Replays of faraway wars

“A man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor.” So observed the Scottish writer Alexander Smith in “Of Death and the Fear of Dying,” part of his 1863 collection, Dreamthorp. To everything, the Good Book says, there is a season. And here—prepared by the ceremonies of November—the stormy, frozen spell between Christmas and Easter becomes a special time for memories. We fill new pages in a scrapbook entitled “the way it was.” Nowadays we add videos and electronic postcards to the archive that traces and illustrates our journey. As we re-sort, polish and treasure evidence of the past, we know that the future can never be the same. We will not be in it for much longer, other than as fading pictures and voices those who follow may recall.

This is our “private space,” and we tend it carefully, like a garden. Yet it borders on and is linked to “public space,” where major events change the directions lives take. “Authorities” track what happens there and select “officially important” highlights. When reflecting, we try to fit personal memories into this broader public display, but the two don’t always dovetail. We look for typical representations of who we are and where we belong in “common depictions”(of times, places, events), only to find that we have been left unconnected, adrift outside the mainstream. Or, we have been chosen to play background roles in somebody else’s story. Sometimes those stories do not ring true.

Most of us in the Latvian diaspora are castaways: veterans, refugees displaced from their homeland during World War II, a generation born during that time and later in exile, their descendants and heirs. Survivors. Forced to take a difficult road, here we are at the end of it. We could not carry material wealth along as we settled into new surroundings, but never abandoned memories and dreams. We transplanted and cultivated them. They keep resurfacing, like garden perennials do each spring. It may be thoroughly “localized” now, but our private space can never quite resemble the neighbour’s. How so? A search for origins and connections will give each of us a unique answer. I keep trying to stir (not shake) together these ingredients: travel “moments” that open doors to memory, November 11 experienced in different places, and the urge to find a fleeting glimpse of “us” in the vast array of films that serves as the public record of “our war,” World War II.

Omaha Beach

Spinning spiderwebs of salty mist, the wind whistles in off the Channel, where whitecaps break ranks and reform in rolling swells of grey chop. Swirling through row upon row of white stone grave markers that march to the horizon on a carpet of incredibly green grass in the vast, silent American war cemetery above Omaha Beach, a darting whisper of conflict long gone but not forgotten nips at the heels of passers-by. A crisp fall day in Normandy. Flags snap to attention, pointing east.

So this is where Robert Mitchum broke through German defenses at the end of The Longest Day. Opposite the cemetery gate, small varnished wooden crosses mark ruined positions and gun emplacements of Wehrmacht units who fought here. Simple inscriptions urge the visitor, “Denkmal” (think, remember). The slope up from the beach is less heroic than recreated on film in Corsica, but fields of fire down to it must have been just as murderous. Not one souvenir stand. No greasy hint of frites on the wind. No squawking, scavenging seagulls. Even tour buses, discharging hushed groups of pilgrims, seem humbled by the starkness of the place—discreetly marked, as though the French could closet away this constant reminder (and many more) of the price others paid for their liberation.

We first came to this region in 1993, less than a year before D-Day 50th anniversary celebrations, just two after Latvia reclaimed independence, and now—another 10 years gone, looking at those pictures—I realize that the past is always present, waiting to draw you in. If you have been to Brāļu kapi in Rīga, or the Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor, you will know what I mean. Many such places pull at us like conscience does, and we try to understand how they came to be and what they represent—as part of our own self-examination. That exercise is not on the agenda in Rio or Cancun.

This corner of Europe—Normandy, Belgium, the Rhineland, Alsace—lives in a time warp, rich in echoes of failed imperial ambitions and blood in the ground. So many statues and memorial sites, side by side, mark different eras of conflict. A few days’ drive takes you around from D-Day beaches to Bastogne, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Vimy Ridge (a World War I battle site), the giant hilltop “Denkmal” memorial above Rudesheim on the Rhine (from the Franco-Prussian War), Waterloo (from the Napoleonic wars), via Honfleur, where colonists embarked to build “New France” in North America; the dungeons of Chinon, where Joan of Arc awaited the “pleasure” of courtiers afraid to fight English occupation; the Abbey of Fontevreaud, final resting place of crusader Richard the Lionheart and his Eleanor of Aquitaine (later a prison for “unreliables” during the French Revolution); and all the way back to Bayeux and its famous tapestry, which tells the story of how Normans invaded England in 1066. Connections beckon at each crossroads:

  • Bayeux “leading lights” hate to be reminded that their proud city once granted the commander of occupying SS forces honorary citizenship. But there is no denying that it did—“to protect the heritage,” so the story goes. We have our own compromises to live with and explain.
  • Alsace changed “masters” three times in 75 years. Drafted by the French, an older brother could end up fighting the younger, forced into the Wehrmacht after each annexation. A total of 40,000 Alsatians lost their lives as “Germans” in World War II, most on the Eastern Front. Exploitation by invaders is a theme we know painfully well. We also understand “evacuation.” When the French government ordered 200,000 civilians out in 1939, Strasbourg became a border-post ghost town. Today it is home to the European Parliament. In the long run, nobody wins by force.
  • Tanks on pedestals at Arromanches and Bastogne stand as mute reminders of life-and-death struggles which they survived, but many did not. Do mechanical symbols of war distance us from human suffering? Maybe it depends on how just the outcome is. Eastern Europeans tore down hundreds of Russian “victory” monuments after the fall of the Wall in 1989. But the one in Rīga remains. Why?
  • The slope up from Canadian attack trenches to the crest of Vimy Ridge is gentler than Omaha’s, but one can picture the machine-gun slaughter just as well. Like a distant memory, the towering Vimy memorial awaits repairs while caretakers boast that their grass is “the greenest green” as they still pick bits and pieces of gear and soldiers out of the mud. We, too, must rebuild remembrance of our heroes.
  • Waterloo is an enigma: a museum, an “action” diorama, an artificial pyramid-hill from which you can see scattered farms and fields where key engagements took place, all so charmingly ‘rustique’ now, while the “hero” (but loser) of this battle lies under black marble in a central place of honour and national affection. Paris does not like to remember and learn from failures. Neither do we.
  • You will not find “Waterloo” among the Corsican Emperor’s triumphs, carved Roman-style into the circular mausoleum wall: final calamity cannot be allowed to tarnish a splendid record. The cost of “glory” must remain inscrutable. (Hitler spent some time contemplating Napoleon’s tomb during his one and only inspection of conquered Paris. Perhaps “victory at any price” is the only lesson he took with him when he left.) Lenin’s squat tomb in Red Square, complete with goose-stepping “honour” guards, is a similar, stunning mockery of history: the Soviet empire was never defeated, the Gulag never happened, a long-time KGB operative is president.
  • The French soft-pedal collapse and humiliation : amid much controversy (touched off earlier by films like The Sorrow and the Pity and Is Paris Burning?), it took them 50 years to open a Museum of Occupation wing at Les Invalides in Paris. It shows, delicately, how thin “Resistance” was and how deeply collaboration had put down roots during Nazi rule. This “our share of the blame” element is missing from the Occupation Musem in Rīga. But not from “The House of Horrors” in Budapest.
  • Associations flood together as feet almost tangle in the same tart Reisling vines Prussian soldiers must have marched through while the chairlift hoists you up to the Rudesheim “Denkmal,” a grieving woman, looking west across the Rhine for her lost sons, just as Māte Latvija looks down on the fallen in Brāļu kapi and remembers many more in distant, umarked places. The Irish riflemen’s signature chorus from the Sharpe television series sums it up: “King George commands and we obey.. over the hills, and far away.” We sing, “Es karai aiziedams…”

Women and children are always left behind when men go off to war, but North Americans cannot understand devastation the way Europeans do. Their cities and towns have never been reduced to smoking rubble, they have not lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night, enemy tanks have never rumbled down their streets, they have no idea how brutally demeaning “occupation” is. Europeans do know. Rooted in scarring, bitter experience, their anti-war sentiment is a genuine “never again,” not a fad or political posturing. Their world changed radically after 1918, 1945 and 1989. They have had to adapt and rebuild each time. If Americans, in their sheltered collective imagination, could multiply the horror of 9/11 million-fold, they would not portray that one attack as an historical “turning point,” as “war.” Or, in ignorance of suffering other than their own most recent, allow constant re-processing of emotional reaction to 9/11 for “patriotic” purposes.

The wind picks up and it feels better to face it than to hunker down. The blow that smashed ashore here in Normandy was aimed from Churchill’s bunker—the Cabinet War Rooms snug beneath Whitehall office blocks in London. (Another magnetic “must” visit, years earlier.) There one situation-room wall map featured a pin-and-red-string line stretched across a distant place called “Kurzeme,” frozen in time, May 1945. More points of reference: Dodging Russian torpedoes, we fled into exile from Liepāja to Danzig; then Allied firebombing of defenseless Dresden almost snuffed out the journey. Now the British have dedicated a statue to Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris, inventor of terror attacks on civilian targets, designed to “break enemy resistance.” Military types never let a dandy tactic go : they call it “shock and awe” nowadays.

The way it was

One “could it be?” face glimpsed through the crowd, yeasty aromas of fresh-baked morning bread evoking “that” boulangerie, snatches of familiar song from an overhead window…small moments we live and breathe prompt us to remember. To connect the dots again, to fill in blank spaces. Films are one broad-stroke brush we use.

Without, then, knowing what it was, I first saw the Omaha Beach memorial as backdrop to comedy. In a scene from If This is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, groups of American and German veterans stroll past (and oblivious of) each other, describing how they had fought during The Longest Day. Wrapped in American sentiment, opening and closing sequences in Saving Private Ryan unfold upon the same ground. Filmmakers know how to grab a good “frame”—physical and emotional—when they need one.

But, pulling back into perspective, can we find an all-purpose “grand” film, TV program, or “body of work” that satisfies our need to be “included”? Not really.

Two soap-opera TV miniseries (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) aside, no single dramatized depiction of World War II attempts to show us “the way it was.” Such a project is bound to fail somehow (just as The Fall of the Roman Empire—elements borrowed and reworked in Gladiator—could not convey the grand sweep of ancient history). The subject is too big. It resists pinning-down. Characters who “move the story along” with familiar romances and intrigues get in the way.

What then? “Summaries” and documentaries, stitched together from newsreel (and propaganda) footage, with ponderous voice-over commentary, amount to a Reader’s Digest quick-hit: “Okay, I’ve had a look” at The War in Europe, The Air War, The Battle of the Atlantic. At somebody else’s “look.” At their severely edited selection of what is important to look at. (Implied by omission: We are not.) This formula is a profitable business known as the (pre-packaged) History Channel.

Nevertheless, in straight-up and “dramatized” versions, it remains a popular genre. We have “Inside the Third Reich,” “Inside the SS” and a host of other “inside” collages produced by folks who were never there. The German miniseries Heimat “captures a slice” more subtly. A parade of Hitlers has catered to our fascination with “evil”: “The Death of Adolf Hitler” (on British TV), “Hitler, The Last 10 Days” and, recently, “Hitler: The Rise of Evil.” (Listen for echoes as you enjoy the pork hock in Munich’s Augustinerkeller, where he delivered many rabble-rousing speeches.) And then contemplate: strange that an equally brutal monster, Joseph Stalin, has not received “the full Hollywood treatment.” (The British TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies offers some interesting early glimpses and mentions several Latvian “reds.”)

Which brings us to grappling with guilt and assigning blame, as in Judgment at Nuremberg (which never touches on the irony of Russian “legal experts” passing sentence on their Nazi co-conspirators). The Condemned of Altona was a minor variation on this theme, while Schindler’s List posits that “evil succeeds because good men do nothing.” In counterpoint, the fascinating Fatherland shows what life would have been like if the Nazis had won. We have forgotten Tom Courtenay’s Ivan Denisovich. Strangest of this lot is Pride, the life (and trial) of Japan’s wartime leader, Gen. Hideki Tojo. It argues that the imperialism he unleashed was “misunderstood” because it helped liberate India from British rule. But, then, the Japanese tolerate many shameful blank spots in their history books.

If not the grand sweep on a broad canvas, morality writ large, or sharper focus on forces embodied in maniac leaders, we look behind the scenes—at other major figures who made things happen. Biographies like MacArthur, The Desert Fox (about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) and the blood-and-guts Patton add texture and character to events. The Last Days of Patton, with George C. Scott still in the role, was less relevant. Goering, despite the mini-series, remains a posturing mystery. Downmarket, PT-109 illustrated John F. Kennedy’s heroism in the Pacific; Hitler’s Commando featured the exploits of Otto Skorzeny (for example, his rescue of Benito Mussolini from Gran Sasso); Tony Curtis was a Pima indian, one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, in The Outsider. The life of Audie Murphy (later a cowboy star) depicted in To Hell and Back rates a mention because the hero played himself. Broodingly atmospheric (hints of Cabaret and Fatherland), Lili Marlene told the story of that legendary wartime song and those involved (not to be confused with Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s tribute to Marlene Dietrich).

Another approach concentrates on key battles, or “turning points.” Large-scale recreations, populated by all-star cameo casts, include The Longest Day (trumping D-Day, the 6th of June), A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Britain, Tora,Tora,Tora! and Midway—all familiar and respectable. The less said about the recent, juvenile Pearl Harbor, the better. On smaller stages Anzio, Sink the Bismark!, The Bridge at Remagen (less imposing in life than on-screen), Battle of the Bulge (superseding Battleground) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.‘s miniseries Dieppe illuminated decisive moments. In this category one strange El Alamein (in which, incredibly, Italians turn out to be the heroes) is very different from The Battle of El Alamein—actually created as a propaganda piece, so well done that footage from it was used in several commercial films. A European-made Stalingrad sank without a trace, but a new version has been released. Enemy at the Gates focused on a semi-ideological sniper duel against the background of that battle.

Not a glimpse of “us” yet. Certainly not in Days of Glory, Gregory Peck’s first starring role (and typical wooden performance) as a Russian partisan. Not in the John Gavin film A Rage to Live where, as a German soldier, he is shot in the back by Russians he has just saved from execution. Hollywood never came to grips with the Eastern Front. It is silent on the siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Kursk. We have seen the bombing of London many times, but never the obliteration of Dresden. We “know” the Gestapo and Nazi death camps, but the KGB and the Gulag have never been brought to our attention with the same relentless “dedication to truth.” Why this imbalance?

Hollywood does “capers” best and war provides a nice backdrop for them. The Dirty Dozen I-III (three different groups of misfits with Lee Marvin in charge), Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed, The Guns of Navarone, Force Ten from Navarone, The Train (about stolen French art treasures), The Heroes of Telemark and the idiotic Kelly’s Heroes are typical. Cloak-and-dagger: The Man Who Never Was, The Counterfeit Traitor. Weekly Rat Patrol adventures on television amounted to “cowboys in jeeps”—but Americans never established long-range raiding parties in North Africa like the British did.

Escape from captivity is a specialty caper we understand well. The original in this genre was The Colditz Story. Stalag 17 won an Oscar for William Holden; the concept was later bastardized into TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Worth noting: The Mackenzie Break (German prisoners try to escape from England), King Rat (George Segal as Holden in Malaysia), Von Ryan’s Express, The Hill (British army “problems”), The 49th Parallel (captured U-boaters try to reach a still-neutral United States across the frozen St. Lawrence from Canada) and, of course, the classic Bridge on the River Kwai. By far the most popular was The Great Escape, but GE II lost its way in murky sub-plots. Overlooked: the fine Australian TV series A Town Called Alice (women struggling for survival in Japanese prisons), and a British-Belgian TV co-production (the name eludes me) that showed, over many episodes, how dangerous it was to rescue downed Allied fliers and return them to England.

A war background allows the filmmaker to take dramatic shortcuts. We are presumed to understand stresses, asked to accept character flaws and behaviour that would normally be laughed at, to sympathize with relationships and conflicts that would otherwise be second-rate. This is the realm of commercial war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, In Harm’s Way, Never So Few, Fireball Forward (a remake of Armored Command), Away All Boats, The Devil’s Brigade, The Young Lions (moral pepper added) and the typically American pre-war From Here to Eternity. From angst, simple plot lines; in war, easy resolutions.

But formulas, distilled down to essentials, can produce more than ordinary results. The best of these—“war is hell”—is exemplified by films like The Big Red One, Hell is for Heroes, The Thin Red Line and Sam Peckinpah’s excellent, gore-soaked Cross of Iron (based on Willi Heinrich’s books). I know of no other instance in which an American director and an international cast have combined to interpret German source material so well (but beware of stripped-down, “edited-to-fit” versions). Within this category—also known as “how groups of men bond to deal with conflict”—Saving Private Ryan and Steven Spielberg’s mini-series Band of Brothers stand out. The second is remarkable for an episode in which Americans casually murder German prisoners, the first time this has been openly acknowledged. Although occasionally predictable, the long-running TV series Combat should be respected for many sharp “slices of reality” (and the array of guest stars that, over time, amounted to an acting “who’s who”).

The same category gains intensity when action is confined to men trapped within a particular war “platform,” notably submarines and airplanes. There is no bailing from either one. Difficult choices confront us, like them or not.

I would rank the German Das Boot as one of the best war movies of all time. Brutal, uncompromising (in the director’s cut). The Enemy Below was a kinder, gentler version of the submarine campaign, while Run Silent, Run Deep and Torpedo Run carried us along on missions that were less than comfortable. U-571 was a lie:  British sailors salvaged the Enigma code machine from a crippled U-boat, not Americans. Above the waves, Convoy, Corvette!, The Cruel Sea, The Silent Enemy, Pursuit of the Graf Spee (Battle of the River Plate) and The Caine Mutiny showed different facets of the bitter war at sea. The one curiosity in all this: Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius, a Lithuanian, in The Hunt for Red October.

Then—bombers. The War Lover (Steve McQueen) explored self-definition through war. Televison’s Enola Gay depicted “Fat Boy’s” trip to Hiroshima. Less momentous were 633 Squadron, Suicide Squadron and Mosquito!. A nicely understated “ordinary men doing the extraordinary” piece was Memphis Belle. But it owes much to Twelve O’Clock High, the first to show the impact of battle fatigue on performance and morale (it is still used in management-training case studies) and the first to include actual air combat footage. Produced close in time to “the real thing” (in 1953), it left out polishing and explaining that adds distracting “spin.” Plain, but absolutely riveting. The follow-up TV series was pure soap opera. In A Gathering of Eagles (in which Rock Hudson struggles with similar problems in the Strategic Air Command), this “concept” sank to the level of Airport.

Scaling back to “single-engine” combat, two TV series should be mentioned. Black Sheep Squadron (“Pappy” Boyington’s boys in the Pacific) was a decent attempt to recreate the chivalry of one-on-one air duels (recalling The Blue Max of World War I vintage). A Piece of Cake (from British TV), reviled by patriotic veterans, showed how disorganized Royal Air Force preparedness was during the “phony war” in France (1939-40) as it led into the Battle of Britain. It was a miracle that some British (as well as Polish, Canadian, American volunteer and Australian) fighter pilots survived to tell their stories after this period of local-unit silliness and political and high command incompetence.

Far more distant for us are “jungle campaigns” (Merrill’s Marauders, Objective: Burma!, a very young Mel Gibson in Attack Force Z, The Highest Honour) and, long before high-tech action in the Gulf, hand-to-hand ‘“esert wars” (at least three El Alameins, two Tobruks, the superb Desert Rats, The Desert Fox, Raid on Rommel, and many minor, sweaty variations).

A special kind of caper, then, is “the gadget movie,” wherein the entire premise rests on “a technical solution.” Enola Gay was certainly one (on a scale debated to this day), but The Dam Busters was first, The Cockleshell Heroes (commandos in kayaks) was second, and “men in minisubs” (for example, attacking the Tirpitz), “men in scuba gear” and “men in gliders” followed. War is a nice test-bed for “delivery systems.” Cue Stukas diving on Guernica. Cue “smart bombs,” live on CNN.

When tired of the conventional in all its varieties, we can be diverted by farce (Catch-22, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, a host of “Yanks in England” romances and “headquarters comedies,” all inevitably leading to M.A.S.H.), symbolic wierdness (Castle Keep), and murder (Peter O’Toole in Hans Helmut Kirst’s Night of the Generals). Almost mundane by comparison, The Execution of Private Slovik told the story of the only U.S. soldier tried, convicted and shot for desertion in World War II. It borrows heavily from Kirk Douglas’ Paths of Glory, a tale of World War I.

Not much for us in any of this. Even less in semi-propaganda films like The Sands of Iwo Jima, Action in the North Atlantic, Air Force, Bataan, Back to Bataan, The Fighting Seabees, Guadalcanal Diary, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Halls of Montezuma, Captains of the Clouds, The Malta Story and others that, during or just after the action, glorified the effort and demonized the enemy. But there is no U.S. film that wonders why it took that mighty nation two years (until December 1941, and only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) to join in a “fight against evil” that was central to that era, no British epic that takes apart Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cowardly “peace in our time.” With the exception of two or three movies that have looked at the tragic Warsaw (general and Jewish ghetto) uprisings, to my knowledge there has been no attempt—other than locally, and only lately—to portray the desperation of Eastern European nations abandoned to Stalin in post-war big-power games that sealed the fate of millions for almost 50 years. Stunning. Killing fields of much more recent vintage can be commemorated, but half a continent, once considered to be indisputably “civilized”—gone from view, forgotten, excluded from memory…

Self-styled winners do not care to remember large-scale blunders, so long as they can rest in comfort and make camera-friendly “ich bin ein Berliner” speeches for domestic consumption, or pontificate about an “evil empire” they allow to operate, but do little to dismantle. (Ronald Reagan, despite current conservative re-writing of history, avoided active World War II service by making propaganda films. George W. Bush found safety in the Texas Air National Guard “Champagne Squadron” during the Vietnam conflict, then apparently skipped a portion of his reserve duty obligations.) Do not expect Hollywood to challenge “home truths,” or CNN to provide context. Just pass the popcorn.

I have looked at all these epics and others I have failed to mention, but cannot find “us” anywhere. Yes, Americans always trumpet the U.S. role (“how our boys won the war”); the Brit specialty has been “how we held on” (despite…make your own list); Germans chime in with “it wasn’t quite like that” (but never fully acknowledge the brutal consequences of wars they started); the French, slowly, are admitting that they weren’t terribly heroic; we expect no truth from Russia (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn mused that it would take “a cultural revolution”). The Red Army “liberated” Eastern Europe, so the story goes, and kept on “liberating” everything in it for almost half a century—in plain sight of Western leaders more interested in “stability” than freedom. When will we know what Bush Sr. was peddling to Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta? Where are the films that tell us about the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the 1968 Prague Spring? About Solidarity in Poland? (Maybe the last was a non-starter. After all, U.S. President Gerald Ford thought that Poland already was “free.”) To this day there is no dramatic, cinematic record of how and why the Berlin Wall suddenly crumbled, counterpointed by the massive U.S. “intelligence apparatus” caught asleep at the switch.

With every bit of carelessness, every application of ignorance, every case of principles submerged in realpolitik horse-trading, we were further lost. Like it, or not, “we”—in large, long-suffering numbers—never had a place in the collective memory (and, thus, conscience, or even “interest”) of the West. We were written off in Teheran and Yalta long ago. (“The Baltic States? Is that somewhere in the Balkans?”) Over and over, we have had to tell our own sad story, to plead for recognition. To “remind.” To call for rights everyone here takes for granted—all the while, of course, competing for attention with multiple car crashes, glorified violence, exotic conspiracies and trivial scandals of every description. We were never important (or symbolic) enough. Gary Cooper never came along at high noon to face down evil in our small town.

Frustrated? Bet on it. It is one thing to be ignored. Quite another to be rendered irrelevant, never to have a place in the calculus of serious decison-making. To be an inconvenience. An afterthought.

Remembering differently

Still, still, our own memories keep trying to make connections.

Years ago on the Sparks Street mall here in Ottawa, a sprightly old gentleman, blue blazer proudly decked out in medals, crested beret jauntily tilted, approached to sell me a November 11 poppy lapel pin, a symbol (the Canadian symbol) of remembrance. It was a crystal-clear day, the kind that blows away fogginess of every kind and invites you to look beyond sharply-etched physical horizons.

One part of me immediately connected this man to Mr. Ross, history teacher at Stathcona Academy in Montreal, who dropped in on every class every year on that fateful day to recite “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow.” I can see and feel it still: each word torn from memory, grim conviction and barely contained pain that commanded untwitching attention. Mr. Ross had fought and lived through The Great War; each line spoke of and to his lost comrades, even though for us—mere schoolchildren—that was distant history we would never quite understand. He was a living witness. Everyone else in the room, just about, belonged to a generation that had no idea of what the horrors of war could be like.

But another part of me rebelled. “Why should I wear a poppy,” a disembodied voice protested (it sounded like my voice), “when people like you nearly killed me in Dresden?” What prompted that? In that moment? This: a conflicting flash of remembrance, black-and-white personal film clips of phosphor-seared anti-aircraft crews being carried into the hospital, the stink of burning flesh, nothing but flames and smoke on the horizon, absolute isolation and helplessness. For years after coming to Canada, whenever heavy planes rumbled by close overhead, I ran for the basement. Some birthday: Feb. 14, the day of that senseless raid, can never be Valentine’s Day for me, an occasion for chocolates, flowers and syrupy verses. For romance and sentiment. Nor—the old gentleman could not imagine—for poppies.

I suspect that I am condemned to remember differently. I hope that some of you understand and will sort through your own recollections. You, too, can bear witness. You can and should tell your stories, however much that sort of thing is not fashionable these days when we can consume the pablum of pre-packaged history.

Here Nov. 11 almost always starts with a blustery, raw morning. Canadian veterans march past, still in cadence with distant, powerful drums. At monuments large and small, they lay wreaths to honour comrades who gave their lives to protect freedoms we take for granted. A solitary bugler plays “Last Post.” In 20-second “moments” that pass for insight on TV these days, old soldiers recall the destructiveness of war in what seems to be a lost dimension non-participants will never enter. They try to convey a sense of their feeling that coming back to “this world” without friends must include terrible emptiness. We watch and observe a moment of silence at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month—and, if we care enough, try to find our own connection to what this really means. It is, after all is said and done, after flags are furled and limos whisk perfunctory dignitaries away, Remembrance Day.

But Latvians mark Nov. 11 as Lāčplēšu Day (Lāčplēšu diena) to honour soldiers who bravely served their country, especially those who gave their lives to protect it in far from ideal cirumstances. Many nations hold special “Remembrance” or “Veterans’ Day” ceremonies on this date, with solemn speeches and military parades. So do we. But the occasion has a much deeper meaning for us.

The name Lāčplēsis comes from a mythical hero who fought invaders on Latvian soil long ago. Literally, it means “bear-slayer,” a constant reminder that we have had to throw back the invading black (German) and brown (Russian) bear many times to liberate ourselves. To breathe free. Distant superpower struggles in the Great War (World War I), therefore, come second to our own desperate local battle for self-determination. For outright, long-sought independence. From “then” Vimy Ridge will always be central to Canadian remembrance of bravery in a common cause on foreign territory, an expensive marker on the road to national identity. But ours had to be forged on the spot, in our own blood, on our own soil. For us Nāves sala (Isle of Death), Ložmetejkalns (Machine-Gun Hill), Ziemsvētku kaujas (Christmas Campaigns) and many other battles—all in our own country—evoke strong national sentiments and command lasting respect. To close this “circle of differences”: Latvia’s highest award for valour in battle (the ordenis named for this hero) forms a centrepiece of our remembrance—not a (foreign) British Victoria Cross—and when the fighting was done, our soldiers did not return to a country untouched by war. They had to help rebuild theirs, which lay in ruins. They never left their Flanders fields.

This date falls one week before our Independence Day (Nov. 18). A doubly solemn period as Latvians count the cost of freedom gained, lost and regained. More than most nations, we mark our own struggle for survival and promise never to forget that, during 50 years of Russian occupation, Latvians were forbidden what was (and is) theirs by right of sacrifice. It is a day not just for “old sodiers,” but also for responsible citizens, for holding sacred the true meaning of our shared memories. It may be perfectly fitting that Latvia was invited to join the NATO defense alliance during its Prague meeting of November 2002. Another “November marker.”

I shall never forget Nov. 11, 1989. As we launched small paper floats carrying lighted candles—symbolizing the souls of our fallen warriors—from the Daugava river embankment in Riga downstream toward the sea just two days after the Berlin Wall came crashing down, many wondered whether “winds of freedom” sweeping Eastern Europe would reach the Baltics, still held in subjugation by “the evil empire.” Barely two years later, in 1991, they did—thanks to citizen-Lāčplēši and their brave stand on barricades in the face of threatening Soviet forces. They revived a tradition, set the example and freed their nation. Again. With no help from anyone. This, I would like to hope somehow, is my band of brothers.

History is written…

Time passes, accelerating, until, suddenly, we are middle-aged, then old, and must strain to maintain contact with points of reference flashes of lightning illuminated along the way. Echoes of rumbling explosions have long since faded into distance. Only memory holds moments of recognition, but will not surrender them without a diligent search. Different people will remember the same moment differently.

Like the survivor in Saving Private Ryan—who asks his family, “Tell me that I’ve been a good man,” at the Omaha Beach grave marker of the captain who tried to save him—we look for affirmation that we have been worthy of sacrifices others made for us. Why? So that we may go on each day to do something respectable, beyond simple surviving and conspicuous consuming. Perhaps we manage a token effort to reconcile private and public versions of what that should amount to only on Nov. 11, once a year, when “duty calls.” Only an informed conscience, from within some part of us that is still honest and true, will know—putting popcorn and propaganda to one side.

Spielberg had this right: What you do with what you have (or can call on in a moment of crisis) is what counts. But he missed the central dilemma: There is no magic formula (which, always, seeks to entertain, to stroke familiar sentiments.) Outside his (Hollywood) frame of reference, “denkmals” of every description ask us to reconsider. Outside his (assumed-on-our-behalf) notion of “good,” others clamour for attention and recognition. They are just as difficult to work out, just as valid. Let us not reduce choices to Patton’s formula: “Your job is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard dies for his.”

Hallowed ground in many places suggests a humble question. Surely all these soldiers could not have given their lives not knowing what they were fighting for, or suspecting they were fighting for a lost cause, for a “just” one, for wives, sisters and homes (Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s rallying cry at Gettysburg, repeated many times elsewhere), or because someone in command ordered them to? It is too simple to say—or reduce events to a level where we accept—that it was just to survive, to hold on to friends sharing a similar fate. Or, to go back where we came from when the shooting stops, to the way it was before we left (forgetting Thomas Wolfe: “You can never go home again.”). Nothing else? Then there is no point wondering about “the good” in us, as many war films try to do.

To what extent, therefore, are we captives of what others say is “true,” and when does what we know come into play to contradict “conventional wisdom”? To what extent can (should) we trust any “official version”? At which point do we assert our own—and raise footnotes, asides, caveats, reminders, pleas—to the level of equal and worthy consideration? The history Europeans know is very different from the one Americans are constantly misled to believe, especially when it comes to how often (and how thoroughly) Eastern Europe has been screwed over by “the West” in the interests of “stability” and “business as usual.” Films, and the popular memory they help construct, are only an indicator, but a telling one.

Noam Chomsky cautions us that propaganda is designed to “manufacture consent” in the many governed by those few doing the governing, with the (tacit, calculated) complicity of lazy, co-opted or intimidated media (the self-styled “guardians of democracy”). The tactics are well-known from Nazi and Communist practice: lie (and lie big), whip up fear, lie some more, deny your own sad failures. blame others, point the finger at external “threats” and internal “enemies,” define “good” and “evil” in terms of agenda-du-jour priorities, crush (“unpatriotic”) dissent, paint those suggesting alternatives as “useful idiots” or “enemy collaborators,” press for “action” well outside normal laws and constraints. All of this is in the name of one crusading ideal: making the world safe for democracy; purity of values, race or religion; the siren call of destiny; protecting one true concept of civilization; or in support of a fevered, exclusive vision only willful ignorance can produce. It is aided by crises of “the war on (fill in the blanks)” and embellished by “danger alerts,” especially at election time, “supported” by a set of “human rights” convenient to the cause at hand (but ignored elsewhere) with crass calculations of commercial and political leverage well-hidden and denied (until “reconstruction” contracts are signed). What, exactly, does this kind of “morality” affirm and promote? What in it targets real “evil,” and what does not? That lonely Saving Private Ryan survivor, typically, begged to know whether he was a good man, not if we were.

Choice is a personal responsibility. But choices we make sum into larger collective duties. One of them is to call to account those who exploit a cause for their own purposes.

Their excuse always is “we know best” (and so will decide what is good for you), as though only those who do not hesitate to apply force hold a secure franchise on truth and are empowered to act in its name. We, they claim, are “special” and have been “chosen to lead.” (Almost universally that claim has been a dangerous fraud. History is littered with the wreckage of ambitious crusades.)

In an earlier, colonial age imperialists called this “the white man’s burden.” Then “proletarian revolution” took a turn, followed by “Aryan destiny,” “world capitalism,” “the clash of cultures” and assorted jihads. Ordinary people die. Arms merchants prosper. News at 11.

Today the powerful “act globally” (on behalf of corporate and religious sponsors), unencumbered by concerns “others” may have for “collateral damage.” They dismiss “unhelpful” (uncompliant) organizations that worry about dangerous precedents, or try to establish sane norms of international behaviour. They ignore, or undermine governments, good and bad. The powerless respond with protests, suicide attacks. Shadow-boxing morphs into vicious reality. How “good” are we if some claim that they have the “right” to act “preventively” to counter imaginary “threats” whenever that suits their needs and punish those who do not agree with their narrow righteousness, while others—equally stunted—see random terror as the only answer? Are we back to “might will make right,” the law of the jungle?

(Where are those weapons of mass destruction? They never mattered. Iraq was all about demonstrating that “smart bombs” can announce a doctrine that shall not be disputed. Naked and simple.)

What has this to do with memories, and films? Nothing. Everything. Myth-makers must deal with heroes as well as dangerous idiots, with notions of “good” and the machinery of destruction. When they do so years after the fact, they should have no other responsibility than to tell the truth. What will the 2020 all-star epic, The Road to Baghdad, show us about today’s sad lack of “human intelligence”?

Meantime, we do not live in a docudrama, we inhabit places other than the margins of stories others spin. Those can be convenient and assuring (for the attention-challenged, and for many who have raised ignorance to an art form). But George Orwell taught us long ago that the halfway aware and intelligent end up trusting the evidence of their own senses and discoveries, which, inevitably, conflict with “the official version” (as put out by the Ministry of Truth). Then the merde hits the fan. Then we face consequences.

This is a dangerous time because during no comparable other time has it been so easy to be held captive by “the popular (common-denominator) imagination” at the cost of denying our own personal (particular, painful) experience. Or accumulating documentary evidence. Circumstances (and cynical exploitation of them) conspire to discourage us from wondering and questioning. We are “led to believe,” not asked to find out for ourselves. We become consumers, not shapers of history. And our consent in this debasement of values that many have died to defend is dismissed as inconvenience. Shame on those who do this. Shame on us for accepting lies.

For how long? Sometimes it feels like not only commerce but also culture is being “globalized” to the point where “duty-free” consumption is the only remaining (or easily available) option. The powerful will casually tell us who we are and what we (should) “know” and feel—until (if ever) they are called to account for their arrogance. CNN will lead the cheers, either way. As long as there is a “story.”

There is a British television series called The Nazis: A Warning from History. Strange that there isn’t one called The Communists: Still With Us. Hollywood even makes award-winning, sympathetic films about them—Reds, for example, or The Front. Let us not be romantics to the point of being fools, even if the history of films, more than most chronicles, is a history of convenience, the road of least resistance.

It cannot remain that only “winners” may write “correct” and sanitized versions of events, that “losers” shall have no say or right of reply, that victims must constantly struggle to reclaim their own battered, threatened identity in the face of roles others wish to assign them. I do not like playing this “victim card.” All too often it signifies a tendency to blame others (even though, in our case, there is plenty of blame to go around). It implies that someone else should rescue us (an illusion Latvians have toyed with and relied on at great cost). Lately it has led to taking sides, in simplistic presentations of “good vs. evil” by folks who pick and choose opportunities (and targets) according to their own self-serving agenda, without regard for truth, priorities and common sense. Of all people, Latvians should know what “pre-emptive war” means and what endorsing another one could mean for us down the road. We are bigger and better than that—not in size of territory, not in numbers, not in clout, but in spirit. It is still being tested.

It was a particular Communist conceit to think that social engineering can be achieved by force and terror. It remains a capitalist conceit that consent can be manfactured by public relations. It is a particular American conceit to imagine that only their sentiments and “values” are uniquely valid, indeed universal.

One long flashback

Now, having come full circle from losing freedom to regaining it, we experience one long flashback—like the survivor in Saving Private Ryan. We try to fit various bits and pieces of memory, private and public, together again into a chronicle that feels right—because we have been saved and it is our obligation to make sensible connections, to give an authentic account of ourselves.

One final observation, then: come to your own conclusions. Do not let others make them for you. Arrive at them carefully, having sampled the best and worst of what is on offer. Visit and revisit every marker you can find. Consider and reconsider every “opinion” and presentation of events and occasions in which you have been (even marginally) involved, and ponder what they really mean—as you, not others, see it. Piece together steps that have led you to where you are, and evaluate—honestly—how much of that road has been of your own choosing, and how far you have been thrown and pushed. No one will speak for you.

Never, ever, forgive. Demand explanations. Insist on clarity. Somewhere, down deep beneath your everyday comfort and ease, should be a gnawing, still-unsatisfied demand for recognition and respect. Let it run. You are totally, as they claim nowadays, “entitled.” Lawrence Durrell in his 1957 novel Justine wrote, “I imagine, therefore I belong and am free.”

D-Day landing

American soldiers huddle in a landing craft as it nears the French coast on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Photo from U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Saving Private Ryan poster

A poster advertises Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg’s story of American soldiers on D-Day.

3 thoughts on “Replays of faraway wars

  1. Film is certainly a compelling reflection of the dominant policy, values, sentiment, culture, motives of our times. It would be quite difficult to find serious points of disagreement to this article by Juris Mazutis – particularly for someone who has also felt the consequences of war on his skin in quite a similar way and has noticed the absence of “us” from it. I applaud his conclusions and lament the marginalization of Eastern Europe.

    It is, however, impossible to give equal weight to his listing of films. Most are “blockbusters”and B-movies motivated by profit. These are commercial products made for maximum return. These films exploit and warp history; documentaries likewise regurgitate established themes. In capitalism change only comes about when the product does not sell. It is very risky to alter the formula. The German and Japanese uniforms and weapons are in stock, the public has some knowledge of the events, and in every way the film is controllable. Most films are primarily entertainment, just as most books are not literature nor buildings architecture. This, in fact, could be particularly significant as representative of our times provided that they are recognized as popular culture with inherent limitations, as well as the advantage to reach a wider audience. It is not enough to only look at the content of films without considering their form and method of presentation. “Path of Glory” is a powerful film; Spielberg”s “Saving Private Ryan” would be ‘forgettable’ without Frank Capra’s documentary footage shot at great risk.

    Films that rise to the level of art challenge accepted content as well as method of presentation. They might not necessarily be antiwar films as the classic Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” or Ishikawa’s “The Burmese Harp”. Eizenstein’s “Potempkin’ — a propaganda film but model to most serious directors — is a powerful cinematic statement. Many are modest budget ventures. Rosselini”s “Open City” and “Paisant” are excellent documents of the plight of Italian civilians and resistance under German occupation. Why don’t we have the will to make films about “us” ?

    Yes, there are many hidden interests, motives, deals. Documentaries are “selective” in what they choose to show. History is full of unjust, horrible moments and Frank Capra was not there to capture these.

  2. Addendum to the May 10 comments.

    There is no excuse for my crude mistake and mixup. Frank Capra is a film director. Robert Capa took the photographs at Omaha Beach. He might be the most noted war photographer ever. His photograph captures a Spanish Civil War soldier being shot. Defiance, bravery, pain, sacrifice, pride, futility, violence… The photograph says it all.

    Guntis Plesums

  3. An extremely eloquent piece of writing. As a non Latvian but someone of fairly mixed heritage, I have a great deal of sympathy for the points expressed.

    Just one tiny moan.. The song “Over the Hills and Far Away” was sung by the actor who played Rifleman Daniel Hagman and according to the “Sharpe” books, he was former poacher from Cheshire. Cheshire is a county in the north of England :)

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