what i'm reading, children's book edition: # 3: a war resister story of sorts

In this children's book review, I look at a book about military war resistance and analyze its lessons and conclusions.

Shot at Dawn deals with many unpleasant realities of war - including some shameful episodes in Canada's past - with open eyes and without sugar coating. Ultimately, the author pulls his punch, forcing a conclusion that is palatable to mainstream sensibilities. At the same time, though, the book insists on difficult questions without clear-cut answers. So while it doesn't square with my own views, neither does it satisfy pro-military or nationalist propaganda. I add this book to my ongoing exploration of war and war resistance.

Boys read about war

I recently compared some children's historical fiction that I read as a child, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, with more contemporary books in the same genre. I was dismayed to find that most children's historical fiction is marketed to girls. For example, Scholastic's Dear Canada series, for girls, includes 31 books. The I Am Canada series, for boys, comprises only six books.

Theoretically, a child of either gender can read any book. But in reality, it would be a very unusual boy in unusual circumstances who would knowingly choose a "girl book". At the age children read these books, stereotyped gender roles are strictly enforced through the most effective methods: their peers. If a book is marketed as "girly," you can be sure that most boys won't go near it.

Adding to my displeasure, of the six books in the I Am Canada series, four are about war. (One is about the Titanic, and another deals with the building of the trans-Canadian railroad, told in the voice of a Chinese labourer.) But I had reason to hope: one of the war books appeared to be - perhaps - about war resistance.

I Am Canada: Shot at Dawn

This fictional, historically-based story of war propaganda, PTSD, and resistance to war is set during the only time it possibly could be: the Great War in Europe, what we now call World War I. World War I is usually the setting for treatments of these issues, both because of its utter brutality and senselessness, and because it is distant enough from the present to allow frank criticism in the mainstream.

In the fictional diary, one Allan McBride, Canadian, is eager to volunteer to do his patriotic duty, be part of the action, go kill some Huns. Against his parents' wishes, young Allan enlists, following (he thinks) in the footsteps of a friend and mentor he deeply admires.

In France, Allan gets a sudden dose of reality. He witnesses gruesome wounds worse than death, and sees the arbitrary and decidedly unheroic nature of death all around him. He experiences the rush and exhilaration of battle, but the author paints an appropriately grim picture of the trenches - the desolation of No Man's Land, the nauseating smells, the casual horrors.

He also learns about war's class system - how the enlisted man, the common soldier, is mistreated, and expendable, while the officers are pampered and protected. He learns about war profiteering, and I credit the author, John Wilson, with this unsparing view of just how government always "supports the troops".

The rabble-rouser

Part of young Allan McBride's education is his introduction to a war resister, a radical who preaches resistance. This character is presented ambiguously: it's up to Allan McBride and the reader to decide what to make of him. But the words the man speaks are unambiguous and strong.
"But a short while back you also called me a coward. Now that's a serious thing.

"I've seen 'brave' men with chests full of medals reduced to gibbering wrecks by days of shelling or the sight of their best friend's brains smeared along the wall of a trench. Are they cowards?"

I stayed silent.

"Of course they're not. They've just been pushed beyond what any sane man can stand.

"I've been down the coal mines at Cumberland and Extension on Vancouver Island, where it's so gassy that a careless spark can create a wall of fire that'll incinerate fifty men before they even have a chance to run. By the Somme River I've seen sixteen-year-old boys walk forward until machine-gun bullets stitched a neat line of holes across their chests. I've heard wounded men in no man's land scream insanely for two days before they died. I've seen men drown in mud holes at Arras when six of their friends weren't strong enough to pull them out. I've felt the last breath of a young German soldier on my cheek while I struggled to pull my bayonet out of his chest." Sommerfield paused for a long minute, still holding me with his stare. Around us the other men stood in a silence I had only ever heard in church. Eventually, Sommerfield continued.

"I've felt fear so intense that I was paralyzed and I've wept uncontrollably at some of the things I've seen and done, but have I run away? No. After every horror I buried my comrades, picked up my rifle and fought on like a good soldier. So, yes, I am a coward. I'm a coward because through all of that I went on doing what the stupid generals wanted. I never stood up and said, 'No!' I never screamed, 'Enough!' I never shot the officer who ordered another thousand young men to go over the top, knowing that half of them would be dead an hour later."

Confusion overwhelmed me now. What was this man talking about? His list of horrors had nothing to do with bravery, honour and fighting for your country. Did it?

Before I could think of anything to say, an Australian in the crowd shouted, "But you did run away, Harry."

Sommerfield turned his stare on the man who had spoken, releasing me.

"Some would say that," he murmured. "Others might say I'm simply fighting a different war. I'm taking as much of a chance coming here as any I took in the front lines. Only difference is, if I'm caught now, it's my own side that'll shoot me, not the Germans."

"You're a deserter," I said with sudden realization.

"That's what some would call me." Sommerfield turned back to look at me. "I've also been called a Socialist, a traitor, a conspirator and a rabble-rouser. I prefer to think of myself as a sheep who has seen the light and no longer wants to be led unprotesting to the slaughterhouse."

Deserter or victim? The army shoots you either way.

Eventually, Allan McBride suffers "shell shock," what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, what I hope one day we will finally acknowledge is the normal, human response to the insanity of war. He wanders away from his unit, believing he is walking home to Canada. He meets a band of deserters, led by the same Sommerfield, who help him recover. Sommerfield speaks bluntly about their predicament.
"Only one choice as far as I can see," Sommerfield said. "Nothing's going to stop the Germans. As soon as they reach the coast, Britain and France are going to have to make peace.

"Oh, there'll be lots of shouting and a big peace conference. Some money and some land will change hands and everyone will try and claim that they did well out of it. There'll be a few years for everyone to lick their wounds and build up their armies." He spat into the fire. "And then it'll all happen again."

"But that means that we'll have fought for four years for nothing."

"For the average man it always was for nothing. What did you or I ever stand to gain from this war? If we were lucky, we'd stay alive. The only people who profit from war are the businessmen who make the guns, shells, bombs, uniforms and all the rest of the paraphernalia an army needs.

They're making fortunes and you don't see a single one of them risking his life in the mud. The worker — whether he's British, French, Canadian, German or, now, American — is fighting to put money in some fat slug's pocket in London, Paris, Toronto or Berlin."

"Like the bloody Ross rifle," Pete muttered. Sommerfield caught my questioning look and said, "You weren't out here at the beginning, but the Canadians in 1915 and '16 were given Ross rifles instead of the British Enfields. The government wanted the contract to go to a Canadian company so their cronies could profit. Trouble was, the rifle didn't work. It jammed when the least bit of dirt got in it, the bayonet tended to fall off and, if you weren't really careful assembling it, the bolt flew back and took the side of your head off when you fired it. Everyone hated it. At Ypres in 1915, the first thing you did when you got out of the trench was find a dead Brit and take his rifle.

"Canadian boys died because of the Ross rifle, but would the government stop issuing it? No. Good old Sir Charles Ross was making a packet and he had friends in high places. What did it matter if the rifle was killing a few young soldiers? Eventually, General Haig had to order the Canadians to issue us with Enfields."

If Sommerfield had told me this story last summer, I'd have shouted him down as a liar. Now I was angry, but my anger was at Ross and the others, not Sommerfield.
So our hero has grown. His experiences have changed him. Where there was once only flag-waving patriotism and utter disdain for dissent, there is now a painful and confusing doubt. All the while, McBride suffers from nightmares, outbursts of anger, episodes of confusion.

Eventually, Allan McBride comes to a crossroad. He can either take off with Sommerfield and make his way back to Canada, lying about his circumstances but likely saving his life. Or he can return to his unit, where he will probably face a firing squad.

Sommerfield and others make it clear that the Army will have no sympathy for McBride. He was out of his mind. He didn't know where he was or what he was doing. He did not intentionally desert. But if he returns, he probably will be executed for desertion. The injustice of this will be obvious to most young readers. (In the epilogue, back in the present, we learn how many British and Canadian soldiers were executed this way, and how long their families waited for their posthumous pardons.)

Making the means fit the end

Both sides of Allan McBride's dilemma are presented. But this is a children's book, and our hero cannot knowingly desert his duty. He cannot hold fake identification documents and stow away on a steamer ship to Canada. He must do the honourable, dutiful thing: he must face the consequences of his actions and return to his unit.

How are we to make this credible? How many people will knowingly walk to their deaths - not in the heat of battle, and not to save someone else, but calmly and with consideration, choose an unjust death for principles like patriotic duty? The only way this ending can be justified - meaning, the only way it won't look like a crazy deus ex machina decision - is to discredit the road not taken.

Allan is torn between two opposites, the classic two-father-figure scenario: his commander, who is his friend and mentor from home, and Harry Sommerfield, the rabble-rouser. The author pushes his character into the right choice by discrediting Sommerfield, who is suddenly motivated purely by self interest.

Of course, some political operatives are primarily self-interested, but nothing in Sommerfield's character up to this point has hinted that he is anything but a charismatic true believer. Suddenly he is transformed into an entirely selfish, manipulative opportunist.

So Allan McBride is freed from Sommerfield's spell, and can return to his unit - where he is immediately incarcerated and scheduled for execution.

Allan's commander (who is also his friend and mentor from home) pulls some strings, gets the execution stayed, and gets Allan treatment. The famous army hospital at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Dr. Rivers has been breaking new ground with his humane treatment of "shell shock" (portrayed in Pat Barker's excellent book Regeneration, based on the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon), is available only to officers. But somehow Dr. Rivers will treat Allan privately.

A Hollywood ending, but I understand

It's a fairy tale ending, tacked on to a story that is anything but a fairy tale.

And yet, as someone who wrote for kids, I acknowledge that is likely the only choice available to the author. (I can't speak for the author; perhaps this is exactly the ending he wanted.) Our hero can't very well be shot for desertion. And no mainstream publisher wants a book where the hero deserts and sneaks back to his country with faked papers. So I get it. But I don't like it.

But more importantly, Shot At Dawn shows a reality of war that is often not available to young people - not only war's brutality, but its inherent injustice. And through the character of Harry Sommerfield, strong ideas of pacifism and socialism are spoken alongside the more familiar words of nationalism.

The book is perfect for advancing classroom discussions or for writing assignments asking children what they think Allan should have done, or what they would do, and why.

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