Young boys love shooting things. They love fighting. They love pretending to be cops, cowboys, and soldiers especially. They love pretending that couches are forts and that the strange brown and yellow shag carpet at their Grandparents house is pavement and dirt. Pillows become sandbags and a closet becomes a secret hideout. Younger siblings become enemies or allies depending on the situation, usually enemies, and the family dog becomes the hostage who suffers from Stokholm Syndrome avoiding his rescuers at all costs.
A hand with index finger and thumb extended becomes a formidable weapon that rarely runs out of ammo, misfires, or falls out of reach.
“Got you!” Is an acceptable way to inform your enemy that he or she has been mortally wounded.
“No you didn’t!” Is an acceptable rebuttal and life giving elixir.
The innocence of youth prevents children from knowing that the games they play are a pantomime of human history and the natural predilection for violent conflict that humans try to hide.
75 years ago young men from Canada were sent into a conflict that would change them forever. The men who were sent had been playing with toy soldiers perhaps less than 10 years before. Boys were sent to settle the conflict that gripped the hearts and imaginations of men and women across the globe.
Shag carpet was replaced by the rocky beaches of France, the fertile, shell marked fields of Holland, and finally the cobblestone streets of Germany.
Couch hideouts became foxholes full of stagnant water, bullet casings, and ice.
Yelling “Got you!” was no longer necessary.
Friends, made months and even days earlier, became brothers.
The enemy became faceless and nameless. Someone and something to be feared and hated.
War was no longer a game. It was something to endure. War was the promise of misery and a possible painless or agonizing death. The odds were not in the favour of the young men who went to protect our Canadian values.
Despite the tragedy that comes along with the lives of young men and women being extinguished for the beliefs and ambitions of politicians and rulers we can learn much from the suffering and triumphs of the young people who fight our wars.
Brigadier General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota is one such man from whom we can learn from. Stephen Ambrose, in his classic book ‘Citizen Soldiers’ tells his story:
“[Cota] came upon a group of infantry pinned down by some Germans in a farmhouse. He asked the captain in command why his men were making no effort to take the building.
‘Sir the Germans are in there, shooting at us,” the captain replied.
‘Well, I’ll tell you what, captain,’ said Cota, unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. ‘You and your men start shooting at them. I’ll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I’ll show you how to take a house with Germans in it.’
Cota led his squad around a hedge to get as close as possible to the house. Suddenly, he gave a whoop and raced forward, the squad following, yelling like wild men. As they tossed grenades into the windows, Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a couple of grenades inside, waited for the explosions, then dashed into the house. The surviving Germans inside were streaming out the back door, running for their lives.
Cota returned to the captain. ‘You’ve seen how to take a house,’ said the general, still out of breath. ‘Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?’
‘Yes, sir.’ ‘
Well, I won’t be around to do it for you again,’ Cota said. ‘I can’t do it for everybody.’”
Brig. Gen. Cota’s story is one of many valuable stories that has come from WWII. He teaches us that in our lives there won’t always be people around to show us how to do things. We have to figure them out for ourselves. But when someone does offer to teach us we should shut up, watch carefully, and listen intently. The men and women who served and serve now are trying to teach us something.
They are trying to teach us about courage, fear, decisiveness, suffering, action, elation, and destruction. They are trying to teach us that War can break young men, but it can also build them. They show us what it means to be willing to give your life for a cause. They show us the meaning of selflessness.
War may not be necessary. It may simply be initiated by the greed and lust for power that governments often possess.
The men and women who served in the past and serve today do not fight for greed or power. They fight for us. They fight to teach a lesson. What that lesson may be is up to you, and today is as good a day as any to take a moment of silence and listen to what they have to say.