Volume 95, Issue 38

Thursday, November 8, 2001
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War memories teach today's generation lessons

The reflections of a Canadian peacekeeper

War memories teach today's generation lessons

By Alena Papayanis
Gazette Staff

"The main [purpose] of war is not to kill – it's to maim," those were the first few impromptu words from the mouth of Jerry Hickey, an 80-year-old Canadian World War II veteran, as he settled into his chair.

Hickey returned from the dead after an encounter with a German buzz-bomb outside of Antwerp, Belgium.

When his body was recovered, Hickey said he had no heartbeat and was being put in with the dead when someone noticed a faint pulse and rushed him to a hospital.

As an explosives and booby trap expert during his time in the military, he said being so close to the bomb was what actually saved him.

"It's like when a horse goes to kick you. If you move in close to [the horse], you just get the start of the kick – you don't get the full smash you would if you backed up," he explained.

Hickey spent a year in hospital recovering from critical injuries to his torso and a complete concussion of the body, which blew his muscles through his ribs.

From his pocket, Hickey produced a piece of paper he had obviously cut out with care. It had background information on the history of the poppy and facts about the number of Canadians that died in both World Wars.

An average of 13 million poppies are made each year for Remembrance Day celebrations across Canada. In World War I, when Canada's population was only eight million, Canada lost 60,661 soldiers, while 172,950 were wounded. Twenty-one years later, World War II brought Canada 41,992 dead and 54,414 wounded.

According to Hickey, Remembrance Day is a time to reflect upon those who lost their lives, those who were crippled by war injuries and those who fought for their fellow soldiers and country.

Hickey said the sensation of being "blown up," compared to having sand thrown on a sunburn.

All he remembers is a big flash of light before he passed out and, since that day, he has never had an ache or pain.

The day he left the hospital, the doctor shook his hand, looked him in the eye and told him there was no reason he should still be alive. "The Lord didn't want me and the devil wouldn't have me," Hickey explained.

Hickey's story is not unlike that of others. When the war ended and he went home to New Brunswick, he said he felt lost. He explained he was used to living with war time conditions and, for the first couple of weeks, he just wandered around in circles.

War creates friends, heroes, deaths, resurrections and a powerful sense of confusion and loss. But in the end, Hickey said he would not change a thing.

Paul Ducharme, a French-Canadian veteran, said if he could change the past, he would have never volunteered for war.

Ducharme said he joined the war because many of his friends were enlisting and, at the time, many critics believed French-Canadians were trying to avoid the wartime cause. He abandoned a well-paying job in Toronto and spent five months on the front during World War II.

Within his first three days of combat, he quickly learned you can never be fully prepared for war.

He said it was his innate ability to accept and adjust to a wide variety of situations that got him through the conflict. "You never know for sure," he said, regarding daily expectations on the war front. "[Officers] just tell you [to do something] and you go."

Ducharme said he worries about the young generation of today because of the "war mongers" who lead the world and the people who follow them. But he is confident Canada is still well-liked, noting that, while Sept. 11 has changed everything for North Americans, Canadians can still feel pretty safe.

Hickey was concerned about the history and significance of the poppy, Ducharme talked about its future.

The poppy tradition will not die out, Ducharme said, noting younger veterans will take over from those who served in World War II, most of whom are in their 80s.

Ducharme said he is still concerned with a future lack of fundraising support for the poppy campaign because volunteers exist in decreasing numbers in today's work-oriented environment. But, he said, seeing people of all ages wearing poppies puts his worries at ease, noting we continue to acknowledge and remember veterans' sacrifices.

For Ian Chen, a lieutenant in the Canadian Forces Primary Reserve and first-year information studies masters student, Remembrance Day draws a blank. He said he used to think of all of the people that died, but for the past couple of years, his thoughts have run dry.

"[All I see is] one guy in all the war films that gets smoked in the head and never makes it out of the trench," he said. "He climbs up the side, pops his head over the edge and bam – he's dead and falls back down the side. That guy was probably a conscript that didn't want to be there in the first place."

For Chen, that image is symbolic of war. People die and then they are remembered not only for their bravery, but also for their misfortune, he explained.

According to Tim Blackmore, a media, information and technoculture professor at Western, war stories are the most arresting of all and are important to propagate a war culture.

"[It] tells people how to carry out their lives [and it] gives them examples of extremity in which you define for people what gender is, what strength is and in other words, encode the foundations of the culture," he said. "They tell us what is right, what is just, and in our case, what is democracy."

"Vietnam shook up the war story," he said. "The media went from being a war supporter and a war advertiser to a war doubter." After Vietnam, Blackmore said the media was put under tighter constraints to create less public criticism of the war state and war culture in general.

The television culture that emerged in the mid-1960s allowed people to back away from what it perceived to be real, Blackmore said, adding it contributed to North America's pre-Sept. 11 sense of immunity to war.

"In the 30s, between the [two World Wars] and after World War II and into the early 60s, there was no sense of immunity at all," he said.

"[Then the audience] was inundated with violent fantasy, romantic fantasy and even war fantasy like M*A*S*H, where it is all about war, but is really a good time."

Blackmore said the current war effort is one in which both media and pop-culture will sign-on and endorse the cause.

"We're in for a bad, long, deep and dark time of manufacturing and consensus," he said.

Chen said Remembrance Day should not only be about remembering the past, but about taking action to ensure the past is not doomed to be repeated. We need to actively remember, not just on one day, but every time a similar situation of war arises, he explained.

The conflicts in the world that continue to plague us are a good sign that we have not been remembering or learning from the lessons of the past, he said.

The rest of us are left to wonder about a world that seems to continue to forget.

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Copyright The Gazette 2001