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War in the 20th Century

Two years ago, in 2004, my mother reached the glorious age of 90. Our family honored her and celebrated her nine decades. As I began to think about her 90 years and the enormous changes in the 20th century there were a few major events that became apparent. One is that she has seen a vast range of technological changes from the expansive use of electricity and fossil fuels and consequently cars, airplanes, automatic washing machines, computers — on and on. But the other major factor that has shaped her life in the past century is war. The two are connected of course — war is generally engaged in to provide the markets and raw materials, including fuels, for new technologies. And what impact does war have on our families and society?

In his “Century of War” historian Gabriel Kolko eloquently describes the impact of 20th century wars on society. I thought I might briefly describe my own family’s experience with war. Thousands of families in North America could replicate this history in recounting 20th century wars. My Canadian family’s experience, in fact, would not be as extensive as thousands of those in the United States with stories from the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam or Central America and other military ventures. But before I launch into the 20th century I need to begin with the 18th.

My mother’s family migrated from Yorkshire, England to the east coast of Canada in 1774 to escape the economic destabilization of England at the time — rather like the Mexican migrants today. They settled in Nova Scotia. Just two years later in 1776 they were embroiled in the American Revolutionary War or what some call the “War of Independence” and, according to my great uncle, our family fought for the British crown. Some American colonists wanted Nova Scotia to become part of New England and used the cover of war for this imperialist venture. Many in Nova Scotia, including my ancestors, successfully resisted these efforts. That was my family’s introduction to North America. Now fast forward to the 21st century.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 my 30-year-old son said, “Mom, I thought we’d progressed beyond going to war.” How could I respond to this? I wished so much that we as humans had finally managed to live without war. More than anything, I would like to have left such an endowment to my son.

My mother was born in 1914 in western Canada at the beginning of the First World War. Britain declared war against Germany on August 4 and on October 1, 1914 Canada sent 33,000 Canadian troops to Britain to be further trained, and so it began. My grandfather was a surgeon in the Canadian army in Turkey. When he returned from Turkey after contracting malaria, my mother was close to 2 years old. As she had been only with adult women in her young life, she apparently, at first, had no use for this gregarious male suddenly in her midst. Four of my great uncles fought in the war. One of my grandfather’s brothers was killed in the European theater. He had wanted to become a dentist. My great grandmother, at 82, was acknowledged for the abundance of socks she’d knitted for Canadian soldiers — 260 pairs altogether.

In addition to treating the wounded in the Turkish battles, my grandfather spent a lot of his time detoxifying alcoholic soldiers. I’m assuming that drinking alcohol was the only way many of these soldiers could survive the fear and grief of war. He came back insisting that his family must not drink alcohol. He was not entirely successful in this demand. I remember when my grandfather was in his 80’s, how my Aunts and Uncles would sneak out the wine or whisky after he’d gone to bed. They certainly would not drink in his presence.

In 1939, the year my mother was married, Canada joined Britain in the war against Germany on September 10th. The United States would not join in until December 8, 1941 when it declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Canada also declared war on Japan on December 8. Three days later the United States declared war on Germany and Italy.

In September 1939 my father, a dentist, was treating coal miners in the Northwest Territories in northern Canada and occasionally traveled close to the Artic. He would sometimes work on barges. Word would spread about his pending arrival. There would be Eskimos, European-Canadians and all sorts of folks waiting for him at ports. He said that he was probably the only dentist in the world whose patients spit into the Artic Ocean. He described how the “North Country,” as we called it, was filled with all kinds of folks. In addition to the Indian nations indigenous to the area, there were those who relished leaving the crowded cities of Canada or desired the difficult yet solitary and quiet life of the vast wilderness around the Artic. Some were social pariahs, he said, some were escaping the law, some were probably idealists or adventurists and many were likely workers needing a job in the coalmines or whatever else was available.

Everyone knew that, as a British Commonwealth country, Canada would join Britain in war. With the increased German bombing of Britain they expected that the declaration was imminent. My father said most of the men insisted they would not fight, but would instead disappear into the bush. The day Britain declared war they heard the engine of a boat coming across the lake by the mine. It was dark and they couldn’t imagine who this could be. When the boat docked, two Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen jumped out of the small boat with their rifles drawn. They walked directly into the mine to immediately draft the miners into the Canadian army. “These police were brave,” my Dad said. “The miners were rough guys.” To me, this seemed like an altogether aggressive drafting method to reign in the Canadian working class for war. Ultimately, the Canadians had more than 600,000 in its WWII army, including my Dad who was about to go to Europe when war ended in 1945.

One of my mother’s high school boy friends came from a family of four boys. All of them went to war. At one point, my mother’s friend was captured by the Germans and placed in a high security prison, yet his family was allowed to send letters. When his mother learned that the body of one of her sons was washed ashore off the coast of Ireland, she warned family members not to write about this loss to her imprisoned son. She was afraid he would become all the more revengeful against the Germans and do something foolish. But he learned about his brother in any case from other hometown friends in the prison. He did escape and hid for a while with German farmers who ultimately became too nervous and kicked him out. Shortly after, the Germans killed him. My mother tells me that many of her high school friends were killed in the war.

My Dad’s younger brother was in the Royal Canadian Air Force along with 200,000 others. His was killed in 1942 when his plane was shot down after a bombing raid over Germany. We have letters he sent from Britain before these raids that often included small amounts of money for my Dad to place into a savings account. My uncle had wanted to become a pharmacist like his father. In the same year, my grandfather died of a heart attack. My grandmother’s grief must have been incomprehensible.

My father refused to accept that his brother had been killed and after the end of the war in 1945 he frantically sought a definitive confirmation of his death. Up to the day he died in the 1980’s, he never forgave the Germans. War can definitely bring with it a long-lasting prejudice. Iraqis will also likely blame the United States for their enormous loss and destabilization for the next few hundred years at least. Some 150 years after the Civil War thousands of southerners still resent the Union Army and recount the battles. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the 1950’s my family moved to the United States. My father told me in the 1960’s, however, that if my brothers were drafted into the Vietnam War he would send them to Canada. He’d had enough of war.

The 20th century was definitely defined by war and the U.S. is, unfortunately, starting the 21st with war as well. It has a brutalizing effect on us all. Sixty years after war I’ve seen men weep as they describe their experiences. It’s hard to say what ghosts remain with the participants of war — we know it has a lasting resonance. But I’m concerned it will be worse for today’s military given the aggressive training they receive and that changed after the Second World War.

War is about killing others. Yet, most of us humans, thankfully, are not effective killers and have no desire to harm others. This is the saving grace of it all! In his fascinating book On Killing, psychologist Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman devotes a whole chapter to the ‘Nonfirers Throughout History.’ Research has found that throughout history, in any war, only 15% to 20% of the soldiers are willing to kill. This low percentage is universal and applies to soldiers from every country throughout recorded history. Interestingly, even distance from the enemy does not necessarily encourage killing. Grossman offers the fascinating finding that “Even with this advantage, only 1 percent of the U.S. fighter pilots accounted for 40% of all enemy pilots shot down during WWII; the majority didn’t shoot anyone down or even try to.”

Unfortunately, western military policies and the military industrial complex do not reflect in any way these natural tendencies. Instead, according to Grossman, especially since WWII the military training attempts to make us more effective killers through repetitive training so that by Vietnam some 95% of our military were prepared to kill — albeit many used pharmaceuticals to help with this and they probably use them in Iraq as well. Grossman says Vietnam was the first pharmaceutical war.

Is this what we want for our youth? To become effective killers? What is the lasting effect of this? How are our families being impacted by this training? We need to ask these questions.

Our ancestors have allowed war to predominate too much of our lives from generation to generation and we are continuing with this dreadful legacy. My mother and her generation have suffered enormously from attempts to resolve conflict with violence, as if this should be considered the norm. I personally defy this distorted logic. While I honor my family’s service, most of us are pawns in the desires of the government and corporate elite of our countries and become their commodities for war — nothing more, nothing less. I am hoping that my son’s experience will not be a replication of his grandmother’s. At the very least, my son, at this early stage of his life, has the vision to see life without war. I am thankful for that.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at



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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at

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