Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Very Long Engagement

One of the rights and freedoms our armed forces have defended for us is the freedom to disagree with our government, to criticize our politicians or public servants – including government’s component parts – like the armed forces. In times of war this freedom is put to the test – “Don’t you support the troops?” – but it remains a hallmark of democracy.

The governments of yesteryear didn't have to contend with the questioning populace of today, or perhaps it was easier to ignore the occasional voices of dissent. But today it is pretty clear where the politicians of the past went astray. Now current governments are asked to try and right the wrongs of the governments of yesteryear. Just a few days ago the British government officially pardoned 306 Commonwealth soldiers executed for “desertion” during the First World War. This includes Private Elsworth Edward Young and 22 other Canadians executed during the war. With today’s knowledge of shell shock and post traumatic stress disorder it is clear that many, if not all, of these men were innocent. And if one agrees that World War One was essentially an act of mass insanity, then the 306 deserters were actually the sane ones. [This idea runs through Timothy Findley’s classic WW1 novel, The Wars]

But the army mindset dies hard. Cliff Chadderton, Chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations, thinks the pardons are a bad idea. He was quoted in the Globe & Mail on this, saying, “Deserters were bad role models for other troops. How can you expect other troops to go on sacrificing their lives if they knew they could get out of it and then get a pardon?” He issued a news release reiterating his position, noting that many veterans and historians agree with his tough guy stance, including noted historian Desmond Morton who apparently called the belated pardon idea “self-indulgent rubbish.”

These comments are surprising to me, as it doesn’t take too much reading about the Great War to realize what an abomination, what a stain on humanity that obscene waste of human life was. Sure, we can’t right the wrongs of long ago, but a little bit of reconciliation is a good thing.

My Gazette Great Reading picks this week centred on wartime executions, one fiction, one non-fiction:

A Very Long Engagement By Sébastien Japrisot
This marvellous novel begins in 1917 with five French soldiers punished for desertion by being forced into no-man’s land, to be killed by German cross fire. But two years after the war, the fiancé of one of the men suspects her fiancé may still be alive, and she begins a quest to discover the truth. Made into a good film [Metacritic score of 76] in 2004 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring the star of Amelie, Audrey Tautou. Jeunet also directed Amelie, Delicatessen and is currently in pre-production for the film version of Life of Pi, due in 2008.

A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle By Andrew Clark
The sad story of the last soldier to be executed, likely wrongfully, by the Canadian military. Nominated for the 2003 Governor-General's Award, this intriguing book powerfully conveys the awfulness and absurdity of war.


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