“War is the stupidest thing ever invented by man.” — Bill Mindess
My wife works as a nurse in a mostly-veterans’ hospital. I say “mostly” because they take in some patients that are not veterans…. seems we’re running out of veterans. In Canada, there is a solitary WWI veteran remaining, and veterans of other wars are diminishing in number. There is good, bad, and warning in this. Good because the fewer number of people we send to war, the better — would that there were no veterans for this reason alone. Bad because we need these veterans present among us, to teach us, to remember. Warning because we are in danger of forgetting. In Canada, The Remembrance Day Act has been modified to allow more stores to open longer on November 11th. I disagree. In a world still ravaged by war, it’s imperative that we remember those who have died because of it; the day should be elevated, not diminished.
Last year on Remembrance Day we took our two girls — then 6 and 3 — to visit a real live veteran of WWII. My wife gets to know some of the patients as she cares for them, and becomes fond of several of them… perhaps this happens with many nurses. Our oldest daughter was then in grade 1 and had been learning about Remembrance Day, about war, and had memorized the first couple of verses of “In Flander’s Fields“… and let me say it’s incredibly haunting when a 6-year-old utters the line, “We are the dead…” I’m sure all parents struggle a little with what and how to tell their kids about war when the youngsters are just about that age… so we did the one thing that seemed to make just about the most sense of anything we could possibly have done, and arranged to take our two kids to meet “Uncle Bill”, a real live veteran, on Remembrance Day.
This was of course a way of teaching them and honouring one of the veterans my wife had become fond of… the two had struck a bit of a relationship over time – they visit a bit, and she always pinched his toe when she walked into his room so he knew it was her. I gather from the accounts that he was a bit of a character and really was the clown of the ward. He was working on a book of his memoirs, and I believe that our kids had shown up in it.
Bill seemed genuinely thrilled to have these two young visitors, and he and I were glad to finally meet one another, each having heard about the other through my wife. So last year “Uncle Bill” told our kids stories about the war. They were stories suitable to their age, about how the English troops kept getting served their beef and the Canadian troops kept getting served their mutton… and they hated it. He told them about the one time they let him fire the gun on a tank, and he blew up a haystack. And he told them that war was man’s stupidest-ever invention. He kept the girls entertained for a while, telling them about other things in his life after the war. He had been a reporter, and had “interviewed” a lion right in its cage… I gather this was after some strong drink, and there’s a photograph that ran in the paper, of which we now have a copy. Overall, he was quite mindful of what to tell the kids about the war and other things… he didn’t mention to them that he had actually met Gypsie Rose Lee. He did an admirable job — had the kids not been there I’m certain the tone of those accounts would have been quite different. Bill was Jewish, and I’m sure the war affected him in different ways than perhaps others… but we weren’t able to speak a lot about it on that visit.
We count it a priviledge to have been there to stand with him on the 11th and observe a minute’s silence for his fallen comrades. We didn’t know then that it would be his last Remembrance day… he died this past summer. We become slightly more impoverished as each person fades away who could still tell us their first-hand experience of war.
A friend of mine used to attend Synagogue regularly, and has spent some significant time within the Jewish community. One day he glanced down at a woman’s arms and saw the telltale numbered tatoo on her arm. She noticed he’d seen it and quickly moved to cover it up… he reached out and put his hand on her arm and said, “It’s okay — I’m a Mennonite. My people helped your people.” She wept.
Regardless of our views on war — and I’ll save that for another more appropriate post — it’s imperative we remember. It’s imperative that we honour. This post appears at 11 minutes after the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. Please hear the moment’s silence.