It’s Remembrance Day.
Which is both good and bad. Good because in and of itself, Remembrance Day is a good thing. Bad because some people just have a knack for taking a good thing and kind of ruining it.
While there will always be some who use it as a platform to further some political agenda, and others who wear a poppy out of nothing more than peer pressure, one thing is clear: Remembrance Day as experienced by many is often pretty far removed from the original intent of the whole thing.
But before I say another word, I do need to stop and realize that I am free to sit here and wax eloquent about this or that because a lot of people have made incredible sacrifices over the years, men and women to whom we all should be profoundly grateful. And I am.
I’ve always been fascinated by combat and war. Over the years, this fascination has matured from a kind of juvenile interest in guns and military hardware to a sombre and heavy-hearted appreciation for the incredible reality which is war. It is a place where the best and worst of humanity is seen in stark relief; and I don’t mean that one side is good and one side is bad.
The truth is that on the ground, despite the noble or evil actions and intentions of those far-removed leaders, courage and atrocity are not relegated to one side or the other. Moral and ethical ambiguity seems to overwhelm the idealistic black-and-white notions of many who enter these conflicts. And I don’t really know what to do with that.
At the end of the day, Hitler was still a tyrant and Churchill still did the right thing sending in the boys, even if that kind of moral clarity seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Nevertheless, one of the ways to really cut through the fluff and empty sentimentality that surrounds Remembrance Day is to take the time to read good books about war and combat. Allow me to recommend three books that I’ve read this year which deal with war and conflict in a deeply human and thought-provoking way.
1. Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers
I picked up a used copy of this classic for a dollar in a sleepy little town called Winter Harbour, Maine, while vacationing there this summer. It is the story of the six men who raised the American flag in the iconic picture seen here. It is written by the son of one of these men. It was engrossing, horrifying (literally nauseating at times), and a catalyst causing me to reflect on mortality and the brevity of life, on the nature of courage and bravery, and many other things. I highly recommend it.
2. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
This is a novel of the Vietnam war. It is written by Karl Marlantes, who is a Marine veteran. It really is a masterpiece as far as war fiction is concerned. It is about as different from a Tom Clancy-type thriller as you can imagine. It is gritty, real, and deeply human. Widely touted as a modern classic, I couldn’t agree more.
3. The Translator, by Daoud Hari
It’s a bit of a stretch to include this book on Remembrance Day, since as far as I know neither Canada nor the US is actively involved in the Darfur region, but one of the dangers when considering the wars of the past is to forget how many wars are going on right now. This gripping book is the incredible personal story of Daoud Hari, a young man from Darfur who became a translator and guide for various foreigners during the genocide in Darfur. While emotionally devastating at times, this sombre tale is peppered with humour and glimpses of the beauty of the human spirit – that outpouring of common grace.
What about you? What are some books that have changed the way you see war and conflict?