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No Tin Soldiers GUEST POST

 
It isn't real for me, the Great World War, except for some songs. A memory for others, not even a memory for me.

The Second World War: "war to end all wars." It was leftover ration coupons used for playing store with my brother. It was a vague story of cousin Clinton tip‑toeing into my room, with Mom and Dad, to peek at me in my crib before he went "overseas."  It was Mom's first cousin, Ted, sending parachute remnants for her to make into a blouse.  It was Aunts Peggy and Teddy, war nurses, sending dolls made in Europe and storybooks from England. Treats.  It's Aunt Teddy's footlocker, and sepia photographs of young men and women in uniform.
The Korean War is only Alan Alda's M.A.S.H., the Vietnam War in disguise: humour and gore splashed lavishly. Not real. What is real are war's bloody fingerprints.

A New Brunswick man drives his car to the church directly across the highway. Having slogged across Europe as a foot‑soldier, he refuses to walk anywhere again. Another, former prisoner‑of‑war, couldn't sit still in church, unless near a window.

Cousin Ted's voice boomed through practice. A career soldier, rising in rank, he was told to work at deepening his voice, to grow a moustache, to seem older for "his" men.  In Italy, three days after an artillery shell had killed companions and messed him up, he was almost missed by stretcher‑bearers until one last groan reached them. He came back minus large portions of his legs. The deeper fingerprint was something else.
Almost sixty years later, when he drank, eyes tear‑filled, he'd remember aloud how at 20‑something, as an officer, he'd sent about 100 men forward. Only a handful came back.  It was his job. It wasn't a tactical error.   One incident of many, yet the pain continued to eat into his gut, pain alcohol wouldn't burn away.
 
It continues.  I served as the Base Protestant Chapel Life Coordinator when military padres were too thin on the ground. My husband and I are marriage counsellors periodically for CFB Petawawa.  More fingerprints.
Nightmares: scenes too terrible to share with a spouse.  She, not understanding why he turns away; can't touch her skin without weeping...Isn't he glad to be back?  Another soldier: Why, since her return, she can't eat specific foods, can't bear to smell certain things cooking.

God has created us with "fight or flight" instincts, but we're not meant for war with its primary and collateral damage. That "fight" instinct can be used against poverty, prejudice, social injustice. War is a wound, disrupting, festering, destroying created life's vibrant fibre.

When past monuments were planned, naming the living and dead who'd served in three wars, probably there was concern: people might forget, and a grateful feeling of finality... No more names!  Never again!
All of those military, whether they've rocked in deep despair, minds torn apart by shock; whether they've suffered physical pain; whether they died, or not, all took the same chances when they signed up. They volunteered to go into unknown territory, to heal when they could, be a caring presence when mending wasn't possible; trying to put aside "thou shalt not," to kill, so others could live in peace...
Not easy!  Not tin soldiers! Real people, with all their flaws and fears and pain, their hopes and dreams and nobility.

Today, war's fingers reach out again, too close. We tremble.  Our family lives eight minutes from CFB Petawawa, twenty minutes from Chalk River, very near Pembroke airport. Weapons practice has shaken our windows regularly since we moved here, but shortly after 9-11, when the windows shook, for the first time, our son raced downstairs to see if we were all right.

Earlier, he wondered aloud, "If they call men up, will they start with those near the base?"  He has no idea of how it works. He doesn't know that people, like those named on monuments around the world, conquered their own fears to choose to fight the battles for civilians like him and me. Because of them, we've enjoyed fearless peace for a long time, long enough for many to forget, or never know, war. We thank God for their gifts of self.

Many of Canada's military are deployed. The windows are shuddering once more; soon, another large number will leave from CFB Petawawa.  I pray that there will not be, once again, flags at half-mast for weeks on end.
Often, I wear the “invisible” ribbon. It honours those in invisible uniforms: the families, "keeping the home fires burning," who also pay a price when husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, are on exercises or deployed. 
May the time of the world's "beating its swords into ploughshares" come very soon!  May our Lord prepare us for it, and, grant us true peace. 

Amen.
 

(Earlier versions of this article appeared previously in Glad Tidings magazine and The Petawawa Post.  Related photos are available.)

 

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