Saturday, April 14, 2007

Casualties, once removed.

One of the most important posts you will ever read is up at the Galloping Beaver. We mock the 101st Chairborne for their blind cheerleading for war, what Dave details and describes of "The Abyss", is why. It isn't political. It isn't partisan. It is the price paid.

The greatest harm is not always visible. Broken buildings can be razed and rebuilt. Factories and economies can be remade. Human beings are not so simple to rebuild. Broken bodies, minds and lives can't be so easily remade.

It has been almost a year since my dad died. For almost a year I've struggled with the need to write about the man. Trouble is, I never really knew him. I spent almost half of my life in his home and he was as sealed off then as he is, most finally, now.

Military conquest and conflict shaped his life, damaging him beyond reach and taking a toll on those around him. He was born in India during the waning days of the Raj. His father was British Army and while the term brigand is more romantic, in reality he was an asshole. My grandmother was born in what is now the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, she was also from a military family. When my grandfather abandoned his family, grannie became an army nurse, was decorated and served for decades running her clinic. A more fearsome and bitter woman you will never meet.

My old man came of age and shipped off to North Africa with the Royal Corps of Engineers under Montgomery. He went on to serve more than sixteen years. He left the military after being repatriated from captivity by the Egyptians during the Suez crisis. I've spoken to a few other army brats whose families, like mine, never stopped moving. I was born in Calgary, more by accident than design. I lived in three countries, one of them twice, before I was school aged. In my mid-twenties I counted up all of the moves that I knew about. It worked out to about once every eight months over the course of my life. I've moved seventeen or eighteen times since then. My family was never going to somewhere, but we were always leaving someplace.

If I lost a finger, I could count the number of times my dad spoke to me about the war on one hand. Only one of those times was there even a glimpse of the real horror that lived behind the fortified walls he maintained. His domineering voice trembled when he talked about entering a concentration camp and having to hold the skeletal prisoners back with fixed bayonette, to prevent a food riot. More than a few spoons of broth were enough to rupture the atrophied stomachs of the starving. They'd been locked in and left to perish.

I never asked if he took a life. I don't think there was much question about it. I did ask why he never had any friends. His friends had all died in front of him in North Africa, in Italy, on the beaches of France. If nothing got close, nothing would hurt when it was gone. That included family. And everything that might have been. Everything that never was.

He was being considered for the 1940 Olympic field hockey team, he was a scholar and spoke five or six languages. He had a talent for visual arts, drawing, photography and film making all of which he pursued in isolation. And he was the only person who made me fear for my life. Behind his grim facade was a blistering cold rage. In our house it was often best to be neither seen nor heard. He'd been trained to kill at close quarters. I've run for my life, hidden from and been beaten to the ground by the man. More than once, the only thing that saved me was my mother placing her body between him and me.

In the simplest terms, I grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive household. But life is never simple. We are the poster children of post traumatic stress. The brilliant, youthful champion who went away to war returned a deeply scarred and broken man. For all of his brilliance and determination, the seething cauldron of fear, rage and grief that he carried within was never emptied. When that cauldron overflowed the suddenness was devastating. The human damage of warfare is not confined to the battlefield or the bracketed dates of a conflict.

I wish I could say that I am the last colonial child. But we are legion. Our numbers grow every day. We are not just the children of soldiers. We are the children of every land that plays host to the machinations of war. And when the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons and the daughters, the cycle continues. Abusers beget abusers. I have struggled throughout my life to not be like him. To not lash out in anger, to not resort to violence, to try and share instead of take. Only time will tell if I succeed. It's been more than sixty years since V-E Day but my family still pays a price, if only the interest on the principal of damage done.

9 comments:

Jennifer Smith said...

I don't know what to say. That was astonishing. Thank you.

Mes Amis said...

Thanks for being more open than I could ever be.
Yeah, your your not alone, we are legion.

Ti-Guy said...

Very nice post, PSA.

Cycle of abuse, in so many ways. My parents know nothing of war, but both of them decided that the cycle of sexual abuse would stop with them. My parents were never able to give me much, but they gave me that.

pretty shaved ape said...

trust me ti, your folks gave you a pricelss gift. cheers.

Dave said...

Thanks for this PSA. It is a realization that when one person is suffering it extends to all around that person.

Thanks for the courage to write your story.

pretty shaved ape said...

and thank you dave. if it weren't for your post i would still be mulling my thoughts. the power of what you wrote brought this to the front. i needed to get this said, you gave me the courage to say it.

the rev. said...

Thanks to both Pretty Shaved Ape and Dave for a pair of post that are powerful and humbling to say the very least.

macadavy said...

Powerful stuff, indeed. Thank you for having the courage to be honest.
I grew up next to a CFB and always wondered why the kids from 'the Base' seemed a little reluctant to make friends. As the years passed I grew to better understand that they knew what I didn't: why be buddies if, in a year or two, your Daddy might be 'posted' away to anywhere from Comox to Cold Lake or Bagotville to Lahr, West Germany? It must have been hard for you.

Polly said...

There is a great deal of shame around these issues in our world. Men, in particular, are encouraged to remain silent. The slogan that the "personal is the political" is often associated with women. But, of course, the insights of feminism are not the exclusive property of women. I feel there is so much potential for transformation if men can have the courage to speak their personal truths as you have.