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.
O Jesus, make it stop!