Posts Tagged ‘World War One’

Around Remembrance Day, I always make a point of listening to the orginal cast recording of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s a suitable observance, because I know of no other piece of writing that covers so many different reactions to combat.

If you’re not Canadian, you’ve probably never heard of Billy Bishop Goes to War, but it’s one of the most-performed Canadian plays of the last forty years. Originally written and performed in 1978 by John Gray and Eric Peterson, it’s a one man show (or one plus a piano player) about how William Avery Bishop from the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario went from being a perennial screwup to one of the leading flying aces in World War One. Revised several times since its first performance, the play draws heavily on Bishop’s own autobiography, as well as many of the jokes and traditions of the war. During the course of the play, the actor playing Bishop also plays over a dozen other characters, ranging from a female torch singer and a drunken cavalry officer in a bar to Alderman Lady St. Helier and George V, usually with a minimum of props, making the role unusually demanding.

The main character and setting are especially suitable for an exploration of Canadian nationalism. To several generations of Canadians, World War One was the moment when Canada established its own identity, as its recruits on the ground soon proved among the most effective of the Commonwealth troops, rivaled only by the Australians. Its fighter pilots were equally effective, with more Allied aces coming from Canada than any other country. In some places, the play celebrates this fact, with the peak of Bishop’s success being that “nobody asks me where I’m from / They’re happy for the men I’ve killed.”

However, what makes the play so effective is that, while it sets off to explore the subject of war, it never takes sides. Instead, it sets out to express all the various emotions with which soldiers face combat, beginning with the naivety of the new recruits suggested by the title, and moving quickly through disillusionment to the mixed pride and misgivings about becoming a survivor and a hero, and, finally, a has-been not much different from the clueless superior officers that the main character once despised.

Even the glory is qualified. True, at the height of his success, Bishop may crow, “Number One is a hero / Number One’s the hottest thing in town” as he is feted by London society. But the play undercuts such celebrations with other moments in which Bishop admits that he is “scared shitless.” Similarly, while Bishop sings about aerial combat being like a meeting of chivalric knights, he also mentions chilling moments when the death of an enemy unnerves him.

Nor, as he becomes famous, is he ever far away from the knowledge that the reward of winning a dogfight is only to “get a little older” – to push aside the inevitability of death for a short time before he faces it again. He is always facing the paradoxes that “the only way to learn survival is to survive” and that most of the emotions with which soldiers face war – religion, cowardice, hate – do nothing to help survival and may, in fact, prevent it. Instead, the key is a dehumanizing detachment, a cold determination to take whatever advantage available that Bishop is proud of at the same time as realizes that his fiancée at home would hardly understand it.

As with the individual, so with the big picture. The celebration of the king awarding him three medals on the same day is undercut by “The Empire Soirée,” which hints at the coming collapse of the British Empire. “The birth and death of nations, of civilizations / Can be viewed down the barrel of the gun,” the song suggests, and everyone is helpless to break the pattern: “All you and I can do is put on our dancing shoes / And wait for the next one to begin.”

In the play’s last moments, the story leaps forward twenty years to Bishop as a recruiter in World War Two, faintly surprised that the War to End Wars has been followed by another one. “But I guess we’re none of us in control of all of this,” he mutters into his drink, and the only summary he can muster is, “looking back, all I can say is that it was one hell of a time.”

In the introduction to the published version of the play, Gray suggests that this ambiguity is, in itself, typically Canadian. He talks about the bemusement of American audiences who expected the play to be either definitely pro or anti war, adding that as a Canadian who tends to gets lost in the complexities, such attitudes confound him.

That may be so, and as a Canadian, maybe I share Gray’s attitude. But what American audiences might find puzzling, I find a virtue. I am far more likely to fall into the anti-war camp than the pro one, but what I appreciate is that Billy Bishop cheats neither. Sentiments on both sides are taken into account, and, although no conclusions are reached, the result seems to me the kind of truth that is rarely expressed. It may not be a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying, but it seems accurate in a way that most literature about war fails to manage. The fact that it manages to do so with broad swipes of humor while being perennially popular only makes the play that much more of an accomplishment.

At a time when Remembrance Day is used by some to drum up support for military adventures on the one hand and for demands for peace on the other hand, I can appreciate a piece that does justice to all perspectives on war. If Remembrance Day is supposed to be a time for looking back at what soldiers have done and acknowledging what they still do, I find it only fitting that I try to do so with some accuracy – and Billy Bishop Goes to War helps me to do that.

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Remembrance Day is a holiday that always leaves me feeling ambiguous – to say nothing of slightly guilty about my ambiguity.

On the one hand, I have no trouble extending my respect to soldiers. They do a dirty and dangerous job that is often essential. The fact that, in Canada, they do it with inadequate equipment and wages that hover around the poverty line only makes them more worthy of recognition. For some, desperation might play a part in enlistment, but considering the conditions, I figure that a sense of obligation and loyalty must frequently play a large part in their career choices.

Nor do I have any trouble remembering history. If alternate worlds exist, there are a good many in which I am a historian, and, in this world, history forms a large chunk of my reading. I am constantly exasperated at how little sense of history the average person has, so an event that encourage people look back at the last ninety years seems worthwhile to me. I only wish more holidays encouraged such backward gazes.

On the other hand, the emphasis of Remembrance Day has changed greatly since I was a child. When I was growing up, the point of the holiday could have been summarized as “Never again!” I’m not sure of the intention of that message, but I took that to mean that we should do everything possible not only to avoid global conflicts like the one that originally inspired the holiday, but also to avoid wars altogether. I was proud that I lived in a country that focused on peace-keeping, because that seemed to be the enlightened, modern view.

However, in the last couple of decades, respect for soldiers seems too frequently to have become respect for the policies that send them abroad. The message I hear is that if you support the troops, you must also support the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, and that, if you don’t, you are some sort of hypocrite. That seems a false dichotomy to me, and I regret that the day has stopped being a reminder of what we want to avoid and has become instead an extension of government policy.

Along with this new propaganda has come the sort of rhetoric that I have always despised. The rhetoric uses words like “sacrifice” and “honor.” Soldiers do not die; they “fall.” To hear this new propaganda, you would think that soldiers did not simply accept the risk of death, but rush to it with the eagerness of Monty Python’s Kamikaze Scotsmen, eager to show their patriotism by making the supreme sacrifice. Personally, I suspect that they are just unlucky, and no matter how great their idealism, would probably prefer to still be alive.

Such rhetoric seems false at the best of times. Far from being a way to express respect, it seems a way to avoid really thinking about the gory details to which you are alluding. However, it seems even more false when applied to the subject of war

.Read the war poetry of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen – people who had fought in the front lines, and knew what they were talking about – and you quickly find that this is exactly the sort of rhetoric that they railed against. It is the rhetoric that lured the generation of men who were young during World War One to be butchered by the incompetence of their generals. Now, though, “Lest We Forget” no longer seems to include remembering the danger of such rhetoric. But I do not forget, and I greatly resent the fact that it is creeping back into fashion.

I am sure that some readers will damn me for these sentiments, and doubt my sincerity. But, despite the tendency of mainstream media to reduce everything to an either-or question, I’d like to think that a mixed perception is still possible.

Respect for the average soldier is not synonymous with jingoism, and the sooner we separate them, the better. Until we do, Remembrance Day remains a holiday that I can only partly support.

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