Rising Up From Flanders Fields

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

Europe is old enough to have learned some important lessons in thinking about war and peace. But Europe also needs to recover the North American sense that evil can be fought, that it is shameful to appease aggressors and that wars can be won with pride and decency. Both are necessary elements in the Christian moral tradition on war and peace.

Flanders Fields

Here in continental Europe, the preponderance of public opinion and public argument has been strongly against the morality of this war, with the Holy See taking a leading role.

For this Canadian in Europe, though, the shape of the debate has indicated that we, like our fellow North Americans in the United States, think rather differently about war than do most Europeans. Different moral lessons were learned on opposite sides of the Atlantic from the wars of the past century. It is not so much a question of this war but of war in general; not so much the morality of war but the moral of the war story.

North Americans learned from the First and Second World Wars that noble causes could be fought for nobly. It is historical commonplace in Canada to say it was on the battlefields of World War I that we grew to maturity as a sovereign nation, having paid the price in our soldiers' blood.

Where Poppies Grow

Like most Canadian schoolboys, my first introduction to public thinking about war was during the annual commemorations of Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. An indispensable part of the day was the reading of the poem, In Flanders Fields. In fact, I doubt there is another piece of literature that is so universally taught in Canada — every Canadian knows it.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The image of the passing torch is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that those words from the final stanza were inscribed on the walls of the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room in the old Montreal Forum — the most important shrine of our national sport.

The poem was written by Major John McCrae during the second battle of Ypres in May 1915, where he fought as part of the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery. Canada suffered 6,000 casualties at Second Ypres, which was only a prelude to the horrors of World War I — a war the Canadian prime minister of the day, Robert Borden, privately called "the suicide of civilization."

Amid all that, McCrae was able to write of flowers and birds and crosses, and of bravery and love and fidelity. It not a poem about the horrors of war; it is a paean to the heroism of warriors.

That is not the common European experience. While Canadians visit Juno Beach at Normandy with pride and Americans visit Omaha and Utah Beach, there are no such places of unalloyed national pride associated with the Second World War for the French, the Germans, the Austrians or the Italians.

George Weigel, the papal biographer, once asked his subject what he learned from the Second World War. Pope John Paul II answered instantly: "I learned the experience of my contemporaries: humiliation at the hands of evil."

The moral of the war story for so much of Europe is just that: humiliation and evil.

When a German thinks about World War II, he does not think about the "finest hour" but of national shame. A Frenchman does not think of triumph in a noble cause but of defeat and collaboration. Austrians bought their safety at the price of their honor; Italians needed, as it is wickedly observed, to "be liberated from their allies." The low countries were crushed; the Iberians and the Swiss declined to participate. Russia suffered terribly to win the war and then inflicted further suffering on her own people and throughout her empire during the peace.

The Holy See, too, felt the pain of humiliation, with the tiny Vatican City State surrounded. The Church felt compelled to moderate her voice to preserve the neutrality upon which her freedom depended. It was a defensible policy but there was no glory in it — there was only humiliation in the face of evil.

Indeed, with the exception of Poland — which fought bravely and lost — and Britain — which fought bravely and won — the moral of the war story for Europe was that, as John Paul is fond of saying, "nothing is solved by war." The subsequent Cold War only reinforced the view that war brings more evils in its wake and further underscored the impotence of free Europe to combat evil in its own neighborhood.

Americans used to talk about a "Vietnam Syndrome." Long before Vietnam, Europe was stricken with doubt that it was possible to fight well, to fight nobly and to win. Europeans do not speak, as Americans do, of the veterans of World War II as "The Greatest Generation."

Facing Iraq

All of this is important to understand the deep divisions that exist over war in Iraq.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Europe's dark memories as the irrelevant fears of "Old Europe." Europe is old enough to have learned some important lessons in thinking about war and peace, the first of which is that war is often just that: humiliating, shameful, degrading and evil.

But Europe also needs to recover the North American sense that evil can be fought, that it is shameful to appease aggressors and that wars can be won with pride and decency.

Both are necessary elements in the Christian moral tradition on war and peace.

In the light of the current war, the lessons of the past do not determine current political positions, but they do give a sense of how the debate is framed.

The Canadian government opted not to join its historical allies — Britain, United States and Australia — for the first time, but the leading opposition party is in favor of the war, and the premier of the largest province has endorsed it in defiance of the national government. Canada is perhaps the only anti-war country where leading voices are criticizing the government for not joining the coalition. The arguments one hears emphasize duty, loyalty to allies and the demands of a just cause — not unlike the themes of In Flanders Fields.

Here in Italy the opposite is the case. The government has joined the coalition, but public opinion is against it. The ordinary Italians I speak to seem completely convinced that only base motives exist for this war — money, power, oil. The torch of Flanders Fields does not figure in the public imagination — the hands of war grasp only after gain.

So the Iraq war has produced an odd situation. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are men of deep Christian faith, explicitly motivated by the morality of their policy and committed to the role of religion in public life. Yet the Holy See has opposed them every step of the way.

That happens sometimes in the practical application of moral principles. Disagreements are to be expected in those situations where the starting points for moral reflection are so different. Where you stand depends in part on where your soldiers lie — in Flanders fields, in Normandy or somewhere else.

Flanders fields are in Europe. But its legacy is elsewhere.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza. "Rising Up From Flanders Fields." National Catholic Register. (April 20-26, 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Rome.

Copyright © 2003 National Catholic Register


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.