This is a passionately written academic book – a characterization which the author would probably agree should not be an oxymoron. The passion suggests that it is written as much for curious general readers as for academics. I hope it reaches many of both, particularly those who know or have known war survivors. The $49.95 list price is a bit misleading – some bookstores are currently selling the book for as low as $33.00.
Sherrill Grace’s title, Landscapes of War and Memory, which adapts the “landscapes of memory” theories of psychologist Laurence Kirmayer, foregrounds her basic thesis that the representations of modern war most widely circulated in Canada have been marked by two contradictory cultural imperatives: one, both official and populist, to forget, unconsciously repress, or consciously suppress “shameful past events,” and a second more humanistic one to collectively remember and speak about such distressing matters in “disruptive [but presumably healing] narratives of revelation and disclosure” (58). By forgetting, by not remembering, she writes, Canadians betray those who suffered and died on their behalf – “by ... forgetting the stench of reality, the lies about honour and sacrifice, the greed for military might and wealth, the fathers’ betrayals of their sons” (121).
Grace’s specific subjects are Canadian literary and visual representations of 20th-century war created in the 1977-2007 period, and the tasks of collective national memory that these perform. She chooses 1977 as her beginning because Timothy Findley’ novel The Wars and play Can You See Me Yet and Heather Robinson’s art book A Terrible Beauty: The Art of Canada at War were all published that year. Her acknowledgment of the latter allows her to discuss at length several paintings done by official Canadian war artists during the World Wars despite the fact that they were done some 30-50 years before 1977. This asynchrony – Canadian visual art from 1915 to 2007 compared with literary work from 1977 – is slightly odd, although it doesn’t really affect the strength of Grace’s arguments since the visual art works she builds them on are mostly post-1977 documentary film productions. (Post-1977 Canadian painters, unlike
I began reading this book during the December 2014 week that an also passionate US Senator Dianne Feinstein released the Senate report on the CIA interrogation of Al-Qaida and Taliban suspects in her nation’s “war of terror,” and declared the interrogation methods “a stain on our values and on our history” which the country must admit was “wrong” and “learn from”; and in which an angry former Vice-President Richard Cheney retorted that those CIA operatives had been patriots who should be “be decorated, not criticized” – that the report’s representations of their actions had been “full of crap.” Such a conflict between, on the one hand, regarding those that defend one’s nation as unquestionable heroes and, on the other, recognizing the fact that war can tempt many of our own to lapse into unpardonable brutality is at the centre of Grace’s study, and the source of much of her passion. Grace however productively denies here that the two views – however exaggerated their formulations – are dichotomous. Her argument – roughly summarized – is that in war there are heroes and patriots on both sides, and that in the stresses of battle and government many of these do, are ordered to do, are sometimes seemingly forced by circumstances to do, or irrationally do, ethically horrifying things. To suppress memory of such ethical horrors – as many veterans and patriotic historians try to do – is to risk idealizing both military and governmental violence. Official war histories record the losses, gains, and casualties but seldom the savage and often impulsive and unnecessary means by which these came about.
In these 600+ pages Grace examines numerous novels, plays and television films, many of which are not widely known. Her Part II is focused on works about the First World War, Part III on works that depict the effects of that war on the 1920s and 30s, Part IV on works about the Second World War, and Part V about works that look forward to possible peace and reconciliation in this century. The book could open some of these to university study, and possibly to non-academic audiences also, especially if it leads to plays being restaged or to some of the novels receiving popular attention. It’s a book that implicitly invites such revisitings and reconsiderations. Grace writes in Part V that if these various works of art about war that she has discussed
tell us anything, it is this: we must work at remembering so we can create – and continue to create – a
landscape of memory that sustains us, that is as alive, as complete, as powerfully informing, and as
ongoing as possible. (457)
There are no chapters here on Canadian poetry, however, only intermittent mention of particular poems, some – like the war paintings – created well before Grace’s 1977 starting point. I wonder if this could be because post-1976 poems about war are mostly hidden within collections of non-war poems and thus difficult to find – such as my “Good Bomb” and “Multiple Choice Games for Hiroshima Day” in my Cultural Mischief, and “Sydney’s Wreck” in Bardy Google, or Eli Mandel’s “Lines for an Imaginary Cenotaph” in his Out of Place – creating the impression that there are few of them. One would have to skim hundreds of collections of poetry to know for sure. Also absent is Daphne Marlatt’s 1996 feminist Second World War novel Taken, which is somewhat strange considering Grace’s pains throughout her book to attend to women’s perceptions of war, the 1940s home front, and war’s aftermaths.
Grace is repeatedly critical of the Canadian myth that the country “came of age as a nation” at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, arguing that attaching such politically charged symbolism to the event leaves large gaps in the landscapes of Canadian memory in which other measures of nationhood and maturity are forgotten, and also that it limits how broadly the culture can permit itself to understand and discuss both Vimy and its earlier and later battlefields. She is more sympathetic with what she reads as novelist Jack Hodgins's view in his Broken Ground: "that Canada came of age, not on Vimy Ridge but in the aftermath of the First World War on home ground and only through a long, painful process if transforming broken ground into a rich landscape of memory" (149). Those dates of Grace's focus -- 1977-2007 -- suggest that this process is still continuing.
As the works I have examined demonstrate, the real story of the Great War is not only about patriotism,
noble sacrifice, glory, and goodness. These post-1977 works all expose the violence of war and many of
the lies and prejudices hidden behind propaganda and the pressure to conform, to fall into line. At the
same time none of these works is simplistically anti-war or focused on criticizing what Canadian soldiers
endured and achieved under unspeakable conditions. In most cases they draw attention to the average
man, not the big shots, to those forgotten or ignored in earlier accounts (the women at home, the nurses,
the First Nations soldiers) .... Above all they imagine and celebrate a more complex landscape of memory
in which things we have been told are modified and complemented by new stories and voices. (238)