The controversy over WWI commemorations

I wrote a novel, THE END OF INNOCENCE,  about overcoming wounds that are not healed with a peace treaty. It’s based on the true story of  Harvard University’s 1932 fight over how to memorialize Harvard students who had fought for the Kaiser.

The truth is that a terrible war raged, killed, maimed, wounded.  And after the peace treaty is signed,  fighting is done. Society must move forward.

What becomes of those wounds? We  know only too well. They pass their pain and sadness to generations who are unaware of the stories they carry around in their minds about “the way things are.” We often become prisoners of these pictures we’re given and do not even ask,  “Is the way things are the way things ought to be?”

Today in Europe, there is a debate over how to commemorate the Great War. Today, Germany and the UK are productively working together, more or less. Few were alive during the Great War. Both countries have great challenges on their hands.

“Why bring up the past?” asks Germany. “Isn’t this disruptive? Do we mortgage our progress to revisit the past?”

Partisans on each side say, “Why bother taking care of the other when our own side has wounds? They caused the wounds. Get real.”

But if we are to have thriving communities we must build the capacity to take care of the whole, and not just our immediate self-interest. When we take care of the whole, we actually will have created a higher-functioning team much better able to take care of the whole community.

There is an opportunity in this commemoration. By using the commemoration to explore the many truths of war, and digesting some of that past pain with a partner who has also felt tremendous pain,  the countries show the world how to create a “new we.” They show the world a better way.

Can it be done? 

Consider the words of Seamus Heaney:

“We are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.”

Heaney  answers this question himself. He starts with a poem by W. B. Yeats:

“The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

/States Heaney/ “I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder, for it is as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer. It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.”

In short, Heaney states we must remember that in these commemorations there is the murderous – the very unsympathetic realities. There is also the marvelous – the ability of humans to connect and restore. Both are completely true. And both are messy.

Interrupting a cycle of identity politics

In theory, finding our identities in our common humanity – not our tribe, family, etc.-  help people see each other as humans worthy of respect and dignity.

In theory, telling the truth about the past identity-based violations allows a culture to mourn, show remorse, decide who they want to be going forward, and take those steps (hopefully those are steps that lead to flourishing).

It practice, it’s messy and highly emotional. Identity politics are.

The tidal wave of anger & shouting

Some people’s identities are so firmly rooted in unhealthy places – a victim (who may have become the aggressor) or aggressor (who now claims victimhood). It should be no surprise that the crazy-making actions of the past have literally driven some people crazy – that is, beyond the ability to have civil conversation about the past, to become unstuck, let alone remember correctly and fairly.

I have met and been wounded by these people too. I know how easy it is to get drawn in and become part of the shouting! Thankfully it’s often just shouting or shunning. Too many areas of the world quickly escalate to violence.

To the extent I can (and one can’t always control it), I will not let crazy people veto my health or the health of communities I care about. There are some people who can work together. Truth and light at the right time can interrupt cycles of violence. Maybe not today. Maybe in a decade. But it can and does happen around the world when people seek health.

Let’s be specific about the U.S.

Lest I hear, “Now you’re meddlin’,” I’d like to give my own example. I wrote THE END OF INNOCENCE to explore at arms length the questions I was wrestling with in the U.S.

It is my hope that more local communities will be willing to have the courage address the sad parts of our past. I am not talking about things like “The U.S. should apologize.” It is easy to have the “U.S.” apologize. It’s very hard to ask a family or community member to address past harms or to reach out to those who have been harmed (when the result is often a tidal wave of anger coming right back at you which no rational person gets up in the morning and wants to face.)

These are toxic waters. The reason for doing the work is because toxic waters hurt our families and communities.

And some people are so crazy angry that they wish everyone to die alongside them.  Nuts! as they said at Bastogne.

For those who choose health, I wish to support that path. The novel is about the relief one feels when adults get it together to build a bridge to a healthier future.

The commemoration can be an opportunity to explore “a new we” that explores the past in all its messiness with truth and opportunity.