In November, it’s hard to forget. Now I don’t mean your keys or your economics quiz; those still slip our minds with regularity. No, as any human being in the Western World who doesn’t currently take up residence under a large rock will tell you, November, at least the beginning of it, is marked by the remembrance of war.
This time of year is one to remember those who fought and those who died so that we might live in a free nation, or as close to it as we can get. This time of year is one to remember the death and pain and huge cost of the many, many wars that have so badly pockmarked our earth and scarred our memories. This time of year is a time to remember, and to be solemn in our remembrance.
But—does that mean we have to be sad?
It’s really hard not to be, when the blood-red poppies we see on the breasts of each passerby remind us of awkwardly staccato recitations of “In Flanders Fields”, which only remind us of crosses row on row and larks above the guns below, which only remind us of the countless images of lurid trenches and wounded men lying feebly on stretchers.
And while it’s very important to be sad about these things, some of these same wounded men would have liked sadness to not be your only emotion at this time of year.
I recently had the good fortune of stumbling upon a book entitled Made in the Trenches, a fitting read for Remembrance Day, one would assume. However, contrary to popular assumption, this book is a comedy.
Written by (primarily) the men of the “Star and Garter” Home for totally disabled soldiers, this anthology of poetry and short stories is anything but what one would expect from such a group of men. Additionally, given the oh-so-comforting words of the preface, “In the aftermath of this grievous war there is no more lamentable and pathetic figure than the soldier who, by reason of his wounds, is paralysed and left utterly helpless”, you can’t help but go into the book with a lump in your throat and a chip on your shoulder.
What these veterans show the reader in the pages post-preface serve to smooth and brush these away, respectively. From the first story—a jolly tale of a hearty, albeit not spectacularly bright, group of soldiers blissfully daydreaming of the home they shall soon return to as bullets fly over their heads—to the last, a theme is obvious: war is hell, but life is not.
Or at least it doesn’t have to be.
There is no real value in actually critiquing such a work; the most I could say is that there is some awkward phrasing and the occasional unnecessary plot point in a few of the stories. No, the true value of this book is in its message, and how it can be applied to our lives, here and now.
By now you may have wondered how this book fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and you’re right to wonder. At face value, while the poetry, though sometimes a little crude, can be seen as speculative, the prose is historical fiction through and through. However, the same thing that makes this book so relevant today is also what makes it speculative.
As I’ve already gestured at several times now, this is a funny view of a time that was most decidedly not funny. The idea itself, even on paper, seems absurd, and yet it is this absurdity that makes the point so strong.
In and of itself, the book, its settings, and its content provide a window into a strange and different world—one that many, especially most Westerners, have never experienced, and will hopefully never have to. In all fairness, the world of war is as alien to the average person sitting at their laptop as that of a galaxy far, far away. For one who has never experienced warfare, writing on this topic could almost be seen as speculative itself.
However, this is not the case for the men of the “Star and Garter”. They lived through the horrors of war firsthand, and saw some of their friends and allies die as a result. For them, this was life, no speculation needed.
Where the book’s speculation and modern meaning intersect is in the wonders of the world that these men imagine outside of their place in it. Beyond the battlefield and above the muck of their painful, everyday existences, they were able to see the oft-quoted, seldom-fulfilled silver lining. In a strange and hostile universe where there really was no light over the horizon—at least none that made it through the barbed wire—they made their own.
In each of these stories and poems, whether they be about going home to see loving nurses, finding a long sought-after oasis, or merely the Shakespearian beauty in the twisted environment around, there beats a heart yearning for more than reality. Throughout the tales and odes there is a soul that realizes the value of a lie, if only in that repeating one long enough makes it a hope.
Today, we may not huddle for days on end in endless filth, but we still have our own trenches. We may not plod on with a pack on our back and a rifle in our arms, but we have our own marches. We may not live in perpetual fear of death, but we have our own wars.
There is something that we can definitely learn from these brave individuals who sacrificed so much and gained so little, but it will not only be found in the solemn blare of a trumpet. If Made in the Trenches is any testament, what we should remember this season is that when reality pins you down, it is the dreamers who push back.
-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski