War, and what we must remember
August 1, 2005
By Bronwen Parsons
Promotional material about the new Canadian War Museum (see page 22) has taken pains to point out that the architecture goes beyond commemorating the legacy of war. The building design was also meant...
Promotional material about the new Canadian War Museum (see page 22) has taken pains to point out that the architecture goes beyond commemorating the legacy of war. The building design was also meant to symbolize nature’s ability to regenerate.
I’m afraid I found the “regeneration” aspect a bit hard to swallow. I’m not sure that there is any good aspect to war. War is hell. It destroys lives, it tears flesh and bone apart, it numbs minds, it burns. War lays waste cities and devastates nature. Just read a book like Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong to appreciate how warfare destroys individuals and entire civilizations.
It’s vital that we build monuments and museums to remember our soldiers and others who have died in military service. But it’s easy to get caught up in a maudlin fascination with the subject. Whenever warfare is made into a work of art — be it a museum exhibit, a novel, a poem, a film or a song — it is somehow removed and becomes a benign romantic experience. How else to explain the pleasure in reading a novel about trench warfare in World War I and reliving the horror of being buried alive in the mud, blood and gunfire of a Normandy battlefield? How else to explain why people flock to war movies or return again and again to the heart-rending pathos of poems like John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”?
In fact much of the new museum building in Ottawa expresses the dark reality of war. With its jagged structures and heavy leaning walls, the building is reminiscent of underground tunnels, tombs and bombed-out cities. Its vegetation-covered roof has been described as symbolizing nature regenerating itself. Yes, if you like. But the form of the building is also menacing. It resembles a stealth bomber, or could be read as something evil lying under the surface ready to re-emerge and assert itself on a peaceful and creative world. With the tube attacks in London and the gun violence in Toronto this summer, it seems that the kind of human hostility and alienation that feeds into warfare is easily aroused.
It’s exactly because of the need to defend against human aggression we need the military. No-one deserves more recognition and respect than those — including military engineers — who are willing to offer their lives to defend others.
Before this magazine went to press we had a situation that illustrates in a small way the dilemma of making art out of war. The art director had chosen an image supplied by the Canadian War Museum to go on the cover. The photograph was a montage representing one of the exhibits. It included faded sepia photographs of combat soldiers and other artifacts from the wartime era. With its greenish tinge it would have made a striking graphic effect. The trouble was, front and centre was a large gun. Would it have been bad taste or just ill advised from a business point of view to have a firearm on the cover of the magazine? We erred on the side of caution and chose another photograph. But as the art director reasoned, guns are part of war. Just as death is. We mustn’t sanitize the reality.