Lest we forget: 25 years ago a genocidal massacre in Rwanda started. Nearly a million killed in 100 days. Here is what it was like, a couple months after it ended, at one killing site. A church and school in Zaza in south-east Rwanda.
I know that we’re going to see a well…
We get to the wells, They’re side by side. You can stand right on the lip of the well, if you’re brave enough.
‘Please remember, don’t cross over the slab. And don’t fall in! Please!’
We have some soldiers with us. Airborne guys from one Grizzly that was travelling with us. So when I’m coming up to the well, there’s already ten or fifteen people already milling around. Some are retching. I realize that this is the well. This is the well lip. These are the bodies.
They’re not right on the surface, they’re maybe ten feet below and there’s water in there and there’s probably five bodies that we can see. I don’t know what’s underneath, I don’t want to know.
I see a woman sprawled out, face up. She has – I don’t notice it at first – but she’s got a silver bracelet on. It’s hard to see. It was kind in the shadows. Her hand was at the side of the well. I couldn’t really make it out but it was a close-fitting silver bracelet.
‘Why do you remark on the bracelet?’
Because it wasn’t a naked dehumanized corpse. She had something that obviously she found pretty or that had meaning for her. Something that she used to dress herself up with. She was a human who had, you know, probably had liked pretty dresses, and pretty cloth and jewellery. And it was still on her. Nothing else was. It showed that she’d been alive.
The well was at a school in Zaza…
We’re stepping over four or five inches of broken glass, of wood, of nails. The bodies had all been destroyed one way or another. The place had been burned, I guess to try to get rid of the evidence.
‘The room over there was somewhat of a torture chamber.’
‘It must have been rooms for students. Look at this book. This is children’s writing. In Kinyarwanda, English, French. They were learning to cook. This one – how the flowers grow, with drawings of flowers. These are children’s books that they used to study with.’
‘How many were killed?’
‘Some estimate over a thousand people. In here there must have been lots of murders because you can still smell the smell but you can’t see any bodies.’
We go into these rooms…
They’re dark and there’s black stuff stuck to the floors and the walls. If you had a wall with chewing gum stuck on it and then burned, that’s what it would look like.
‘All of this on the walls, from the experts that have been with us, this stuff here is human tissue, bone matter, skin. And then it was burned.’
‘There’s bullet holes right up the wall.’
‘I wonder what this tool is. Well, it’s a farming tool but I bet you they used it to hack people with. So these people here obviously suffered. Jesus, it was not an easy death. That, there, must be bone matter too.’
‘There’s a pile over there – there’s a chapel with a pile of bones, human bones, children’s bones. And it was burned. So they made kind of a camp fire to stay warm at night.’
As you walk in, on the wall that’s on your left, there’s a big dark brown stain, low on the wall. And then coming up from it, going up in an arc, a splattered arc, curving to the left above this blob, there’s dark splatters of blood. And also curving to the right there’s another arc of splatters.
‘Look at this arc, how high it is. And it’s in kind of a v-shape, eh? So the person who was standing here. It’s like somebody was with a paintbrush, whipping it.’
Somebody was macheted here…
Where their body was is the large stain. You can see where they would have been chopped in one side of the neck and that would have produced that arc. And they would have been chopped on the other side and that would have produced that arc.
I can imagine this, I can look at what’s the indicators of this death. A kid or an adult crouched there. With their head down, trying to protect themselves. And I can see a hand with a machete. Hacking, hacking, hacking. But I can’t attach that arm to anything.
‘Can you put a face on the person that did this?’
No, I can’t. No, I can’t put a face on the people that did that. I don’t think that I could put a face of a monster on. It would be the face of anybody, I think.
I took no pictures of the room described here. It was too dark, too hideous. There was nothing left except trace evidence. That was almost worse.
Tap or click the pictures to enlarge them. The “voices” in the text are mine, the documentary producer, and Canadian Forces officers in the room in Zaza. It is from Rwanda Maps, for CBC Radio Newfoundland. I took the photographs for myself, to remember.
Also see my post Rwanda. You can listen to Lt.-Gen. (Retd) Roméo Dallaire on today’s CBC Sunday Edition.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, July 1st is Memorial Day. It’s been that longer than it’s been Canada Day. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. But July 1st has had special significance for 99 years, since 1916.
On July 1st 1916, 801 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont Hamel in France, part of the Battle of the Somme. Only 68 answered roll call July 2nd. Of the rest, about half were killed or missing and the other half wounded.
After Beaumont Hamel
The Regiment quickly regrouped and continued fighting, six weeks later at Flanders then back in the Somme. After the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, they were honoured by King George V and renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The casualties of the First World War for Newfoundland soldiers and sailors were about 1,500 killed and 2,500 wounded. A huge chunk out of a whole generation. And a huge public debt for financing that war effort: about 10 million dollars plus pensions for veterans.
The price of fish dropped in the 1920s, followed by the depression of the 1930s. Debt, deprivation and instability led in 1933 to Newfoundland giving up self-government in favour of direct rule by Great Britain, in a Commission of Government. Another 15 years of debating how Newfoundland would be governed and by whom. Another world war to which Newfoundland again sent troops. And in 1948 a referendum, narrowly won by those who wanted to join Canada.
So July 1st is now a day of national celebration in Newfoundland and Labrador, just as it is on the mainland. But it’s a sombre day as well. It’s the day to mourn, remember and honour the men known as The Blue Puttees and their proud country.
If you haven’t already, read Kevin Major’s 1995 novel No Man’s Land.
A 1988 interview with Ronald Dunn, a veteran of Beaumont Hamel pictured above, is here.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: that’s the explanation I come up with for why World War I started. Virtually the entire world became embroiled in war due to one disorganized act of violence in Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife was the politically small spark that lit big militaristic hopes and expansionist dreams.
WWI historian David Stevenson said on CBC’s Sunday Edition that negotiation and compromise could have averted war. No one imagined it would be a four-year-long worldwide bloodbath. Would they have been more cautious if they had?
According to Margaret McMillan in The War that Ended Peace, the 19th century had been peaceful between nations in Europe. Conflicts were internal, distant or between specific nations. General war in Europe was not something even the eldest person alive in 1900 had experienced. There were no memories setting off warning bells.
In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman quotes the former German Chancellor in 1916 saying, “How did it all happen?” Then-Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg replied, “Ah, if only one knew.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, having recently read Tuchman’s book, President John F. Kennedy told his brother Bobby that he didn’t want somebody writing that about him in years hence. He reached a settlement with Russia. A veteran himself with a brother killed in WWII, Kennedy had memories of war.
A Family War
WWI was a family war, not just for those with loved ones fighting, but for the protagonists. The heads of the three major participant nations were cousins. Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V were grandchildren of Queen Victoria, as was Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. The mothers of George V and Tsar Nicholas II were sisters. The Kaiser and Tsar were 2nd cousins. All had been friends since childhood. But once declarations of war started, they couldn’t help each other.
Nations piled in like a bar fight. To help friends, attack enemies, make a score, settle a score. Some had no choice: imperial powers immediately brought in their colonies. Very few remained neutral.
The end of every fight might lay the seeds for the next. The terms of peace in 1919 made The War to End All Wars become The War that Caused World War II. It also redrew the world’s map, ended monarchies, birthed the Soviet Union and led to the end of colonialism.
The valour of those who fought and those who mended the damage got done what had been started. But most likely they all asked themselves the Chancellor’s question, “how did it all happen?” The estimated 16 million military and civilian war dead never got an answer.
Bill Smallwood takes a complicated period of history and makes it more complicated – and that’s good. The Acadians, the first novel in his Abuse of Power series starts in 1749 with the British looking for a site to build a fort in Nova Scotia. They choose a harbour they rename Halifax. It ends in 1757 with British soldiers and sailors choosing tracts of “unoccupied” Nova Scotia land to homestead. The Acadians have been deported and the Mi’kmaq are being ‘cleared’ off their lands. The French have been driven back, and Nova Scotia is open for British business.
The facts of it: war between the French and British for control of North America, deportation of long-time Acadian settlers to France and the future United States, and war with and suppression of First Nations. We know these things from living in the Maritimes or reading history. By situating the facts in a story, Smallwood brings them to life and explains the intricacies of ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘why’.
Connecting the dots of history
I have read a lot about the colonization of North America and the history of the Mi’kmaq and Acadians. I have been to Halifax many times and traveled around Nova Scotia. So I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the history and geography of the region. But this book made so many things click into place for me. Instead of a spreadsheet of facts, the story gave me a flow of events, places and reasons. The dots were connected.
The main character in The Acadians is William Gray who was in real life a clerk to Governor Cornwallis. Smallwood promotes him to British Navy Lieutenant in order to permit him to travel to the extent he does and be privy to the discussions that he is. But it is not only from his perspective that we look. We get to know all the players involved; British, colonial American, French, Acadian and Mi’kmaq. Fear and confusion, bravery and avarice – we see the emotions and actions of all sides. Only the Mi’kmaq remain relatively unknown to us, and I’m sure that is remedied in later volumes.
Smallwood lets history shape story
It is history that shaped Smallwood’s story and character rather than the other way around. Most of his characters are real people. Events are based on letters, logs and other documentation of the time. When he creates or alters events or characters, he explains why and gives what is actually known in notes. So you can become involved in the story and also keep track of the real events. He references his sources and changes in chapter endnotes.
My only quibble is that footnotes would save having to flick to the end of the chapter each time. You can, of course, ignore the notes but they contain archival sources as well as additional bits of information, quotes from letters and official records as well as the points at which history and this story deviate. That, I found, adds to the story.
The Acadians, 1749-1757 is the first of seven in the Abuse of Power series: The Colonials and the Acadians, 1757-1761; Crooked Paths, 1755-1862; The Planters, 1761-1921; Expulsion and Survival, 1758-1902; Rebels, Royalists and Railroaders, 1841-1910, and Lives of Courage. You can read more at Mr. Smallwood’s publisher Borealis.
Sadly, Mr. Smallwood passed away on May 7, 2019. Here is his obituary. The 8th, and final, book in his series is published.
– by Jim Stewart, originally published on the STDOA website
The WWII story of Sergeant Gander is one of courage, companionship, and sacrifice. Gander was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal in 2000. Sgt. Gander, a Newfoundland dog, and other animals who served in Canada’s military are recognized on the Veterans Affairs Canada webpage. A grenade killed Sgt. Gander. He grabbed it and ran, taking it away from his men. It took his life when it exploded, but his action saved many.
The book Sergeant Gander: A Canadian Hero, by St. Thomas’ own Robyn Walker, is called “a fascinating account of the Royal Rifles of Canada’s canine mascot, and his devotion to duty during the Battle of Hong Kong in the Second World War”. Intended for children, it is very informative for anyone interested in Newfoundland dogs, Newfoundland or Canada’s role in WWII.
The Dickin Medal, at left, has been awarded to heroic animals by the UK’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) since 1914. It has an amazing history and the list of recipients includes dogs, pigeons, cats, and horses. It is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
Judy, a British WWII dog (at right wearing her Dickin Medal), was the only dog to ever officially be listed as a Prisoner of War in a Japanese prison camp. First brought onboard HMS Gnat at a mascot, she proved invaluable in alerting the crew to dangers nearby.
Damien Lewis wrote about her and her partner Frank Williams in Judy: A dog in a million. (Here is an Amazon link to it and other books about her.) Mr. Williams and his wife and children settled in British Columbia in the 1950s. His family’s website tells about his life and Judy’s, and plans to make their story into a movie. (“A Tribute…”)
Flanders Fields’ Bonfire, WWI
Another faithful four legged friend who served in war was the horse Bonfire. Bonfire is shown here with John McCrae, born in Guelph, Ontario, who served as a field surgeon with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War I. The misery the two of them saw is hard to imagine. McCrae, who would become a Lieutenant Colonel, never returned to Canada, having passed away in 1918 from pneumonia. He was buried in France with full military honours. His flag-draped coffin was borne on a gun carriage and his mourners, who included Sir Arthur Currie and many of McCrae’s friends and staff, were preceded by Bonfire. McCrae’s boots were reversed in the stirrups. John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields.
Eli and Colton Rusk, Afghanistan
“Fallen Marine’s parents adopt son’s bomb dog” read the headlines Feb. 2, 2011. In only the 2nd time that a US military dog has been adopted by the family of a handler killed in action, Eli’s leash was handed to Darrell Rusk, his wife and two sons who crouched down to hug and pet Eli, who lifted his paw. Because Eli was still considered operational, the adoption was approved with special permission of the Sec. of the Navy. Eli will join the other dogs on the Rusk ranch in Texas.
Eli was assigned to Rusk in May, 2010. On duty in Afghanistan, the two quickly grew inseparable. Military dogs are supposed to sleep in kennels when deployed. But Rusk broke the rules and let Eli curl up with him on his cot. He shared his meals with him. “What’s mine is his” wrote Rusk.
The day a sniper killed Colton Rusk, Eli was the first to reach his body. So loyal, he snapped at other Marines who rushed to his fallen handler. They had already found two roadside bombs that day, and had stopped when a vehicle had run over a third. Rusk was shot after the soldiers stopped to secure the area. Pfc. Colton Rusk was 20 years old.
One of them, in the photo on the left, is Balto. He was the lead husky in the dog team that ran the final leg of a run across Alaska to Nome in 1925. The teams were bringing serum to combat a diphtheria epidemic in the town.
The run made by these dogs and men is now commemorated in the annual Iditarod race.
Smoky – “Four pounds of courage”
Smoky was found by an American soldier in an abandoned foxhole in the New Guinea jungle in 1944. She was sold to Corporal Bill Wynne for two Australian pounds so her owner could return to his poker game. For the next two years Smoky traveled with Wynne, even on combat flights over the Pacific. Wynne was with the 26th Photo Recon Squadron and went everywhere – jungle and air – and was credited with being on twelve missions. Smoky was on all of them.
Wynne credited Smoky with saving his life by warning him of incoming shells on a transport ship, calling her an “angel from a foxhole”. Smoky guided Wynne to duck the fire that hit the eight men standing next to them.
In down time, Smoky learned numerous tricks, which she performed for the entertainment of the other troops with Special Services and in hospitals from Australia to Korea. With Wynne, Smoky developed a repertoire beyond that of any dog of her day. In 1944 Yank Down Under magazine named Smoky the “Champion Mascot in the Southwest Pacific Area.” Smoky would later, after the war, perform in 42 live-television shows without repeating a trick.
From Bill Wynne’s website he tells us that, having had six lessons in obedience training in Cleveland in 1942, his experience when he obtained the four pound Yorkie in New Guinea was indeed limited. But soon Smoky was ‘playing dead’ and weaving between Bill’s legs as he walked along. She learned to walk on a drum and peddle a scooter made from an orange crate. And she was soon walking on a tight wire blindfolded.
Smoky lays wire
Smoky’s tricks made her a war hero in her own right. She helped when engineers built an airbase. They had to run a telegraph wire through 70 feet of pipe, which had shifted in spots. It was quite the moment when she emerged from the other end of the pipe with the string that had the wire attached. Her “trick” saved three days work as well as men being exposed on the runway in a very dangerous situation.
For most people, her ultimate trick was spelling her name out of letters by actual recognition, no matter how they were placed. Smoky and Bill performed for their buddies and at Army and Navy Hospitals. Many of her tricks are used today in agility trials. She and Bill were in show business for 10 years after the war doing the tricks Smoky learned overseas, all set to music. Bill also worked in Hollywood for a short time after the war, training and handling dogs in major movie studios.
First therapy dog
According to Wikipedia, Animal Planet determined that Smoky was the first therapy dog of record. Her service in this arena began in July 1944 at the 233rd Station Hospital, in New Guinea, where she accompanied nurses to see the incoming battlefield casualties from the Biak Island invasion. Smoky was already a celebrity of sorts, as her photograph was in Yank Down Under magazine at the same time, which made it easy to get permission. Dr. Charles Mayo, of the famed Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer who allowed Smoky to go on rounds. He also permitted her to sleep with Wynne in his hospital bed for five nights. Smoky’s work as a therapy dog continued for 12 years, during and after World War II.
After the war Wynne brought Smoky back to Cleveland to live with his family. In Cleveland, Wynne and Smoky were featured in a page one story with pictures, and Smoky soon become a national sensation. Over the next 10 years Smoky and Wynne traveled to Hollywood and all over the world to perform demonstrations of her remarkable skills. She appeared with Wynne on some of the earliest TV shows in the Cleveland area. They also had a show of their own, Castles in the Air, on Cleveland’s WKYC Channel 3. They were especially popular as entertainers at the veterans’ hospitals. According to Wynne, “after the War, Smoky entertained millions during the late 40s and early 50s.”
In 1957, at age 14, Smoky passed away unexpectedly. Wynne and his family buried Smoky in a World War II .30 caliber ammo box. Nearly 50 years later, on Veterans Day, November 11, 2005, a bronze life-size statue of Smoky sitting in a GI helmet atop a two-ton granite base was unveiled. The monument is dedicated to:
“Smoky, the Yorkie Doodle Dandy, and Dogs of All Wars”
Bill retired after 50 years of professional photography. After his experience in the 26th Photo Recon Squadron, he spent 7 years with the National Advisory Committee For Aeronautics (now NASA). He flew on research missions and worked on research programs that tested and developed equipment still used in modern aircraft today. Bill then worked as a photo journalist and photographer/writer with the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 31 years. He returned to NASA for four more years before retiring to write Yorkie Doodle Dandy, a memoir about his war experiences and Smoky.
United States War Dogs Association
War Dog adoption requests rose following the Bin Laden mission. Great interest is now on this topic. Are retired war dogs the new “hot” dog choice? The website United States War Dogs Association has a lot of research and information. You can turn the music off, too. There’s info on the modeling session and the finished scale model of the project they are working on. It is the U.S. War Dog Memorial to be located on the grounds of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Jersey.
The War Dogs Association website has lots of information and personal stories such as the one pictured here – Who Let the Dogs Out? – about the Vietnam era. It also has a War Dog Heroes page, and info on books about dogs in war.
One book it mentions, Always Faithful, is about Marine dogs of WWII. The story is told by retired Marine Corps captain and veterinarian, Bill Putney, who “writes a moving and heartrending account of his days as commander of the 3rd Marine War Dog Platoon, in which some 72 dogs and their handlers were his responsibility.”
Belgian Malinois or German Shepherd?
The Navy Seal team that took down Osama Bin Laden included one dog. Like other members of the Seal team, the identity is kept secret, including the breed at this point. The Seals have long favoured Newfoundland dogs. But a smaller breed, including one trained to sniff out explosives or booby trapped, may have been used, especially if the dog was strapped to the trainer and dropped from a helicopter into a desert compound.
Interesting coverage of the speculation surrounding which breed and other info is on Global Animal, which includes some other sources too. PS: The claim by one source that some trained military dogs have titanium teeth at a cost of $2000 each has not been verified. But that hasn’t stopped the story from spreading.
‘Vapor Wake’ trained dogs being used in NYC
In a new twist on combating terrorism, dogs specially trained to detect a ‘vapor wake’ left by explosives are starting to be used in the New York City subway system. Shown above is Rachel during a trial run at Grand Central Station. According to the article, it costs $20,000 to to breed and train these animals. Normal bomb-sniffing dogs are trained to find explosives that are stationary. But dogs like Rachel are trained to detect a moving scent.
Looking after the Dogs in War
Here’s something you don’t see in the Sears or Eaton’s catalogue: Dog Gear from K9 Storm Inc., a Canadian company that was awarded an $86,000 contract by U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group. The dog pictured above is wearing a K9 Storm Aerial Insertion Vest, which is part of their catalogue.
The photos above are from a photo essay at foreignpolicy.com. Great info with the pics too.
And as with any war action, there are wounds and casualties. The Holland Working Dog (MWD) Veterinary Hospital is established to handle the special cases that arise from military action. The hospital was named in memory of Lt. Col. Daniel Holland, killed in Iraq in 2006, the first Army veterinarian to be killed in action since the Vietnam War. The dog shown above is Taker, who is thankfully getting nothing more serious than a root canal (photo from Foreign Policy). And below – a bit of history for you from a 1935 Popular Science article.
Remembrance Day in St. Thomas, 2011
Remembrance Day ceremonies took place at the Boy Soldier Memorial in front of the St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital in St. Thomas. Despite the cold wind, there was a good turnout of people who paid their quiet respects to those who have made our society possible.
Today marks a bizarre incident in Canadian history. Irish-Americans invaded Canada, planning to hold it hostage as leverage to end British rule in Ireland. My family’s farmhouse was smack-dab in the middle of what became known as the Battle of Ridgeway. Reading about it, the threads I picked up led far into North American and Anglo-British political and cultural history.
June 2, 1866, soldiers of the US-based Fenian Brotherhood met Canadian militia at a limestone ridge near Ridgeway west of Fort Erie, Ontario. It was a kind of “who’s on first?” fight. The Canadians had no horses to pull ammunition wagons so only had what they could carry. The Fenians had dumped much of their ammunition because it had got too heavy after a day of carrying it all. Information and communication on both sides were misinterpreted, resulting in costly mistakes.
“Skilled in the arts of war”
The Fenians were American Civil War veterans, straight from battle. The Canadians, however, were volunteer part-time militia who had never seen action. Due to budget constraints, many had never fired a live round.
At the end of the day, both sides had dead and wounded. The Fenians, who wanted to move west, were pushed back east to Fort Erie. But then the Canadians retreated. The Fenians celebrated their victory and planned their next move. And then they saw US gunboats in the Niagara River pointed at them. American and Canadian authorities picked them up and imprisoned them briefly.
“We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war. And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore. Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue. And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.”
Their marching song pretty much explains the Fenians. They had finished fighting in the Union Army just a year before. While the country tried to pick up the pieces after the devastation of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, the Irish-Americans were looking at the troubles in the homeland they had been forced to leave. The US government knew the Fenian plan but ignored it until the last minute. Their action might provide leverage for US negotiations with Britain as well. Indeed, on June 6, Britain paid the US $15 million for war damages caused by its commerce with the Confederacy and the US enacted laws to stop acts of aggression from within its borders.
Celebrated only by Ireland
In Britain, they downplayed it because technically it was a British military loss to the Irish, the first in over 100 years. In Ireland, they celebrated it for the same reason. Fifty years later in Ireland, the name of the Fenian Brotherhood’s invading force was resurrected: the Irish Republican Army.
In Canada, the government downplayed the battle because it was a military loss with significant casualties. At the same time, they were debating confederation of the four provinces. That spring’s Fenian campaign of raids (in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario) convinced enough people that, individually, each was more vulnerable than if they united. In 1867 the vote was for Confederation. That same year, Alexander Muir, a veteran of Ridgeway wrote The Maple Leaf Forever, long an unofficial anthem.
The date of the battle was chosen in 1890 as Decoration Day, commemorating Canada’s war dead. That stood until 1931 when November 11th replaced it as Remembrance Day. The date and story of the Battle of Ridgeway faded into obscurity.
The Anger house, at the corner of Ridge and Bertie roads, holds its memories of that day. The shed that served as a field hospital still stands and the brickwork of the house is scarred by bullet holes. (Also see Anger by name…)
For more, see Peter Vronsky’sRidgeway. Other good accounts are:
“Where have all the flowers gone, and the young men gone for soldiers every one.” Pete Seeger’s song. The death of that great warrior for peace made me think also about those for whom he became a teacher, the generation born during and soon after World War II.
Called “entitled” now, they are believed (often even by themselves) to have sold out. They were revolutionary proclaimers of a new age of peace and love. Now their children and pundits say they have “dropped the ball,” upgrading their Beemers instead of the world. But not one, I dare say, is unmoved today, thinking about Pete Seeger. Born in 1919, Mr. Seeger was a parent to the “flower children,” and throughout his long life he passed his mission for peace and justice on to their children and grandchildren.
Listening to him sing, I thought of the Vietnam War. Today, we care about veterans, old and young. PTSD is a recognized issue for soldiers and effective methods of treatment are sought and tried. We nod thanks to soldiers and display bumper stickers of support. We honour World War II veterans. Even Korean War vets have been brought in from the cold, so to speak, acknowledged and thanked for their contribution.
But Vietnam vets? It’s a different story for them. It’s still relatively recent history – lived by many still among us. But, I think, the extent of its devastation remains overlooked. It caused the greatest rupture within America since the Civil War. It divided society and families. And we everywhere could watch it unfold, and judge. Combatants in the war about Vietnam were killed overseas and at home. But now, after 40 years, it is remembered in popular culture as a war of drugs and rock and roll and reluctant soldiers.
That last observation is the nub of the issue, perhaps. Vietnam was the last war fought with conscripted soldiers. Thousands of young men fled their country to avoid it, thousands went to jail, thousands found Jesus or any excuse that would get them conscientious objector status. Many completed university degrees that otherwise they might not have sought: it was a way to defer the draft. Until the loophole was closed, the Peace Corps probably got many more recruits for its overseas development work than it would have in normal times.
And the poor schmucks who couldn’t escape or chose not to? Only they know what they endured during their tours of duty. But all of us old enough to be sentient at the time know what they endured when they returned. They were reviled. Few parades or ‘thank you for going through hell’ for them. They were spat upon and called ‘baby-killers’.
Those who went to Vietnam, and those who didn’t, all suffered. Veterans suffered because of what they endured there, and the reception they received upon return. Draft dodgers suffered because a) of guilt for escaping while others, including their friends, did not, and b) they left their homes for years, maybe forever, evading FBI and military police. Those who took what they hoped would be a tolerable option, such as medic, were still traumatized by what they had to patch up.
PTSD for all
No one won in that war. No matter which ‘side’ you were on, it was traumatic then and caused lingering pain, guilt and/or regret afterward. For many, the drugs that got them through Vietnam or the anti-war movement at home stayed with them afterward. They helped living with the memories or became a burdensome souvenir. The casualties of the Vietnam War still have not stopped. And yet the horror of it, and the opposition to it, is not talked about all that much. It’s become part and parcel of psychedelic imagery of bell-bottoms, flowers, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and, yes, Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome.
PTSD had long been known of course: shell shock, ‘he’s never been the same since’. But it was something you were supposed to get yourself over: put it behind you and get on with your life. The parents of the Vietnam era lived through World War II. They knew what it was to fight, and what it was like to get news of your war dead. Like their parents who had gone through the “Great War”, you went if your country called, like it or not. The WWII fathers knew they had stopped a monster and an invasion. Yet here were their sons saying “hell no, we won’t go.”
Duck and Cover
But perhaps those parents didn’t realize that their children had grown up convinced they wouldn’t see adulthood. It was hard to think of ‘battleground valour’ after years of “Duck and Cover” school drills in case of atomic bomb attack. Maybe their awareness that war is hell and no one comes out unscathed led to greater concern with the psychological well-being of veterans now.
And that, children of the Baby Boomers, is what your daddy did in the war. If he doesn’t talk much about it, preferring to blast his eardrums with the Rolling Stones, you might think about why that is. He lived through a time of war never before or since replicated in North American history, whether or not he has a service medal. By the way, Pete Seeger also was a veteran of the US Army in the Pacific in WWII.
Poems and song lyrics are from War Poetry – some wonderful writing.
My dad had a whole collection of poppies. Mom kept the ones that we bought every year and pinned them on the top of a wallhanging in the dining room. Every November, Dad would just take one off the hanging and pin it to his jacket. When I commented that annual poppy sale money supported the Legion, he said “I was in the war. I don’t need to give my money every year to those old farts.”
He had a point. And since then, I’ve looked carefully at the poppies worn by people old enough to be WWII veterans. Are they, like Dad, wearing poppies with green centres, years after black-centred ones replaced the green? Do their poppies look like they themselves had been through the wars, as some of Dad’s did? When I do see a battered old poppy on an old fella, I smile, happy to think there’s someone who shares Dad’s philosophy.
But for the rest of us who haven’t paid for poppies with the currency of our lives, we owe it to those who have, and are, to put money in the collection boxes every year. If, like me, you lose your poppy or wear a different jacket – well, buy another one!
White or red poppies
A white poppy movement started a few years after the red poppies appeared – so that people could honour war casualties, civilian and soldier, without honouring the act of war. I suppose that’s ok. There was a time in my life when I felt conflicted about buying or wearing a poppy. It seemed like it was giving positive sanction to war to do so. I even lectured a couple young cadets once when they were selling apples to raise money. “I won’t buy your apple because I don’t support the war machine” I told them. Oh, how absolutely pretentious was I!
I’d read soldiers saying that, in war, their primary concern was with the survival of each other. They were fighting for their own and their comrades’ lives. Hooey, I thought back then, you wouldn’t have to worry about that if you’d just said “no to war” and not enlisted or accepted your draft call.
But after getting to know some soldiers, I realized that there are many reasons why people end up in the Armed Forces and few of those reasons involve wanting to fight. But that possibility is real, and is accepted as part of the job. When it happens, whether in war or peace-keeping missions, the danger is faced and bravery kicks in. They do, every day, put their lives on the line. They want to do their jobs well, stay alive and keep their buddies unharmed.
War itself may be a vicious response to international problems, but when it happens, it’s good that there are men and women who do the job that’s necessary to end it. And they may well pay with their blood. And it’s their blood that is honoured by the red of the poppy.
In 1814 we took a little trip – Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
The Americans won the Battle of New Orleans, but not the war. The War of 1812 was ended by the Treaty of Ghent, signed December 24th 1814, and Canada was still Canada, not part of the US. The Americans did get this wonderful song written by Jimmy Driftwood, an Arkansas school teacher, and made a hit by Johnny Horton in 1959. They also got their national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, written for the flag atop Fort McHenry that survived the British attack on Baltimore. The 1814 Battle of Baltimore followed upon the burning of Washington DC, including the White House, by the British.
The Americans wanted to take over Canada and get Britain totally out of North America. They thought it would be easy, with the British already involved in the Napoleonic Wars. It didn’t quite work out. The British weren’t going to easily let go of more North American territory.
The UEL settlers of Upper Canada had made their political position clear when they left the United States after the War of Independence and they weren’t inclined to come under US rule again. First Nations on both sides of the border, for the most part, fought with the British because they had promised a neutral Indian land in the mid-west. One of them was John Smoke Johnson, a Mohawk chief from Six Nations near Brantford, maybe related through marriage to my family. He’s on the left in this 1882 photo of the last Mohawk veterans of the War of 1812.
After 1812 – same as before
In the end, not much changed after 1814. Geopolitical lines were restored to pre-war status in the Treaty of Ghent. But Canada got a new sense of nationhood from fighting a war for our land. The US didn’t lose or cede any land to the British, so claimed it as a victory. The First Nations did not get their promised land, which stayed in the hands of the US. And they were not given an independent homeland elsewhere in Canada. Some moved north to Canada, hoping for better conditions with their military allies. By fighting with the British, they had burned their bridges with the American administration, and it came down even harder on them.
But the British and Canadian governments didn’t keep their territorial promises. Having defeated US encroachment, Canada believed there was no longer need of First Nations as military allies. They became irrelevant to Canadian plans and were treated either as “wards” to be cared for or obstacles to development.
Tecumseh, the Shawnee war leader and politician, had been the main force behind the plan for an independent homeland. He was killed October 5th 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ontario.
West of London there is what’s now a beautiful wooded park. It was the site of the Battle of Longwoods, where, this weekend May 5th and 6th, there will be a reenactment of that battle. I hope Tecumseh’s spirit watches over it and all the reenactments this centenary year – remembering what might have been, what should have been.
If you had the sad job of picking the topic of the last novel you would write, I don’t think you could choose better than Dick Francis did. Crossfire, co-written with son Felix and published in 2010 by Michael Joseph, is the final book in his long and illustrious career as a mystery novelist. Dick Francis died in 2010 at the age of 89.
Crossfire is a great story and a family effort. You don’t need to google anything to know the experiences of three generations of the family are in it. The horses, stables, races and racing industry amongst which Dick Francis lived are there, as usual. But our hero is a wounded Captain in the Grenadier Guards, recently returned from Afghanistan.
The authors’ thanks are given to Lieut. William Francis, Army Air Corps and Grenadier Guards, for his assistance. He is the grandson of Dick and son of Felix. So the horse and racing elements of a Dick Francis are there, as is information and insights about a different topic. This time, that other topic is the Afghanistan war and the physical and psychological realities of being injured by an explosive device. You see the trauma of being back home but having to deal with the injury and the sudden loss of your career and your passion – soldiering.
Dick Francis and family
The book is a tribute to Lieut. Francis and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere in war. It is also a tribute to Felix for carrying on his father’s work so well. And, of course, it’s a tribute to Dick Francis, master storyteller and steeplechase jockey. In his racing and writing, he has probably taught more people about the intricacies of horseracing than anyone else. And no matter what the villains of the piece do, the love Francis has for horses and his respect for their abilities and heart is always apparent.
Dick Francis’ books were written with the help of his family. His late wife, Mary, helped with research, writing and editing. Her interests and knowledge, such as in photography, were also reflected in the plots of some of his books. Felix, their younger son, helped his father with many of the books, taking an increasingly active part in the creation of the latter ones. The last three Dick Francis books are published with both Dick and Felix as co-authors.
After his father’s death, Felix has continued writing under his own name. I have not read his solo efforts yet but, based on the co-authored books, he learned well from his father. And with Crossfire, I feel I have got to know the family better. I am glad that they let me see the post-war feelings of a wounded veteran. They did it with a deft touch, put in here and there in a very good story of chicanery in the racing and investment businesses.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.