I’ve never lived on land where war is part of the living memory of the people. I’ve never fought in a war or even handled a gun. No one I love has died in war. And I didn’t know how those facts affected my worldview until I went to Belgium in 1999 and, because I was with older male relatives who cared more about military history than the art museums that are my go-to destinations when I visit new places, spent a week encountering memorials of World War I. I didn’t choose to visit the IJzertoren in Diksmuide, the memorial to the Canadian soldiers who endured the first German gas attack, the German World War I cemetery, the Belgian World War I cemetery, the Tyne Cot British cemetery, In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper (Yprès), or the Flanders Field American cemetery. I went along with the agenda because that’s what you do when you’re traveling with a group. If I had been president of the United States and it had been the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, I would have all the more gone along with the agenda, because that’s what you do. If it’s too rainy and windy to fly a helicopter, I believe that the “leader of the free world” has command of sufficient resources to find some cars to get him there safely.
If he had left the US Ambassador’s residence and made the arduous 60-mile drive to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, I wonder if Donald Trump, Giant Man-Baby, could have experienced the surprising weight of grief that I felt in 1999 for people who had been dead for eighty years, now one hundred. People remember when they can’t help but remember, but people create memorials so that others, even in the distant future, can imagine in some small measure what it was like. And I got it . . . so much so that at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic concert last night—where they were performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a pacifist masterpiece that juxtaposes the anti-war poems of soldier Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin requiem—when I saw the small red poppy pin on the conductor’s lapel, I immediately teared up. That week in Belgium, all those dead, all the devastation of the landscape, come to my mind whenever I see that stylized memorial poppy.
If you have grown up in America, and nothing in your city ever had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by bombs, if your city and countryside are not dotted with cemeteries for people of all nations who died there trying to defend your nation’s right to sovereignty, then you will have an impoverished sense of the cost of war. Maybe you could read some poems and imagine what it would be like to suffocate from the inside after a gas attack, or to watch a friend suffer thus and be helpless:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues . . .
—Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”
Or maybe you could visit other memorials, where the scenes of devastation are fixed so that people remember. At the top of the IJzertoren, a 360-degree mural shows what the viewer would have seen in 1918, just above the windows circling the tower.
In Ieper, you can buy postcards showing the destruction of the Lakenhalle, a medieval marketplace that now houses the In Flanders Field Museum.
Right before your eyes, you can see that they rebuilt the structure after the war to look just as it had before. The people of Ieper felt that it would be admitting defeat to design more contemporary structures, so the city creates the effect of a perfect medieval town built in the 1920s.
Or you can personalize the experience by going to In Flanders Field Museum, where you will be given the name of a soldier when you enter the museum and will receive periodic updates on his story as you progress through the museum. My ex-husband had the Canadian soldier William Bower, and I had William “Ewie” Parker, who died in 1917.
It would be nice for me to continue to live with as much privilege as I have so far, to be so far from the battlefield that my nation’s ongoing war, of almost two decades’ duration, with Afghanistan has not required me personally to make any sacrifices. But I have an imagination and a functioning ability to empathize, and so the efforts of European memorializers continue to work on me, to remind me of the long-lasting scars that war incises into entire nations, not just on soldiers and families. And I extrapolate from the way that World War I still felt like a very recent event in Belgium in 1999 to wonder how long the wars we are fighting in the Middle East will feel like only yesterday to the people who will still live there someday, when and if these wars are ever over. But in order to be moved by the work of the memorializers, you have to show up.
Rachel E. Hile