Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ben Wicks. When the Boys Came Marching Home (1991)

     Ben Wicks. When the Boys Came Marching Home (1991) I bought this book at the Walter Stewart Library book sale recently. In addition to this book, Wicks also compiled one about the children who were evacuated from the cities into the supposedly safer countryside (he was an evacuee himself). I wish I had bought that book, too.
     Wicks seems haunted by the Second World War. This compilation consists of excerpts from letters solicited from people who had lived through the war, and recalled what it was like when the war ended. Wives and family, children and sweethearts, as well as the soldiers and women volunteers, all have their say. All in all, there was a mixed response, but even when the necessary adjustments went well, the war left its scars. In many cases, perhaps the majority, those scars went deep. The wounds of war were inflicted on the families and loved ones of the returning men, and lasted for the rest of their lives. Women resented having to go back to subservient roles; children resented the stranger who appeared one day and claimed all the privileges and rights of the head of the family. Wicks makes clear that the image of the soldier as hero is a lie. Most of them were ordinary men; their experience of the war damaged them. It’s not surprising that adjustment to civilian life was hard even when it succeeded. What’s surprising is that people managed to achieve a life that hid the scars, or at least coped with the continuing hurts inflicted by men who did not know how to handle their pain. That’s normality of a sort, I guess.
     Many of the stories told in this book touched a nerve. My father, too, was damaged by the war, and he took it out on us. He saw many evils; he told us of some of the less horrific events from time to time, but like all men who saw combat or its effects, he did not really want to talk about it. He was also deeply disillusioned by the betrayal of the German people by the Nazis. I don’t think he ever really came to terms with his disillusionment. For the rest of his life, he resented the Allies and their victory over the 3rd Reich, and could not stomach what he thought was the weakness, money-grubbing, and corruption of the people who had defeated Germany. He despised the sloppiness of Canadians, their cheerful disrespect for experts, for “Fachleute”, their attitude that “good enough” was good enough. He believed in the myth of the Volk despite himself, and told me repeatedly that modernity would not appeal to Austrians. Of course, it did. That is why he did not want to go back after his last trip in 1975 or ‘76, not even for the funeral of Urli-Oma. He would have found his relatives happily enjoying the consumer society. I went on his behalf, and that’s what I found.
     Nevertheless, most of my memories of my childhood and the years before we came to Canada are happy ones. Children have a great facility of accepting whatever surrounds them as normal, and getting what pleasure they can when they can. As children, we see the light of the sun; as we age, we see the shadows cast by it. *** (2011)

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