You will not often find as a Canadian, anything that retells a part of our national history, a defining moment of Canadian history, on the “big screen,” as Canadians we feel awkward taking a look at our own history. It is much more easy to have some bravado when it comes to hockey, rather than reflecting on the sacrifice of our forefathers, who lived and died with their friends in the muddied rat infested trenches in Belgium and France in the Great War, the “war to end all wars.” But, here none the less is a 10 million dollar movie, written by and produced by, and staring Canadian actors and actresses. The mind behind it all was Paul Gross. I truly did not know what to expect.
I wanted to spend some quality time with my youngest daughter Erinn. I thought we could both take in the movie, as we are both fans of history, and military history in particular. So, I got home last night from work with fifteen minutes to spare, and picked her up. We got to our seats, just as the sound came on and the previews began to play. Great timing if I do say so myself.
The movie has a good story line based on actual events and real characters. The movie portrays very well the nasty side of nationalism and patriotism, in particular the patronizing attitudes of the upper classes, as well as the demonizing of the “enemy” shrouded in the mantra “God, King and country,” so often seen in the colonies and the dominions of the British Empire. If anything turns my stomach, it is that English provincial attitude of entitlement and betterment, that always sneered at and put down those who were from the “colonies.” Even within the UK, there has always been a view within English society, that they were better than the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. My own Grandad (Northern Irish), who served in His Majesty’s Royal Army, who made this remark after three decades after World War II, “Where would dear old England be without Sandy (meaning Scotland) and Pat (meaning Ireland)!” (old song sung by Brit soldiers). That same sentiment can be seen in this film, where the Canadian upper class as well as Britishers who have become part of the Canadian establishment, look down on the lower classes and portrays them as little more than cannon fodder for the war effort.
It is all too familiar. All too familiar, and all too relevant, even now, for how the lower educated and the unemployed are recruited into the Canadian Forces, and are put in the combat infantry battalions, and the combat engineers, essentially as cannon fodder for a war created by corporate America, in the illusive and non-winnable war in Afghanistan. Nationalism and patriotism, and a false form of democratic idealism costs lives of thousands of people. The current war effort to pacify and democratize Afghanistan is one such war, and the costs will be as lasting as World War I was for our forefathers.
John Eldredge speaks of the heart of a man, about what it means to be a man. He speaks of a life of an adventure to be lived (the “wild at heart”) where a man needs his space, often outside of himself, the playful adventurous side that was left behind in boyhood. He speaks of a battle to be won, where man can find a purpose bigger than himself, a noble cause for which to sacrifice and to give of oneself. He speaks too, of a woman to be loved and cherished. All three help to define what it means to be a man. Watching Passchendaele made me think of Eldredge and his book Wild At Heart. I kind of wonder if there are any of these elements that are worth fighting for. Is worth anything to actually take the lives of others? Is death and carnage a necessary evil? How does a Christian man engage in a noble cause, and how noble can it be to actually be involved in the taking of lives of others?
In the film, the main character, Michael Dunne is shellshocked from an intense battle in World War I. He is sent home to Canada where is he recovers from injuries, and tries to put his life back together. He falls in love with the nurse who helped him recover in the hospital. This nurse’s brother, enlists in the army, even though he has asthma. The young man has been denied entry into the army, and has fallen in love with an upper middleclass daughter of a local physician, who essentially tells the young man to prove himself by enlisting in the army. The physician falsifies the medical certificate, and the lad enlists. The main character out of love for the lad’s sister, re-enlists under a different name, in order to protect the life of the young man. He does all this out of love and devotion. You see this theme in the film, the sacrificing of oneself for another. The setting for all this is Passchendaele (the third Battle of Ypres, July – November 1917), the second of Canada’s Candian Corps notable victory after Vimy Ridge (Easter, April, 1917), under the command of Gen. Currie.
It is that saddest of all ironies, that the brotherhood of soldiers all share. No matter what war, how great the conflict, no matter what nation is fighting, the soldiers, the ones doing the surviving and the killing, they all share a common bond. They fight for themselves (self preservation) and they fight for each other. I have spoken to World War I and World War II vets, as well as vets of the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. If they were not drafted, most volunteered out of a desire for adventure, as well as a career. Most who were able to fight in battles (with long lapses of boredom between engagements) did so out of a mode of self preservation, and defending their comrades. Most did not think of family, other than wishing the fighting was over, so they could go home, away from all the death and carnage. They all spoke of no glory in war, and the waste of lives and the futility of it all. All this led me to eventually become a pacifist. I had spent eight years of my life in the infantry, and I find nothing noble in war, but war does reveal character and t
he nobility of man as well as the depravity of man, in the inhumanity of man toward another man.
This film reveals that nobility as well as the depravity, and the carnage of battle. It reveals the desire to redeem oneself from actions done in the past, hoping to erase the psychological scarring that taking the life of another does to the mind of man. All this was very well portrayed and quite telling.
The film portrays all the various reasons for enlisting in the military adventure, and all its tragic consequences. I had my own flashbacks of the ineptitude of officers I have known, and the bad tactical decisions made in combat situations, even in training. I came away from it all just as much convinced that war is so destructive not only of the ones who die and lose their life and property, but even more so of those who survive, deeply scarred for life. All that carnage done in the name of ideology, political expediency, in the name nationalism and patriotism.
If nationalism and patriotism is reduced to sacrificing all that we hold dear in order to inflict harm and destruction on another, then that means I can no longer call myself a patriot. I refuse to wrap myself in my national flag. I refuse to take the life of another. I refuse to so serve the state, that I blindly believe and do what it tells me to do. I choose life. I choose to be a man who will choose his battles, and that battle is a battle to erradicate the need for war, the need for armies of mass destruction. I choose to love my wife and my daughters, and to protect them from harm and injury, without the need to resort to violence toward another. Would I kill another to protect them? I can only say, that I would do what needs to be done to avoid such a scenario. I know how to kill.
I taught hand to hand combat and close combat and unarmed combat tactics and techniques. I know how to kill using my bare hands. Do I want to resort to that? No, I don’t. If I had to sacrifice my own life, to protect my wife and daughters, I would lay it down. But I won’t take the life of another person. Could I be pushed enough or respond harshly to the threat on them? Very likely could. But I pray that God would give me the insight, the courage and strength to lead my wife and daughters to security, and to face the enemy alone, at which point I would likely die, for I could not and would not strike an enemy to save my own life. Fifteen years ago, I would have repudiated such an act. I would have defended first strike, and self-defence. Not any longer. I am a changed man, and I am no coward. I just see things much differently than before. I have a love for whom my nation calls “enemies” for I see them as Christ sees them, and not as the ministry of propaganda tells me to see them.
So this movie brings much to mind. It also reveals to me how much I have changed, and how much I loathe the war in Afghanistan and Canada’s role there. As a man who wants to see nobility and service to a cause greater than himself, I find none of that in this conflict. A hundred Candian lives lost, families and loved ones empoverished by a Canadian government hoodwinked by the United States and the blackmailing of NATO, into a conflict that sees no end and only more death and destruction. Perhaps the greatest fight, worth fighting for, in the words of Eldrege is the fight to end Canada’s part in it. Perhaps honoring the soldiers and their families, by bringing them home as quickly as possible. That is where my heart is, even more so, after watching this film.
This movie reveals all sides of our character and our motives, and reveals the political expediency in promoting war through nationalism and patriotism. It is worth watching, if for no other reason, that its message is as resounding today as it was in 1917. Man’s inability to move beyond the use of force and violence still reigns supreme, just as Von Clausewitz said, “War is simple diplomacy by other means.” Sadly it is true, and the cost in human lives is devastating. As a man, wanting to protect another, it is a good and noble thing. Taking another human life to do so, it may appear to be neccesary and justified, but that act alone is neither noble nor good. It just reveals our depravity and need of God all the more.