Even in war hate need not prevail, says Cochrane author

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 6, 2014

The men…were not pitted against each other by hatred.” —J. Neven-Pugh, from 619,636 Reasons Why

Lisa enquires about the box above her grandfather’s fireplace. Grandfather says it contains military mementos from her great-grandfather’s time in World War I. He also recounts how the box, which had belonged to a comrade of her great-grandfather’s on the Front, came into his possession.

Lisa is intrigued by a silver crucifix among its contents. Grandfather says that the soldier who recovered the box from the battle field, a German, added it.

Stunned, she asks: How can this be? They were our enemy!

“War . . . has never been black and white, Lisa, especially back then,” Grandfather says. “The men represented in that box were not pitted against each other by hatred, but by orders.”

The story appears in 619,636 Reasons Why, J. Neven-Pugh’s just-published anthology of prose and poetry, so named for the number of Canadian casualties in the Great War.

The Cochrane author’s rejection of hatred as the motive for combat in the hearts of those represented in the box reminds me of the climactic scene in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Luke Skywalker has been captured and is standing before the Galactic Empire’s evil Emperor Palpatine on the Death Star. Through the arched window behind the Emperor, Luke is witnessing the destruction of his Rebel Alliance’s fleet, space craft by space craft. The Emperor, with Luke’s confiscated lightsaber by his side, taunts him. Motioning toward the lightsaber, he says:

“You want this, don’t you? The hate is welling in you now. Take your Jedi weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it! Give into your anger! With each passing moment, you make yourself more my servant.”

LUKE: “No!”

EMPEROR: “It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. You, like your father (Darth Vader), are now… mine…. Take your weapon. Thrust me down with all of your hatred, and your journey toward the dark side will be complete…. Let the hate flow through you.”

LUKE: “Never!”

Luke’s refusal to be ruled by hatred is ultimately rewarded with the Rebellion’s victory over the Empire. He refused to be held prisoner of the dark side, just as much as one of my real-life heroes, Nelson Mandela, also refused to be held prisoner of the dark side.

In his autobiography, the late South African president put it this way about his release from prison near the end of the Apartheid era:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Then there’s the amazing action by Airdrie student Caitlin Prater-Haacke in response to being victimized by a cyber-bully’s posting telling her to die. She countered by placing Post-It notes containing positive life-affirming messages on all the school’s lockers, an action that earned the praise of the nation. She, too, refused to be held captive by the dark side.

And of course just recently, there’s the inspiring example from Cold Lake. Reacting to a radicalized gunman’s murder of unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo while standing guard at Ottawa’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, vandals had smashed windows of the mosque in the northern Alberta town and spray-painted racist messages across the building. Other residents refused to be held captive by the hate-filled dark side, however, and immediately set about repairing the damage, doing their best to counter evil with good.

Now back to Neven-Pugh’s story of Lisa’s conversation with her grandfather about the box on the mantel.

“The men represented in that box were not pitted against each other by hatred, but by orders,” Grandfather had said.

I know of no finer illustration of this than the Christmas Truce of 1914 that broke out spontaneously along the Western Front early in the war. (See my column of Dec. 21, 2011.)

The opposing sides were entrenched within earshot of each other as Christmas approached, when from the German side came the sound of singing: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” – “Silent night, holy night . . . .”

British soldiers soon joined in, guns were silenced, and an informal truce was arranged between the two sides. The combatants exchanged brandy, candy, cigarettes, souvenirs and lots of goodwill.

Sadly, when the top brass got wind of this, they ordered the men back to the trenches and once more to engage the enemy in their gun sights.

But in their hearts, those soldiers, like those memorialized in the box on the mantel and the others, had said “No!” to the dark side. As Neven-Pugh so movingly writes, they were not “pitted against each other by hatred.”


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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