Veteran’s Day is coming up and I can’t help thinking about a poem called “Ode of Remembrance” by Laurence Binyon. It reads (in part)
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Those verses and this holiday were to memorialize the veterans of the first World War, the war that was supposed to end all the others. Well, we know what happened after that. Despite the enormous cost, wars continued to flourish, large and small, and although no one publicly prefers sending soldiers into battle, the soldiers keep being sent. Taylor Caldwell explores the reasons and pressures that lead in to war in her book, The Balance Wheel. It’s an old-fashioned novel in many ways but some of its themes are contemporary.
As the balance wheel among four adult brothers, Charles Wittmann is a very busy man. Most of his time and energy are consumed either managing the tool factory his father created or his siblings, the materialistic Joe, Wilhelm, the aesthete and Fred, a rabble-rousing, proto-Marxist. What extra time Charles has is devoted to his teen-aged son, Jimmy. When a government representative visits and talks of imminent global conflict, Charles has to broaden his concerns to protect his family, his business and his town.
After that, Charles Wittmann caries the burden of Cassandra, able to see his country’s future but unable to change it. The reader watches the approach of war through his eyes, knowing his efforts for peace will be swept aside in the end as his family gets swept into history
The novel suggests that families and communities are microcosms of the nations they occupy and that war occurs when intelligent, well-meaning governments and leaders don’t actively work (like Charles) to keep peace or resist evil. That may or may not be true. What cannot be disputed is that when governments fail in these tasks, it is the citizens who pay. Treaties can be negotiated or border-lines redrawn, but no agreement can revive sacrificed soldiers. No general can bring back the dead.
The only ways to honor their sacrifice are to remember the dead and work to keep others from joining their ranks. (Or, to quote Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”) The Balance Wheel tries to do both. It’s not a soldier’s novel like A Farewell to Arms or All Quiet on the Western Front although the soldiers are in it. It’s about how everyone loses in wars. It’s one way to remember the Armistice.