poppies

Remembering War, Imagining Peace – a sermon for Remembrance Day

“I was born in March of 1922 and so I was 17 when the war started. I remember it as if it was yesterday – all of us listening on the radio to news that seemed so far away. News about Hitler invading Poland and the grim realization that this meant war for England and probably for us, too. My father silencing the younger children so he could hear the radio better. The look on my mother’s face – a mother of four boys, three of who would end up old enough to serve by the time the war was over. My two brothers and I were all overseas at the same time. My mother said she didn’t answer the door for three years in case it was a telegram like the one her best friend Maude got one day when she was home alone.

It’s quite something to be a 17 year old boy when your country goes to war. There was never any question in my mind that I would sign up as soon as I turned 18. It was something I was looking forward to and waiting for – the way kids now-a-days want to be 16 so they can get their driver’s license. I couldn’t wait to be 18 so that I could join the great adventure, sign up and especially, get the uniform.

It may sound shallow to say, but wearing a uniform was a great asset for getting dates with girls. Guys who didn’t sign up were at a real disadvantage. My social life really picked up when I walked into anywhere wearing that uniform. People treated you nicer, too – like they were grateful for what you were doing. You’d get a warmer smile from the waitress or a little extra gin in your drink when I was old enough to have a drink! But I hadn’t done anything yet!

I wanted of course to be an officer – an even better uniform – and so I signed up and went through all the training. I ended up a lieutenant in the army, artillery division – the Algonquin Regiment like a lot of my friends in high school, and later, when times got tough, switched to infantry. We all signed up and some of us got our commission together.

On training I went to Camp Petawawa near Pembroke, where I met the most beautiful brunette I’d ever laid eyes on. Meeting her sure made shipping out a lot harder. But we tore a dollar bill in half and said that we’d put it together when we met again. I wrote on her half and she wrote on mine. As it turned out, it was a long time before we were able to put those two halves together again.

It would take me too long to tell you everything I saw and did in the years to follow and some of it I think I’ve buried the way a dog buries a bone and then can’t remember where he put it. Some of it I don’t want to remember. And a lot of it I never told anyone. When we came back – those of us who did come back – we wanted to forget about it as fast as we could – find girls, get married, have babies, get started on our jobs or finish our schooling and put it all behind us.

Who can understand war really except someone else who has seen what you have seen? And they don’t want to remember any more than you do. I never went to the legion where old men sit around and talk about their glory days. But I understand why they do. There’s a way in which being in a war sets you apart from everyone else who hasn’t seen what you’ve seen, who hasn’t done what you’ve done.

Being young together and frightened out of your wits together and seeing each other get killed together – and killing together – has a way of changing you so you don’t change back. A lot of things I saw in the years between 1941 and 1945 changed who I was and who I became. Parts of me shut down that were never again brought to life. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never known what war is really like.

The men in my company and I went through so much together. We saw a lot of action all along the way – France, Germany, Holland mostly. I thought I would be in it till the end until one night early in 1945 near the border between Holland and Germany. My men and I were ordered to prepare for an assault on supposedly German-held position, although things were so confused at that point that no-one was really sure who was where. My captain called me up to the highest point so we could consult our carefully detailed maps.

But the whole area was flooded and none of the landmarks could be found. The map was useless. I had a bad feeling about it and told my officer I thought we should wait until the flooding cleared and we could see where we really were. “No” he said, “The order is to go tonight – to send out a reconnaissance and then attack when the coast is clear.” My heart sinking, I returned to my men and reluctantly picked out several men to go across an open field toward the German lines, scout out the enemy positions and return with a report. Off they set, while we held our breath.

In a few hours they returned across that same field, every one of them. I breathed a sigh of relief and we all prepared to retrace their footsteps under cover of night. Hearts pounding, heads low and keeping absolute silence, we crawled and crept, surrounding an old farmhouse and its outbuildings that the Germans had holed up in – or so we thought. At the final moment, as we were about to strike, the door to the farmhouse sprung open and the word “Halt!” was shouted into the night. I fired and saw a man fall in the silhouette of the farmhouse door. No more shots were heard and some of my men stormed the back of the farmhouse, declared it taken (which meant they’d killed all the other Germans I assumed) and we began our hasty retreat back along the route that my men had walked three times that night – across the silent field that had been our safe passage back and forth the first three times.

On the way back, almost every one of us stepped on a land mine. Whether or not they were there all along or had been hastily laid while a decoy in a farmhouse kept us occupied, I will never know. It was such an unusual event that it was written up in several histories of the war – but I didn’t bother to collect them – it’s pretty easy for me to remember what happened that night.

I can’t describe the things I saw, although I can still picture them in my mind’s eye as crystal clear as if it happened yesterday. Anyone who has seen war up close can never forget it. We know what it really is. Not strategy, campaigns or conflicts, right and wrong, or good and evil. It’s just killing, wounding and death. And don’t kid yourself that it only happens to the young and strong, the soldier who signed up. War brings killing, wounding and death to women and children, to old men and old women like your grandmother, to babies just like the ones you left at home safely tucked in bed. No-one can escape what happens when war is fought in their own backyard. As the old saying goes, when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

Out of my 22 men, many of them my high school buddies and every one of them as close to me as brothers – 8 of us survived, all of us wounded. As their officer, I made sure I spoke to every one of them – those that could speak – before they died. I tried to remember the things they said, what their last moments were like – so that when I wrote to their parents – which I did in every single case – I could give them something to go with the medals and the telegraph with the black edging. How I dreaded writing those letters as I imagined the tears of mothers reading them!

I realized as I was being carried to the hospital, in and out of consciousness, that the word “Halt” was the same in English as it was in German – and that in my fear, I had shot and killed the man in the farmhouse door without even being certain that he was “the enemy.” As it turned out, the great German holdout was one probably terrified man who had gotten separated from his company and taken shelter in the nearest warm place he could find. The real enemy encampment was miles away. And although the remaining men in our company did push on and take the position, I’ve always wondered about two things. Why should I feel better when I found out that the man I killed was a 20 year old German boy? He was just as human, just as frightened, just as much a son or brother or friend as I or any of the men whose sides I had lain by, whose grieving parents I had written. And I wondered whether trading his one life for the two dozen friends I had seen cut down and wounded could ever be seen as fair or balanced. Then I realized that war is not about things like fairness and right and what makes sense. It has senselessness, injustice, irony and unfairness built right into its very definition.

I got a lot of shrapnel, some of which remained in my body till the day I died. I used to show it to my kids as if they could understand any part of how I got it. I think they thought it was a kind of exotic tattoo like you ended up with after a crazy drunken night in Paris. How to explain how little it was compared to what I had seen happen to my buddies’ bodies. “Yes, sure I’ll show you Daddy’s funny spots gain. Maybe someday I’ll tell you how I got them. Or maybe not.”

I ended up in a military rehab hospital in London where I stayed for three months. Nobody used words like “nervous breakdown” back then; I was just battle weary and getting some rest. Although I did do some needlepoint, which had never been an interest of mine before or since. My family still has the needlepoint of two poppies that I did while I in the hospital, as well as a small oil painting that a family in Holland I stayed with took right off the wall to give to me when I went back to visit them after the war. Somehow those two things are more reminiscent of the war for me than all the medals I received. One country’s gratefulness, as well as a reminder of the night when things went so terribly wrong, and I said goodbye to my boyhood forever.

I came back to Ottawa and as soon as I got home, I hightailed it up to Pembroke to find that beautiful brunette, and I married her as fast as I could. I always felt like I cheated a little bit by getting wounded because it meant that I got home earlier than those other guys who also thought she was pretty special. We got married in September of 1945. By the time most of them were discharged, she was already wearing my ring! Thank you, Adolf!

In what turned out to be the last year of my life, I decided to tell this story to my youngest daughter, who is telling it to you now. What do I think about war after fighting one, winning one, and losing most of my best friends and all my innocence to one? I can tell you how they’re fought, although I’m not always clear about why. Wars are fought by convincing young men to hate before they feel – by teaching people that other people are “the enemy”- not young men like you with sisters, mothers, fathers, wives and children just like you. As long as both sides are taught this, war works just fine.

Wars are fought by talking about targets, not towns full of schoolchildren, people going to church, or stopping to buy food as bombs rain down upon them. Wars are fought by responding to violence with more violence, by men in councils who are too unreasonable or power-hungry or crazy to sit down and figure out another way. And sometimes wars must be fought in self-defence – although not nearly as often as you might think. Sometimes wars must be fought, but do not think that they are ever won. No-one wins, ever, in war. Only occasionally great suffering prevents even more suffering. But it is never alright, it never really ends, and it is never a victory.”

* * * * *

This is an amazing story – one of many such amazing stories that we have shared over the years in this sanctuary on or around Remembrance Day. But the most amazing thing to me is that I never heard this story before my father chose to tell it to me the spring before he died – over 50 years after it had happened. My mother had not heard parts of this story, nor anyone else that we knew who knew my father. It was locked in a vault, along with some of the tenderness and vulnerability of his young life, and we never were allowed to hear or see it until somehow, he felt a need to share it.

As his child, I know now that I was affected by his war experiences the way all children are affected by their parents’ lives – by osmosis – by the slow absorbing of the environment into which I was born. It has taken me a good while to sort out who my father was – to go back and extract who he might have been had the war not happened – and to try to draw my inheritance from both of these people. I know that his experiences left me and our family with a profound sense of the pain of war even though we did not experience it first hand – and has formed some of my deeply held beliefs about peace and non-violence as the best routes to resolving conflict of any kind.

I promised this sermon would be about stories of peace. After September 11th, and because there have been two wars in the middle east since then – one in which we participated and another which our neighbor to the south initiated (although I do not negate the many ways and places we as human beings are forever warring with one another) I wanted it to be uplifting, offering examples of those who have chosen a different path – a path other than war – to show us a more hopeful way. But I realized in beginning with my father’s story that there is perhaps no stronger argument for peace than the telling of a story of war.

Nothing is more poignant and more powerful than a description of what happens when peace fails and war is waged. Do we need any further evidence of how horrible the world can become? The existence of war is the ultimate argument for peace.

And yet, in my days I have seen reason to hope, and always, always – good people working toward peace. When we were in Israel, amid so many stories of fear and hatred, the story that stands out for me was of the small town of Metula on the border between Israel and Lebanon. Standing in Metula, which is on a tiny strip of land in and surrounded by the Golan Heights, you look up and literally Lebanon towers above you on one side and Syria above you in the distance on the other. From there, any terrorist can easily fire a katyusha rocket with a small hand-made fuse and use gravity and the natural terrain to hit any location in the small town. It feels like a very vulnerable place to live and raise children.

When we were there, we heard a remarkable story about a hole in the fence between Lebanon and Israel. Before the wars and the annexation of the Golan Heights, the Lebanese and Israeli neighbors lived in peace in the small neighboring towns. After the annexation, a barbed wire, patrolled border and fence went up, keeping neighbors from neighbors, friends from friends, even splitting families on either side of the divide.

One day, many years after the fence went up, when things were very dire on the Lebanese side of the border, a woman appeared in desperation with her sick daughter. Medical help was far away by Lebanon, but just across the fence in Metula. She waited there pleading until another woman happened by and saw her. The second woman ran home and in front of the stunned soldiers on both sides, got wire cutters and cut a hole in the fence, pulled the woman and her daughter through, called an Israeli ambulance (which was escorted by an Israeli army escort) and took her to the hospital where she was treated and saved.

Of course, the next night there were several more people waiting at the fence. The hole is there to this day, ignored by the Israeli military, who regularly are called to transport someone to hospital. One person’s seeing another’s humanity was all it took to poke a hole in the fear, the hatred, and the fence between two enemies. I realized, standing at the fence in Metula, that war is learned, and so peace may be learned as well. It is up to us to turn our hearts and our actions to those that make peace more likely, war more unacceptable.

That same summer, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It’s an impressive place, stretching over several acres and is composed of many poignant exhibits – the Valley of the Communities that commemorates whole villages and towns destroyed, with everyone there killed; the children’s museum, with the teddy bears and drawings, and baby shoes of some of the millions of children who died; the Memorial Hall with the names of each extermination camp and the number of people who died there inscribed on bleak stones set beside an eternal flame. There are great reminders of human evil in each exhibit.

And yet, the way that Yad Vashem is designed, you cannot get to any of these memorials without first passing through orchards of trees surrounding it that they call “The Avenues of the Righteous Among the Nations.” Each one of these trees (and there are thousands of them) is dedicated with the name of a person who, during the war, resisted the hatred growing all around them and chose to act differently. Oskar Schindler’s and Raoul Wallenberg’s trees are there – along with many, many ordinary citizens. Each one is nominated by a person who witnessed the choice they made and lived to tell the tale.

Perhaps they hid someone in their attic, or spirited them to safety, faced down their own fear, or stood up to the authorities and survived, (and some of them did not) – but they each took the fuller, braver path, and chose to resist. So you cannot get to the memorials that remind us of war and human evil without first being confronted by thousands of people who chose to act differently. Every entrance, every path to a place that points out our capacity for evil and our tendency to war requires us to first contemplate our capacity for choosing what is right and good, and our unquenchable thirst for peace and loving kindness.

In Simon Weisenthal’s book “The Sunflower,” he poses the following question to a number of different people: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?” The Dalai Lama answers by telling this story: “A few years back, a Tibetan monk who had served about eighteen years in a Chinese prison in Tibet came to see me after his escape to India… During the course of that meeting I asked him what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison. I was amazed by his answer; it was extraordinary and inspiring… He said that what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese.” It is this spirit that gives me my hope that someday, war will be no more.

Finally, when we have done all we can to prevent war, when we have done all we can to protect ourselves, our communities and our families from it, and still it finds its way into the fabric of our lives, our only and final choice is to keep a pure heart and refuse to be destroyed by it – to give it no more power than it already has. The truly courageous, whether they live or die, whether they win or lose, are the ones who dwell in the grace of goodness and the shelter of hope – and know that it can never be taken from them. They wear it like the shining garment that it is.

Do not give in to hopelessness or fear. Believe that we are meant for something better. Remember the lessons of war so that we may imagine peace.

For every one of us in that final reckoning is the keeper of our own soul. And we will see an end to war when each and every one of us does all we can – in thought, word and deed, to make in our hearts a home for love everlasting.

So may it be. Amen.