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This was not my initial choice for March, but my son came storming out of his room earlier this month having just heard from a friend of his in the US that now that his friend was 18 he was obliged to register for Selective Service. This was such an alien concept to my son that he just naturally assumed this was another short-sighted, nefarious plot by Trump to undermine American democracy. I tried to talk him down by explaining that this was simply a process whereby young men were required to sign up with the authorities so they would be “on file” if a crisis arose and a “draft” became necessary to randomly select a certain additional number of individuals that were needed by the armed services to augment its volunteer ranks. He was not impressed.
My riposte was that democracy was not a “free ride.” That the benefits, freedoms and opportunities that accrue to him as a citizen of one the most exemplary democracies in the western world were hard won and may, in the future, have to be hard won all over again. In fact, I suggested, if I had my druthers, I would argue that everyone — male and female — leaving high school in Canada should be required to complete a mandatory stint in the in armed forces. Not necessarily — or at least not specifically — to learn how to wage war, but rather to learn what it means to “serve” the democracy which grants you such expansive and varied opportunities to flourish throughout your lifetime. To learn discipline and restraint. To learn how to overcome obstacles and challenges. To grow and mature a little, beyond the security of the your parents’ house and the school yard for a change. To realize that a person can survive — even flourish — without continual, unfettered access to social media. But mostly to begin to try to understand that democracy, like all good things, comes at a cost and, sooner or later, you’ve got to pay the piper.
Which brings us back to Hacksaw Ridge, which essentially poses the question: How does an individual reconcile his or her personal conscience and autonomy with the need to protect the system — in a manner which flies in the face of those personal beliefs — that gives that individual the opportunity to even entertain such considerations in the first place? What, when all is said and done, does it mean to stand alone against the values of one’s community? To be a “patriotic” pacifist? And, of course, there is no easy answer. There are legal answers. And there are moral answers. And political answers. And religious answers. And constitutional answers. Individual answers and community answers. The difficulty is that there is a single question, but a multitude of differing — and often time equally compelling, though fundamentally antithetical — answers.
And thus the movie unfolds within the classic trope of the righteous hero pushing up against the unmoved, unenlightened reality of human existence. And the movie is definitely trope heavy. There’s the trials of individual morality in the face of organized “group think.” There’s love conquers all. Good versus evil. Faith triumphs over reason. Etcetera. And our likeable, affable, every man hero, plods through, Hollywood-style and Sergeant York-like (though sans rifle), to eventual spiritual redemption and personal vindication.
For my money, however, perhaps the most interesting trope / sub-plot was the hero’s father’s struggle to come to terms with his own “survivor’s guilt,” and what we would now define as PTSD, at having watched his closest friends killed along side him in the first world war. He’d spent his lifetime attempting to come to terms — unsuccessfully — with trying to find any sort of meaning behind his friends’ ultimate sacrifice. But he just can’t seem to think of it as anything more than slaughter, and he’s completely crushed by the thought of his own sons going off in 1942 to make the same sacrifices all over again.
As usual I was eager to hear my son’s take-away on things. “So how is a democracy supposed to reconcile the need to protect the fundamental rights of a person to pursue the dictates of his or her moral conscience and still compel them to undertake an action, which may be fundamentally at odds with that conscience, but that ultimately serves the greater good of the entire democratic community,” I asked him when the movie was over? “If everyone was as concerned with the dictates of their own personal conscience and salvation as our protagonist was, democracy would descend into anarchy, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, that’s hardly an issue then, is it?” he shot back. “Considering how few people out there ever seem to find themselves struggling with their conscience to begin with.”
Touché, I thought. Maybe something of a sweeping generalization, but perhaps not too far off the mark. Still, when pushed, he admitted that, if anything, the movie did reinforce for him how important it is to try to be as true to your ideals as possible.
“But regardless,” he insisted emphatically, and not for the first time, “war is stupid.” Which is also true, I conceded. Though perhaps only true in the same vein that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government. Except, that is, for all the others.
Here’s another work-in-progress (WIP) post. It’s passage from what will eventually be my break-out novel — if I ever win the lottery and actually have the chance to write the damn thing, that is!
The scene is post-First World War — spring 1919. A Canadian officer on a fact-finding mission for one of the many ancillary committees that constitute the Paris Peace Conference finds himself in a remote inn in rural Rumania. It’s night. He’s bored, and he’s tired, and he starts to amuse by thumbing through a tattered copy of Dracula that his traveling companion has left behind in their room. This is a book — he quickly advises us — very much not to his taste, but which he admits, nonetheless, that he has heard of before.
Okay, when I write it out like that in black and white it sounds kind of hokey, but it’s not another vampire book — really! It’s more about shifting layers of meaning — both textual and contextual. It’s about the kind of losses that can haunt families for generations. It’s a book mystery and a political thriller. And a spy novel. And probably a love story — or, more probably, a failed love story.
Whatever it’s about, here’s an early passage that I really like.
* * * * *
I remember Collins telling me that, no matter where he went, Dracula needed to rest amongst the soil of his native Transylvania — hence the crates of it he shipped to England when he made his voyage there. And that the satanic count’s existence was always a nocturnal one, roaming by night for his blood-prey and sleeping during the daytime — the sunlight being anathema to him — in his own coffin.
Such a creature would have felt right at home with us in the trenches it suddenly occurs to me, right down to the “deathly sickly odour . . . of old earth newly turned.” How we longed for the night, a cloak of darkness to hide the chronicle of our evil, life-taking excursions into that soulless, black no-man’s-land. And, like vampires, our best days were those we spent below ground, safe in the crypts of our dugouts. Our very own death-in-life. Buried alive with all the creatures of the ground about us, the dirt above constantly trickling down our collars, reclaiming our animated corpses to the earth grain by grain.
And, oh, how we despised the day. The rounds from the German guns ripping through our flesh like javelins of daylight through an army of ghoulish pre-dead as we poured over the parapets at dawn to the shrill warble of the attack whistle. And it was this clarion, we soon realized, that was further heralding the last vestiges of empire. An empire upon which, ironically, the sun was now setting. But the sun wasn’t setting on us those mornings. We were walking into it, ever eastward, like lambs to the slaughter, falling as it rose.
The day’s weariness is washing over me again. I sink deeper into the lumpy mattress with every breath. Deeper, sliding down now beneath consciousness, the pages of the book falling open in front of me. Deep enough that I’m soon swallowed up again by the blessed soil, as I had been at the front. Protected and vulnerable at once. A dreary, troglodyte Job, run to ground. And the darkness is one with the embrace of the damp earth, its profound sour chemistry returning all it encounters to loam, to vestigial mineral and first principles. Here, the darkness is the only truth, a void created not where there is no light, but where there has never been light. Yet I ache to see, if only to dress the scraping and scratching all around me in familiar guise, striping fear from sound. The darkness and the earth are suffocating and I am gulping for air to try to re-gain my bearings, closing my eyes against the darkness only to uncover yet another realm of pitch.
It’s in me now, the darkness and the fetid earth. It’s pouring in through my closed eyes, absorbing through my skin, being drawn deep into my lungs with every ever-more stifled breath. My encased body throbs at the pneumatic “thwump” of the incessant mortar fire above, the concussive force of each landfall pulling any remaining air from my trapped body. I am paralyzed. The weight of the darkness above me is the weight of the world, and, though blinded, I see him, nonetheless, recumbent atop his grotesque death-mound, deep within this private sepulchre.
Blinded as I am, all is awareness. I am compelled forward, toward him. His eyes, too, are closed, and I know if they open to me I will be lost completely, buried forever in this unending night. The fiend’s eyelids flutter and start to part and there is no mechanism by which I have the opportunity or strength to look away . . . .