Come Remembrance Day this week, Canadians will, as always, solemnly recite the verses of Canadian World War I soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” including its stirring final stanza: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Written on the battlefield, McCrae’s words are powerful and beautiful, and they have been held up as a proud symbol of Canada (look, there they are on the $10 bill). But, in that it could easily serve as the text of a recruiting poster or, as it does for the Montreal Canadiens, the slogan of a sports team, that final stanza is not typical of the poetry of World War I soldiers.

Most soldiers shouted home a different message. English soldier Seigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” concludes in a manner closer to the general mood: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Wilfred Owen, the English soldier many consider the leading poet of the war, wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as a retelling of the familiar biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel appears to spare his son: “A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. // But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

This Remembrance Day, Canadian soldiers are in combat in Afghanistan, and may be for decades to come, we’re told. War rages in Iraq and may soon in Iran and Pakistan. There is much to reflect on. We might well consider the lessons of those brave soldiers from what was to have been The War to End All Wars — this way lies madness, they say, a self-fuelling fireball that engulfs the bodies and souls of all who wage it or who have it waged on them. That has been the lesson of warfare since the beginning of humanity. It was understood by the Vikings, whose greatest saga, according to Lee Sandlin in his essay “Losing the War,” was about a pointless, unproductive battle that engulfs generations and destroys the innocent and guilty alike. “For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart.”

Even wars generally agreed to be humanity’s finest moments teach the same message: in the service of ending fascism and stopping genocide in World War II, more than 60 million died on all sides, many after surviving years of insane agony on the battlefield, many more as huge swaths of millennia-old civilizations were reduced to rubble. A great part of an entire generation on five continents lived in a waking nightmare of fear that the bombs and guns and death camps would return.

From the American Civil War through Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, history tells the same story, one nearly identical to that of the soldiers returning from Iraq: if war produces just ends, it is only by happenstance, for the logic of war leads inevitably towards carnage; towards the reduction of humanity to its most horrifying state of barbarism and of the world to an unendurable hell.

Yet we have become again a society in which the military is seen as a source of solutions — through the eyes of leaders who have never served in combat, war is a just hammer. To them, every terrorist attack, foreign-policy threat and humanitarian crisis begins to look like a nail. They point to those who warn that war must be a last resort and accuse them of failing to “support the troops.” But the troops are citizen servants of the highest order who go off and learn what soldiers past have tried to teach; they sacrifice their sanity, their lives and their humanity — and inflict untold terror on others —?on our instruction.

In an age when being “strong on terror” has been reduced to tying a yellow ribbon and solemnly swearing to send others to kill and die before sitting down to watch Dancing With the Stars, we might reflect on what our history of violence has been trying to tell us all along:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly November 7, 2007.

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