Crisis of Memory
"Memory of war," John Ralston Saul once wrote, "is such a delicate thing."
Best known as a political essayist — and from October 1999 to September 2005 as one of the vice-regal occupants of Rideau Hall (see Adrienne Clarkson) — Ralston Saul might better be defined as the son of a D-Day soldier, godson of a decorated war hero from the Italian campaign, and close friend of innumerable Canadian veterans. He grew up in a military family surrounded by men like his father who fought and won the Second World War.
Ralston Saul acquired many values from such people, but he never once heard them speak about battle.
"I never heard them tell a war story, except perhaps as a joke," he says.
The only fragment his father told him about his own war experience was that, unlike most of the landing troops on D-Day, he never got seasick riding the waves into
"To explain would be to suggest that such things were explicable," says Ralston Saul.
Their reticence is understandable, but he believes it has fuelled a crisis of memory in which
"Everybody's trying to figure out: How do you lock that memory in?"
Ralston Saul knew enough while growing up to appreciate that his parents and their friends had been immersed in a momentous event of great national sacrifice. Capt. William Saul had fought briefly in
Miraculously, he survived the drama of
Ralston served during the war in a women's regiment that drove army trucks and taught soldiers how to do the same. Afterwards, she moved to
What Did They Fight For?
Ralston Saul kept in touch with his father's friends and fellow veterans as they grew older, and he says many began to worry that the country hadn't learned enough from them about the increasingly distant war — neither its dramatic details nor its wider lessons.
"The big shock to all of them was this realization that somehow they knew something that they couldn't explain, and that somehow they didn't know how to deal with society on that subject. As they got older and older, I think they got more and more insistent on trying to explain it."
The stories they now strive to tell concern far more than just the dusty facts of history. (See The Memory Project.)
"Today we still see violence breaking out, and racism coming back," says Ralston Saul. "There's been ethnic cleansing in
"The head of the World Jewish Congress gave a speech just before (the 60th anniversary of the liberation of) Auschwitz in which he said, 'We have to succeed in our memory of this, because of
Self Confidence, Self-Sacrifice
There are other lessons. To forget the generation that helped defeat the Nazis is also to forget that Canada — whatever our national insecurities today — was once one of the most self-assured societies on the planet, secure in its identity thanks largely to a grand ethos of public service that helped produce the victory in Europe.
As Ralston Saul explains it: “My father's generation had been part of this great army, one of the great modern armies in history. They had enormous self-confidence. They landed on D-Day, they liberated countries, they were astonishing people, and they did it all together. So when they hear people today searching for