29 June 2015

Reflections on a proposed war memorial.

If you ask two Canadians a question, you will likely get three opinions.  I know this to be true, and I know it to be doubly so for myself.  I am generally of five minds on any given topic, so if I am one of the two, you will get a minimum of six opinions, and quite possibly seven.  With that in mind, I wish to make a few notes about a proposed monument in honour of the Canadian war dead.

One: I found the first article I read on the proposed monument to be bull.  Or, to be more clear, not so much the article itself, but the comments which follow.  The article itself is written in opposition to the proposed monument, albeit it in an overwritten, melodramatic way.  For instance:  "...it’s offensively tasteless at the aesthetic level. The bigger-is-better approach to art is best left to Stalinist tyrants, theme-park entrepreneurs and insecure municipalities hoping to waylay bored drive-by tourists. In a hubristic act of arrogant unoriginality..."  Okay.  Your opinion, fair enough.  But what is odd is, as I said, the comments.  Every single one for the first several pages is in utter unanimous agreement with the editorial.  Odd, isn't it?  The Globe says that the comments express only the opinions of the writers of those comments and not The Globe, and yet every comment is a reiteration of the opinion of The Globe's editors.   Either their readers are utterly unanimous, or the Globe should rework it's editorial comment policy, and state that only comments restating the opinions of  The Globe shall be allowed.

Second:  I read several articles railing against the proposed monument.  Not one linked to the site of those who are seeking to raise it.  They did not want anyone to see any opinion other than their own.

Third, my opinion of the monument itself: mixed.  On the one hand, I support the idea of raising monuments to our war dead.  With that in mind, the questions I have basically boil down to where and what, and possibly when.

Where: The monument is proposed to be on the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, on a Headland overlooking the ocean.  It seems like a decent idea, a monument not far from the place where our men sailed out across the ocean, almost a hundred thousand of whom would not return.  However, some have raised the issue that the place chosen is ecologically sensitive, and not a place to put a monument.  I don't know enough to comment one way or the other about that, though I will say that, if true, it is a valid objection and not something to be cast aside lightly.

What:  the monument features the figure of a woman looking over the ocean, holding out her arms to the men who will never return to her.

When: soon.

I'll treat these two points together, as they are somewhat intertwined.  Whilst I favour the building of monuments, I also think that now really isn't the time to do so, as all our public monuments these days are hideous.  Our artists are largely dead, and our self styled artists these days are incompetent, and repetitive.  One of the more common artists found around the city is a fellow who raises steel cubes and tilted rectangular prisms, and nothing else.  I find the idea of a dedication ceremony darkly laughable:  "We are gathered here today to dedicate this...er.. cube in memory of those who gave their lives for our beloved country. The cube symbolizes the fact that these men were, by our standards, a bunch of squares." 

When our original memorials were raised, they employed a language of symbolism: the statue of a soldier standing at ease, looking to the east for his friends who will not return, lions symbolizing the Empire, often in groups, one sleeping, the others watchful, symbolizing the Empire at peace, but still guarding against dangers.  There were many other symbols.  The spoke an artistic language, and believed that form and content should work together.  Today, that language is gone and we are left with artists who make up their own language and end up speaking gibberish.

As a result I was in some ways pleasantly surprised when I saw the proposed monument.    It actually looks like something.  I can recognize what is portrayed and what is symbolizes.   It is based on the grieving mother on the Vimy Ridge memorial.  Some object that this is a copy that demeans both.  I don't think so.  It is similar, true. but also different.  The two can complement each other.  The grieving mother is looking down at her dead sons spread before her, many just names on the wall she is perched on.  This mother is looking out across the seas for the sons she will never see again.  Done well, it can be a powerful symbol.  However, that opinion changed a little when I read the description: the monument is to be over a hundred feet tall.  Suddenly, those who think the monument gaudy seem to have a point.  Ostentation is not something Canadians do well, nor does it sit well with us.

Should we have a monument?  For me, the question is not if, but more of where and what.  I support the building of a monument, but is this the monument that should be built, and should it be built in this place?  For that I have no real answer at this time.  So, I will close with General Currie's special orders to the Canadian Corps prior to the Lys offensive.  It is, in its way, a monument to the men, built in words, if not in stone, and a call to those who remain to remember those brave men.  In its own way, it embodies the quiet dignity that should be the mark of our monuments:

Looking back with pride on the unbroken record of your glorious achievements, asking you to realize that today the fate of the British Empire hangs in the balance, I place my trust in the Canadian Corps, knowing that where Canadians are engaged there can be no giving way.

Under the orders of your devoted officers in the coming battle you will advance or fall where you stand facing the enemy.

To those who fall I say, "You will not die, but step into immortality.  Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will have been proud to have borne such sons.  Your names will be revered for ever and ever by your grateful country, and God will take you unto Himself."

Canadians, in this fateful hour I command you and I trust you to fight as you have ever fought, with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage.  On many a hard-fought field of battle you have overcome this enemy.  With God's help you shall achieve victory once more.

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