moments, in bliss.
Then something happened that will forever remind me of another cost of war. An elderly man began shaking and screaming as if he was in peril. With an attendant on each side of him to steady his body, he was helped from the room. At the time I did not know what was happening to him. It was far beyond my experience, but I knew intuitively it was a window to something terrible. My mother explained afterward that she thought it was "Shell Shock" (a term that was used at the time to describe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that he had fought in World War 1. His mind took him back the horror of the battlefield. Our concert was in 1971, fifty-four years after the war.
If you asked me which fate I would choose, to die on the battlefield, or to live the life of this man I witnessed at our concert my answer would be simple. How many collective years of suffering have soldiers and their families paid in the quality of their lives after whichever war they fought? How many souls suffer the fate of living, everyday, in indescribable horror, which sometimes end in suicide? To me, this brings into question our notion of the ultimate sacrifice. To live with the horror of flashbacks for fifty years, stuck in the battle where you see your friends perish, and feel in constant mortal danger is a living hell. Numbers and statistics fail to calculate the true cost of that. Yet where are the names of these soldiers carved in stone?
We live in a bento box society. Everything is ordered and segregated so that we are protected from experiencing each other’s reality. There was great wisdom for my teacher in organizing the concert. Education is about exposure to the uncomfortable. That concert taught me about the price soldiers' and their families pay. I learned about the cost of surviving, which points to war's awry accounting.
War is used to settle our differences. We have to find another way. War is used to bolster economies. We have to find another way. War is often touted as building character. We have to find another way. War is said to bring nations together. We have to find another way. A century ago, William James asked for "war's moral equivalent." The screams of traumatized soldiers are not only a cry from a long ago battle, they are a cry for peace.