Originally published in Vancouver Observer on Nov. 10, 2010. Republished here intact for posterity.
Each Remembrance Day, I’m sure to put forth that there is significant importance in documenting the stories from those affected by war—from veterans and dodgers to widowers and pacifists.
By gathering the anecdotes and artifacts of war, we honour the noble efforts of regular folk in desperate circumstances. Further, we aid in the prevention of costly violent errors in the future by bearing witness and sharing what already know.
Nobility of Documentation
I feel there is great power in documentation and in gathering and sharing stories.
For me, the reasons for capturing memories are most clear around Remembrance Day when otherwise pacific elders are resplendent with dusty spangles, propped by stiffened knees, and tears are rather expected.
With the fading and guarded memories of veterans in mind, I extol the virtues of archiving the oral tradition and preserving the ephemera in attics and shoeboxes with the maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” in mind.
To my eyes, there is scant glory in the macro-reasons for war, but noble sadness (even wabi sabi in Japanese aesthetic terms), and I have utmost respect for the efforts made by the those who are obliged to participate in conflict – regardless of their roles or reasons.
Why I Gather
While wars go on, I would be a regrettable resister if I did not study, remix and share the stories of those at war, in years present and past. I’ve seen concentration camps near Muchen’s Oktoberfest and the rusted hulks of tanks reclaimed by jungles onPeleliu. I’ve dived amongst the leftover debris of dead sailors near Guam. I’ve sat with the winners and losers of wars and listened to stories from civilian employees, special ops and draft dodgers. All are equal to my ears.
Now, with the tactile poignancy of a brother in Afghanistan (expected home soon), who also toured Iraq, combined with a crust of cynicism from the recent US mid-term elections – and watching on-going domestic political squabbling while pragmatic advice is ignored and the fallen come home, I can offer no more reason to remember than the obvious. Flanders Field on endless loop, the narrative is still the same. No change, no evolution.
While my ballot apparently is not strong enough to spare lives, I can hope to change minds for the future by compiling the stories of those in the fray, both past and more recent.
Listen to Veterans
On this Remembrance Day, I’ve gathered two audio stories from wars, referred to anecdotally with names like the Great War, the Just War (and the Mistake War).
The first audio podcast features snippets from diaries written in the WWI trenches read by Ian Bell, the veteran’s grandson, on Remembrance Day – last year on the drizzly steps of the Library (with whiskey to keep us warm).
The second audio documentary includes musings from a US Navy officer who’d recently returned from Iraq. He doesn’t discuss the clumsy politics, weapons of missing destruction or casualties, but rather the everyday activities of eating and meeting locals.
Vimy Ridge Diaries on Remembrance Day
“On Remembrance Day in sunny, brisk Vancouver, Ian Bell (fresh from a CBC appearance “On The Coast“), joins Dave to read from Grandpa Mark’s diaries written in the trenches of WWI as a young Canadian. From the library steps with a flask of scotch, Ian and Dave reflect on the costs and motivations of war, the importance of friendship and the ethereal experience of going “over the top” and facing the terror on the other side. Their conversation features anecdotes about capturing Germans soldiers and a discourse on the importance of personal documentation to pass forward to generations.”
Vimy Ridge Diaries on Remembrance Day – Postcard # 61
Reconstructing Mesopotamia with Lt. Magnum
“With a US Naval Lieutenant at the table, Uncle Weed traces the history of the Tigris and Euphrates crescent and discusses the ground level experience of life in Iraq. Lt. Magnum explains his rebuilding mission to Kurdistan, plus his quests to various coalition bases including the Korean, Slovakian and Polish forces. Anecdotes includeHaliburton’s food, smoking hookah in Qatar, religious concessions, cables on marble walls, hiking the rolling hills and meeting local folks just getting by in a war-torn world.”
Reconstructing Mesopotamia with Lt. Magnum – Choogle On # 94
As for me, this year on November 11th I’ll be at another ceremony. Each year, I choose a new location.
Last year was UBC, the year before was Cates Park, the year before Victory Square.
This year maybe the Japanese cenotaph in Stanley Park or a parade in West Vancouver. You might find me listening to bagpipes and wondering why we are so slow to learn.
And I’ll have my recorder in my mitten to capture any answers from seasoned minds, capturing their words to share with the future in case anyone is listening.