Not deferential enough: In Flanders Fields

Posted Wednesday, November 16, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: In Flanders Fields

by Gina Hamilton

There is a song I can't get out of my mind, though I wish I could ... in part, because, though a beautiful melody, reminding my of my childhood choir days when our little treble voices would soar into the stratosphere, it is a haunting song, and in part, because I really, really don't agree with the final verse.

I was talking to a friend last Friday, and mentioned 'In Flanders Fields' ... not the poem, so much, but the experience of wearing our little white choir robes with a blood-red poppy affixed to the lapel and taking part in the annual Armistice Day events, year after year, as the Mayor would lay a wreath at the local war memorial, surrounded by veterans of every war since the Great War. 

The World War I vets were awfully old then; many of them spent the years from 1918 onward disabled from gas, or shrapnel still embedded in their backs or legs, or shell-shocked beyond normal functioning.  They trotted them out from the local veterans' home for the event, which always took place at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, wearing their uniforms, now moth-tattered, over several sets of long underwear so they didn't have to wear heavy parkas over the uniforms.  Some were proud, some were bewildered, some ... probably the most lucid of them ... were still very, very angry.

As soon as was decent, they were hustled back to the veterans' home, and us with them, where there would be coffee and danish and hot chocolate for us child singers, and we would be prevailed upon to sing a few happier songs from the twenties and thirties - Singing in the Rain; Let Me Call You Sweetheart; Ain't Misbehavin' - before the school bus took us back to school for luncheon.

One year, just as we were sitting down for coffee with the old gents, one man ... one of the angry ones ... stood up and pointed at us.  His name was Paul Clarke, he said, and he'd been a chaplain in the Great War, right in the trenches.

"I want to tell you how it really was," he said in a surprisingly loud voice.  "It wasn't pretty.  Boys was being blown into the sky right next to you.  Their teeth and bones fell like rain on you.  They was your best friends, and there wasn't enough of them left to lay them in that Flanders Field you sang about."

The nurses were more aghast than we were, and tried to shut Captain Clarke down, offering to take him to his room, but he refused to go.

"No!" he said as he shook off an orderly's arm.  "They need to know.  They're going to be an age soon when they're going to be asked to go to some godforsaken place like Ypres, like we was, just kids, and most of us never came back.  We never came back.  And those who did ... we was wrecks for the rest of our lives."

He turned back to us.  "There wasn't no poppies, nor larks neither," he said more kindly.  "Everything was dead.  Just dead.  Nothing lived in that hellhole.  No cause for a million boys to die in the mud.  Nothing was solved."

Then he sat down and calmly took a cup of coffee and a plum danish.

We children breathed again. 

The nurses and our teachers and the other veterans breathed again.

And Captain Clarke was right.

The last verse of 'In Flanders Fields', in which the dead tell the living that they must keep up the fight, so as not to break faith with those who died, always struck me as horrifying. 

Obviously, I wasn't alive for the Great War, but I was around for Vietnam, and as I recall, the same argument held sway for far too many years.  "Peace with honor" was the cry.  The war could have ended the way it did in 1958, or 1961, or 1965, or certainly 1969, without the loss of the additional tens of thousands of American dead and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. But those who had lost children, or husbands, or brothers, or fathers, believed that it was necessary to win to bring honor to their loved ones ... the same sad mantra that kept the boys in the trenches year after weary year from 1914 to 1918, only to do it all over again with interest 21 years later. 

The Great War changed the world ... in some ways for the better ... but in many ways for ill.  Women achieved suffrage because of it, there was suddenly social mobility of the classes because of it, but something sweet and precious died in those trenches. 

The same was true of Vietnam.  What was lost on the altar of "peace with honor" was trust in our elected leaders, and the sense that we are responsible, not only to ourselves, but to the commons in which we find ourselves.

And yet, I can't seem to get the sound of those treble children, singing the hymn of the dead,  out of my ears. 

Captain Clarke is certainly dead by now, although he was there until I was out of the children's choir.  The last known Great War vet died this year, at the age of 110, which means he was only 17 in 1918.  I'm certain that Captain Clarke was much older during his service.  As a chaplain, he must have seen something of life, and probably college, before he answered the clarion call.

I can only hope that he at last has found peace.

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