Lest We Forget

I’m about to start reading Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall with my first-year fiction students. On Tuesday, I suggested they think about the three time periods relevant to the novel: the Iron Age society that the “experiential anthropology” class in the novel recreates, building the titular ghost wall to keep out enemies; the novel’s setting right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which the characters discuss; and 2018, the date of publication, the time of Brexit and Trump’s Wall, which inform the novel’s themes. Only that morning did I realize November 9 is the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. How accidentally relevant our class was, I joked!

Then this Remembrance Day morning I read news of migrants trapped on Europe’s borders, pawns, weapons, canon fodder in a dispute between autocratic, nationalist leaders. Ghost Wall‘s relevance no longer seemed funny, a matter of resonance with the past. Moss’s novel makes very clear that the impulses that led Iron Age people to build ghost walls, and that led to the World Wars of the 20th century, are alive and haunting us still.

I am American, and today is Veterans Day there, which focuses on celebrating and giving thanks for the service of veterans, typically with the idea that they fought to preserve freedom, democracy and “the American way of life.” But I’ve lived most of my adult life in Canada, and I prefer Remembrance Day. Remembrance is more complicated: we can remember with gratitude the courage, sacrifice and service of veterans, yes. We can remember those who were lost.

We can remember, too, that many of them did not choose service, but had it thrust upon them. They had no choice but to make those sacrifices. They lived through horrors, and died in them. Saw them, felt them, in some cases perpetrated them. They showed great courage. And sometimes, their courage failed them, because their country had asked of them things no one should have to endure.

This is my great uncle, Jack Darrow, who served in the Pacific in WWII, in the Army Air Force. Only decades after his death did my grandparents tell the family that he died by suicide. I am glad they were finally able to break that silence. This, too, we should remember. There are many casualties of war.

In the past two decades of the “war on terror,” most of us have been far too able to forget that we are at war. We forget, or overlook, the high rate of suicide among veterans, who bear the consequences of that forgetfulness.

Canadians aren’t immune to a remembrance that looks away from horrors and ennobles sacrifice. Their favorite WWI poem is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” (He’s Canadian, you know).

To you from failing hands we throw 
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If a war poem becomes a slogan on a dressing room wall, I think we aren’t remembering right.

It feels as if we’re again in a time when we all must put our hands to the torch of democracy and raise it up. Perhaps it’s always such a time. I hope we remember all of the past, the costs war imposes on those whose service it requires, everyone who loves them, and millions caught up in it against their will. I hope we do all we can to defend freedom and democracy without slaughter. I fear we won’t.

The poets whose words are most with me today are not McCrae but Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon.

O Jesus, make it stop!
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15 Responses to Lest We Forget

  1. willaful says:

    Or as Vonnegut put it (from memory): Memorial Day was sacred. Veterans day is not.

    I just finished _Five Children on the Western Front_ and have so many thoughts about it. Do you know it?

    • willaful says:

      Ack, I got it wrong, didn’t I. “Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.”

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        That makes sense! Of course this is all complicated in the US by having both Veterans Day and (Confederate, originally) Memorial Day. I didn’t even know about that Five Children book. Hmm.

        • willaful says:

          Oh, do check it out! It’s a sequel to the Nesbit books, written when the author realized that the children from that series were exactly the right age to grow up into World War I. She did a really good job of keeping it real to what happened but also making something beautiful out of it.

  2. sonomalass says:

    I remember always getting Memorial Day and Veterans Day confused as a child, and I notice that a lot of folks still confuse the two. There are some veterans among my family and friends, and I am glad that those good people chose to do military service, and did it well. But I wish we, as a nation, spent less time and energy paying lip-service to our veterans and put more effort and funding into preventing some of the horrors they face and doing more to help them recover from them.

    I have not read Moss’s book; I will add it to my list. Thank you for helping these young people navigate these thorny issues!

    • In Israel we had Remembrance Day and Yom Hashoah, which is for remembering the Holocaust, as well. In the 1970s, the losses that both memorialized were fresh to many and I was exposed to a lot of heartrending stories. People bought thick white candles to light at home throughout the day on both occasions because the lost ones whom the two days honored were personal for all of us.

      When I came to the US in 1981 and saw that here Memorial Day was an occasion for department stores to advertise that their towels and sheets were on sale, I was truly shocked by the indifference of it. I do wonder how many of the bereaved families of the fallen in the US feel that the children, parents, and siblings whom they lost are being honored by the holiday.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I think that community memory might be necessary to give the day the “sacred” feeling Willa mentioned. In the US, particularly, there is a lot of laudatory lip service to the military but most people who don’t know someone serving don’t pay much attention to actual members of the armed forces. Just keep shopping, as GWB told us.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s interesting talking to them about this novel in a country that has (so far) not seen so many politicians embracing far right views and talking points, and with a different kind of patriotism than the US, less nationalistic or at least jingoistic. Many are certainly aware of the issues. Either because of the omnipresence of US politics, or because they are international students or immigrants from places with autocratic, nationalist leaders.

  3. Liz
    Lovely, thought-provoking essay. Thank you.
    I had ‘Ghost Wall’ in my TBR mountain, but it fell out. Time to add it back in, and actually read it!

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Moss’s novel really does resonate so much – too much.

    I like what you say about remembering as something that can be more complicated – I do worry here that there’s a combination of nostalgia and glorification in the ways we mark November 11, and also that the poppy has become more of a gesture than a real symbol.

    It’s lovely to see a post from you again.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I stopped getting a poppy (I should make a donation instead). It just seems like more plastic to throw away, not meaningful to people. Kind of like the American flag lapel pins ritualistically worn by US politicians.

  5. Thank you for this post, Liz.

  6. Sunita says:

    Yes, thank you. And I guess it’s time to pull out the MacMillan Collector’s Library edition of First World War poetry.

    I read quite a bit of WW1-related and adjacent stuff after the 2016 election, partly to remind myself that people live through terrible times and come out on the other side. Of course our terrible time is nothing like what Owen, Graves, Sassoon, etc. went through. I’ve noticed among graduate students in my field that the study of borders and walls has become a big topic of research, too, so it’s not just in fiction.

    If you haven’t read Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, it comes recommended by TheHusband, who read it when I was reading Goodbye to All That.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hello! I took a Modernism class in grad school where we read a lot of WWI related and adjacent things, including parts of Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory. It was a great class. I have meant to read Sassoon’s memoirs, both because I admire his poetry and because I loved Pat Barker’s Regeneration where he appears as a character.

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