I’ve been to the Canadian War Museum two or three times before. But today I thought it was time for another visit, to remind myself of a few things. The times I’d been before usually took about four hours or so and I never really felt like I’d finished it. Today though, I wasn’t too interested in the Boer War or Peacekeeping or the Rebellions of Louis Riel. I don’t mean disrespect to those events. It’s just that I was more focused on the World Wars.
The exhibits are chronological and by the time I left the 1870’s I was already depressed. My country, my homeland, was borne out of immoral action. There’s no getting around it. Land theft, genocide, broken treaties and broken promises, all the things we fight against at the International Courts at the Hague, we did it. Every ten dollar bill with Sir John A. Macdonald’s face on it should be blood stained.
I headed toward WWI because I was particularly interested in The Battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. I’d recently read a novel about the carving of the Monument at Vimy Ridge and my grandfather fought in Belgium at Passchendaele. They both took place in 1917 but while looking at the exhibitions leading up to that time, I was practically in tears by the time I got to 1916. I wanted to leave already.
But I pressed on. It was oppressive. I had trouble breathing. It was the most vivid of my visits to the museum. I don’t know why. Perhaps as I’ve gotten older I’m more aware of my mortality and more aware of the preciousness of youth, youth that was either destroyed or damaged beyond imagination.
There was a group of school kids around me at one point. Twelve year olds. They rushed through the exhibits, took pictures and thought trenches were cool and that Hitler’s Mercedes Limo was huge. They didn’t get it. They were kids and they were excited like kids always are when they’re away from school. Maybe they’ll get it some day.
I looked at the faces of the soldiers. They were faces much younger than my own but in a way they’ll always seem older than me. That they confronted what they did, their faces are a thousand years old. The officers, the leaders who are still remembered, they were younger than me as well. And they never got to grow old. On November 11th, their children and grand children and great-grand children will speak of their heroism but none will really know what they truly did. They won’t see their long-gone relative through the eyes of his comrades, or through the eyes of his enemies. They’ll know pictures and a few stories but they won’t know much of anything at all really.
By the time I’d left WWII and had seen the gas masks and the tanks and the trench clubs and wore a helmet and looked at the mud and the trenches and bombed out countryside, I’d had enough. But it was important for me to re-visit this again. We all need to remind ourselves once in a while.
I don’t know how anyone survived. Even the seemingly healthy survivors. I was in a near fatal car crash last year. It lasted two minutes and I walked away without a scratch. But it broke my brain a little and I haven’t been the same since. That anyone lived a normal life after war is a miracle.
No war, from the beginning of time, has been moral. Not one. Some may be unavoidable but none are moral. There are innumerable acts of courage and morality exhibited by individuals within these acts of war but the wars themselves are displays of the worst of humanity. And until we remember that, we’ll forget that and continue to repeat the same mistakes and again be our worst and most destructive, immoral selves.
I’ve been to the War Memorial a few times on November 11th. The Cemetery near my home is the National Military Cemetery and I’ve been there a few times on November 11th. I’ve watched ceremonies on TV most other times.
This year I may just stay in bed. And at 11 am, I’ll close my eyes and listen to the cannon fire. And if I can hold two thoughts in my mind at once, I’ll try to imagine the horror of it all while I think about how grateful and lucky I am. Because it could have been me. And it could have been you.