Tag Archives: War

I am Distressed to Hear the War Drums

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I am distressed to hear the war drums. I am distressed listening to the talking heads, the panel of retired generals, pundits, and experts on CNN talk of war with North Korea. I am distressed by their matter-of-factness, by their strategic and political ponderings, all so devoid of horror.

How do we remain so inured to the real consequences of war?

My grandfather died in 1972. I had long thought he fought at Vimy, and on a visit there, to see the trenches and the monument, I wrote in the guest book, “I came to see where my grandfather fought.” In the trenches and the bomb craters one can smell the fear, sense the horror, see the threat of opposing trenches a stone’s throw away. At the monument, awe and pride intrude. My grandfather was here.

But it turns out he wasn’t.

Thanks to the wonders of the digital age I now have 93 adobe pages of my grandfather’s military record from the moment he enlisted until his discharge and the time of his death.

He enlisted in January of 1915 and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force when it was still necessary for a married man to have his wife’s permission. His wife and my grandmother was Irene Alice who he left behind in Victoria with three children. A fourth would arrive, at least by my calculations, after the war.

On the enlistment form, just above a final declaration, is a curious question: “Do you understand the nature and terms of your engagement?” He answered “yes” and then completed the form with a signature much like my father’s and my own. He was 28 years old and five foot nine. He was assigned to the 30th battalion and sent overseas in the spring of 1915. From January 1915 until March 31, 1916 my grandmother received between 30 and 40 dollars per month.

He spent the summer training at Shorncliffe, on the Kentish coast of England, and then, in September, he was shipped to the front. The front being the trenches of France, and then Belgium and the second battle of Ypres.

Twice in France he was taken from the trenches to a field hospital suffering from influenza. He was promoted to Sergeant by late September 1915, and then to Sergeant Major. Upon discharge he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

On June 3, 1916, at the Battle of Mont Sorrel, within the second battle of Ypres, my grandfather rose from the trench at the call to charge. A bullet pierced his right bicep and shrapnel hit him in the right side of his face. He was evacuated to the Graylingwell War Hospital with “wounds to his right arm and scalp”.

In the documents I have the army is more detailed and thorough in its descriptions of the pay records than either combat or medical experiences, but I do have terse notes by doctors and digitized versions of the original x-rays.

My grandfather’s right arm healed quickly. The x-rays show a piece of shrapnel behind the right eye lodged in bone. They did not attempt to remove this. He is transferred to a convalescent hospital with his arm healed and almost fully functional but suffering from poor sleep (nightmares of his time in the trenches), headaches and dizzy spells. The dizzy spells cause him to black out and fall frequently. Specialists cannot find a physical cause to explain these latter symptoms and they diagnose the etiology as, in part, “nervous”.

By August of that year he is declared medically unfit to return to duty and then formally discharged from the army in January, 1917. The monthly pay to my grandmother ceases two months later.

So he did fight in the trenches; he was wounded, and he was furloughed to London as I knew, but he didn’t fight at Vimy as I had come to believe. And it is 30 to 40 years later that I formed my first memories of my grandfather and he never spoke of the war and I had no idea of the questions I might ask.

But now my medical curiosity has kicked in. Initially his symptoms might have been concussive, or post concussive. Next he certainly suffered from what they called “nerves” and would soon refer to as “shell shock” and now PTSD. He did suffer the living hell of the cold muddy trenches in France and Belgium through the winter of 1916. He watched men dying suddenly. He watched men dying slowly. He watched men throw themselves into battle to relieve their growing terror.

But it is also possible that he continued to report dizzy spells and he continued to fall down at the convalescent hospital because he did not want to go back to those trenches.

Perhaps he had come to know that in war there is no glory to be had.

Men Versus Women on War – Reflections of Remembrance Day Follow Up

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Men, war, women. Kathleen Mochnacki challenged me to consider why women’s attitudes about war are very different than men’s after my  Reflections of Remembrance Day post.

We are different, men and women. Our biologies, our hormones, our muscles and bone structures, our brains. Our brains are different, differently constructed in a few important ways. And these differences allow (on average) different skill sets to flourish. A small group of boys walks to the shore of a lake. You can be sure that within minutes something will be thrown into that lake. A small group of girls walks  to the shore of a lake and they stand around, and sit, and talk. And what they talk about is not the question of who would win in a no-holds fight between Superman and Batman, assuming Batman had no Kryptonite on hand, but rather, relationships, and other girls, and boys. Okay, some boys will engage in that talk as well, and some girls will throw a rock in the lake, but on average….

About two million years ago the first of our ancestors left Africa and crossed what would become the Sahara Desert to Northern Africa and the Middle East. With DNA we can now trace these pathways to India, Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. These early hominids had evolved to become the most successful species on the planet. That evolution included the development of opposable thumbs, tool making, abstract thinking, and language. It also included the development of sets of instincts and behavioural traits that would ensure survival of both the individual and his or her family, and, gradually, bigger and bigger tribes. They were hunter/gatherers. The men were hunters, the women gatherers. Women looked after the babies and children and maintained the kinships. Men monitored the boundaries, fought off invaders, lead the raiding parties. They made the tools, constructed the weapons, built the rafts.

In a sweet little rethinking of Margaret Mead’s famous work about life in Samoa, called “Are Men Really Really Necessary?”, the authors point out that the nuts and berries the women gathered in the woods contained sufficient protein for their babies and children (they didn’t really need meat to survive), and that the men, the successful hunters, rather than bringing the product of their hunt back to feed their families, used this prized meat to barter sexual favours from the most bodacious women of the village. And this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective; it ensures the fittest genes combine to form the next generation.

With rare exceptions, social organizations (families, kinship groups, tribes) were structured around an Alpha Male. As with other primates, this alpha male, this Grey Back, would have to be visible and defend his position on occasion. Eventually abstract thinking, the ability to think and converse in language symbols, allowed the formation of larger and larger tribes organized within a social structure dictated (at least according to the apostles, prophets, and acolytes) by an Invisible Alpha Male.

And there we have it. We have not much changed biologically in the past million years. In fact we shrunk a little when we shifted to agriculture, and only recently regained our height.

We are really the same biological beings of a thousand years ago, even though, in our part of the world at least, we evolved socially. We passed through a period of enlightenment, the development of science, industry, medicine, birth control. We socially evolved to such an extent that we can now cohabit the same ecology with people who speak differently, dress differently, have different coloured skin, and who perform different rituals. We socially evolved to the point that we can govern ourselves within a form of democracy without recourse to an invisible Alpha Male and his scriptures. We socially evolved (with a little help from medicine) to the point where we no longer need that old biological male/female division of traits, labour, and skills.

But our biologies have not much changed. The old instincts, traits, skill potentials, impulses – our genomes, our rat brains, our primitive brains – remain the same.

It was disheartening recently to see Vladimir Putin pound his chest, pump his pectorals, snort and huff, only to have thousands of middle aged men, pundits and politicians, on this side of the divide, do the same. The two million-plus-year-old male instinct at work.

We are unlikely to biologically evolve, at least in Darwinian terms, over the next few hundred years. In order to survive, one of our tasks through this period will be to recognize some of these instincts as no longer viable, no longer of value. In fact, we need to recognize that they could now lead to our destruction. We will have to wait to see if social evolution can trump our biology. Our male biology.

Not that women are exempt from this challenge. Although, let’s face it, the more women we have in leadership positions, the more likely we will be able to follow Winston Churchill’s admonishment: “Talk, talk, talk is better than war, war, war.”

Reflections on Remembrance Day

single_red_poppyBy Dr David Laing Dawson

Today millions of bright young men and millions of not-so-bright young men are playing violent video war games. Some are playing these games from dawn until dawn, headphones on, internet-connected with another million young men around the world. They revel in a good “head-shot”, they compare weapons, get excited about a clever kill, taking out the enemy, and know far more about guns, explosive devises, battlefield strategies than they will ever know about history, art, literature, primate studies, or women.

It is fun; it is addictive; it is glorious; and I guess it is far too late to put this genie back in the bottle.

Most of these young men can distinguish fantasy from reality and their violent and aggressive impulses are confined to the virtual world. The debate is ongoing about how much this gaming affects their attention span, real-life problem solving, and ability to engage in a human world. We do know years of video gaming increases dexterity when piloting a fighter jet.

Which brings me in a round-about way to Remembrance Day and language. My grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge. He survived, but I am sure it affected the rest of his life. I’m sure he came home with, what in those days would be called, shell shock. He must have seen horror. He was wounded three times. He never talked about his war experiences, with the exception of funny stories whilst on leave, tossing his months-old underwear from the hotel window into the streets of London, and for his grandchildren, tapping the small metal plate he said he had in his head.

Let us remember the sacrifices, the terror, the horror of it all. Let us also remember that that war, and many others, was never, ever necessary. Let us come together in remembrance. Let us celebrate our survival and honor the fallen.

But let us not glorify that war or any other war. Our soldiers may look splendid in uniform. They may display great courage, and sacrifice much. But it is not a glorious thing they had to do.

War is not glorious, neither real war nor virtual war, for all its noise and thunder and drama, for all its fear and pain and suffering. It is not glorious.

It is a tragic failure of evolution that in real life our older Alpha males pound their chests and send adolescents off to battle other tribes; and a failure of evolution that our young males take so much pleasure in the game of killing virtual others.