Thursday, November 10, 2011

Peace and Remembrance, the Tight Rope

I wrote about this last year, about respect for the war dead, and thought I'd update my thoughts. It didn't really occur to me until recently, but I've been walking a tightrope of sorts for the last 15 years as a teacher, balancing my belief that war is evil with the reality of sacrifice shown by veterans.

Growing up in a home with Anabaptist/Mennonite cultural background and beliefs, I was attracted to the peace theology of the Mennonite church. I had sense of the sacrifices my ancestors made to stand apart from the senseless violence and warfare that accompanied their sojourns in Europe for 400 years. More directly, both of my grandfathers were conscientious objectors. My mom's dad Johann Enns, with many of his brethren in Russia during WWI, was able to do alternate service at forestry camps in Siberia. He returned in time to endure the Russian Revolution. The Mennonite families experienced starvation under war communism as the Red Army soldiers came by to steal their food. The families suffered theft, murder, and rape at the hands of Makhno's bands of so-called anarchists. The White Army used the presence of German-speaking "colonists" to justify invasion. Most Mennonites bunkered down, prepared to flee, and (in a few cases) offered some armed resistance. Every combatant probably felt they had just cause to carry out war, some were simply bloodthirsty and willing to use death and chaos to force change. My Enns grandparents lost 2 children to poverty-related illnesses in Russia before scraping together the fare to escape to Canada. They arrived in 1924; the windswept prairies must have been visually similar to their home town of Dolinsk on the steppes of Russia, but different in most every other way. I can only imagine my grandfather's thoughts as he stepped off the CPR in Southern Saskatchewan, knowing not a word of English, and considered that this could be a landscape free from fear. In some ways this was a hard-earned freedom, purchased with lives, but Canada in the 1920s was not what we would call a tolerant society. My grandparents had one good crop year in 1928, and then experienced a new set of hardships in the forms of drought and the Great Depression.

My other grandfather Gerhard Thielmann was a conscientious objector in Alberta during WWII, exempted from service to continue farming his land. He, too, endured WWI and the Revolution in Russia as a child, and was given food and aid by the Mennonite Central Committee, allowing him to escape starvation and be the only member of his family of 8 kids to make passage to Canada, a skinny 17-yr-old tagging along with some neighbours and hoping to eventually secure his family's safe passage to Canada. Stalin closed the Soviet borders and his family never made it. After marriage and children and the Great Depression, he split his farming time with teaching and preaching, some of which undoubtedly focused on the practice of peace. He preached in German and English for many years; I still have many of his oldest books with underlined passages, mostly English phrases he sought to understand deeply, and many of his early sermon notes written impenetrably in German with fine ink in Gothic script. I may have set aside some of my Mennonite past and beliefs, but the legacy of peace and the cultural memory of a people who were pursued by violence for hundreds of years is still strong.

This heritage is often in stark contrast to the history of my wife's family, steeped in military service, and the stories my students provide about their ancestors who fought in and suffered through various wars. Their narratives are equally riveting, and rooted in authentic service to deeply held beliefs. It is hard to argue with the sincerity in an 18-yr-old's face as he heads off for the European theatre in 1940, or the letter written home describing rations, travels, and lack of sleep. Or the medals and photos from a Canadian peacekeeper, now deceased, the father of one of my students. These and many other war artifacts are coming in and out of my class these days with the student's heritage projects, and have given many of them a profound connection to what will come up in the school Remembrance day ceremony that will be starting in a few minutes. I'll walk the tightrope into the ceremony, still not exactly sure how I feel about the memory part of why we are there. Being a soldier, especially in the distant past, is not by itself a cause for honour, for they have been the witting or unwitting instruments of horror throughout human history, and their needs to be some shame attached to needless bloodletting. There is nonetheless honour in sacrifice, and a need to dwell on the grief born by the families of war dead, casualties, and affected veterans, a need to focus on healing. Do we honour those who took up arms or those who suffer because of war? Is it just about the dead, with judgement suspended on the killers? What measure of shame do we bring to the warmongers and the use of murder as a political tool? Is this still primarily about WWI and other western conflicts or do we shed light on the myriad other conflicts that have plagued the last century, some of which continue today? Canada has usually set a good example for the world, and I'd like to think military service here is more about alleviating suffering and promoting justice than it is about oil or money or unresolved differences. The great-grandparents of my students knew about sacrifice, and some of them gave up their lives for their family, for values of freedom, and perception of what their country required of them. It is enough for me to respect that, but the ideal of peace has to float midst these thoughts, the knowledge that war is a failure of humanity, a destroyer of families, and not something to be celebrated or define our national values. My students will build their own understanding; among them are peacekeepers, heros, martyrs, and proud warriors stretching back over hundreds of years; they have inspired awe and fascination in their descendants.

1 comment:

Thielmann said...

an interesting perspective on remembering the war dead, I just heard him interviewed on CBC's Q -- -- his tight-rope appears to be more difficult to navigate than the one I've created