As readers of this blog would know, I’ve been trying over the last couple of years to gain a better understanding of the two world wars. While I often marvel at the spectacle of war, the notion of it makes me sick…old men sending young men to die for ridiculous ends, equating war-making with jingoistic patriotism, etc. My attempt to understand it has already given me a better sense of how and why these wars unfolded, but what I’ve read has been a historical look back. I had little appreciation for what it must have felt like to a soldier. I count myself very fortunate that I’ve never been in or in any way near a war zone.
Our recent trip to France helped me get some of that perspective. The ground at Vimy still torn up from shelling. The long, exposed run at Juno Beach with nothing between you and a German bunker but luck and prayer. The trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, with enemies almost impossibly close together. In each of these places I stopped, tried to put myself in the place of a soldier, and each time felt nervous, even frightened. I actually got physically tense. I tried to imagine myself running up that beach or climbing the firing steps, and I’d get a lump in my throat. I kept thinking to myself, how could anyone do this? How could someone charge with shells exploding around and tracers whizzing past? Just typing this now the memory is still vivid, and the lump has come back.
Whatever atrocities are committed by front-line soldiers — and those atrocities are many — it’s not their choice to be there. The tragic, unfair, unholy situation in which they find themselves spurs some to evil, some to heroism, but most simply — incredibly — to bravery. Those are who we saw buried by the thousands in the valley of the Somme this summer, and whose names were etched on the side of the Vimy memorial. Those are who we remember today.