We live in soft times.
When I say, that, I am referring to the many times in the world where human beings found themselves besieged by real and present danger. In comparison, the modern world seems positively boring. Men of my generation have never been required to fight. Our ancestors two generations back were not so lucky. My mom’s brother was killed in World War II, and her dad fought in World War I. My Grandma’s brother suffered the lifelong effects of Chlorine gas in the trenches in that same war. We never heard much about those conflicts. They were considered necessary, commonplace and to be forgotten as soon as possible.
The family military history goes back even further than that. My Grandma’s dad was decorated in the Nile Expedition of the Second Boer War, under Lord Kitchener. It is hard to imagine that he was going hand-to-hand with the kind of natives you only now see depicted in old movies, with face painting, headdresses, spears and a taste for blood. My grandmother had some of that military equipment in her attic, and when she moved from her house, got rid of it. Who after all, would want those junky old helmets and swords?
The thing which sticks with me is that my great grandfather fought a real enemy who could be seen with his own eyeballs. You could have no doubt of intent if a Zulu or a Boer was coming at you. Still, he lost a later battle against a more formidable foe: the imaginary one. Trying to make a go of it in the dirty thirties in the dustbowl that was Saskatchewan, he one day walked away from his farm and never came back. It has crossed my mind that perhaps he was suffering from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress, a thing which was never diagnosed back in those days. You were expected simply to put on the stiff upper lip and get on with your life.
Still, an imaginary enemy is much more frightening than a visible one. The most clever enemy is the one who masquerades in front of your face with flattery, guile, and no trace of ill intent. It is why the Arabs have a saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Proximity is everything. Think of the horror movie that scared you the most. Chances are you only saw shadowy hints at what kind of evil lurked behind the scenes. That imaginary monster under your bed is a universal fear of the unknown, and for good reason. To know your enemy holds a kind of power. To not know your enemy leave you helpless.
We live in strange times these days. I think the problem at the heart of it all is that we are told so many conflicting things daily, in the surfeit of information that bombards us from every form of media. The net effect of social media is a preponderance of opinions and loyalties that may or may not be anchored in any form of truth. People are tribe-ing up all over again like we are some kind of Lord-of-the-Flies experiment. You can see the incivility which ensues when people unleash their vitriol from a safe distance. Hidden behind a computer screen, you are brave enough to say just about anything to anybody.
At the heart of it all, is this same malaise. Lack of a concrete face by which to identify your foe. It makes me think of sharing a run down apartment in the Dundas West area of Toronto, with a school friend. Unhappily, we had mice and they were not shy. One day we were cooking some ribs in the oven, and opened the door to check the progress. A rather large mouse was perched basking in the warm-up, and nibbling away on our roast like he belonged there. Seeing the enemy changes you. We got suddenly serious about mice. I tried the usual traps and they are reliable to a point. But really what you really want in any conquest, is the shock-and-awe component. Mine came in the form of dried potato flakes. The instant potato flakes were a special treat used by western farmers to get rid of mice in grain elevators. The mice would fill up on the dry flakes, which would hit the liquid in their digestive system and make them swell up. I got a quick idea that my strategy was working when I came across a few exploded mice. They had pigged out on the instant potatoes, and nature had done its thing. Primitive but effective chemical warfare.
None of this of required any real valour. A part of me I think, is like every man - aching for a worthy conflict by which to measure myself. The urge to heroism, and to pit myself against real evil. The problem is that we live in an age where boys are not allowed to play with toy guns. We are told that aggression is bad, that testosterone leads to evil, and worse, our traditional enemies have often been painted as our friends. Consider what those who fought communists in places like Korea might think of our current government in Canada, and you get my drift. “Know your enemy” is a saying derived from Sun Tzu’s famous Art of War. Knowing your enemy is Warfare 101.
Real conflict can actually take you out of your head and make you sleep better at night. Think of those in the Blitz in London, who very quickly lost their fear when the bombings became a daily thing. They tended to go about their lives amidst the rubble because they knew their enemy and they harboured no false illusions whatsoever. They were in it to win, and to live. Enemy be damned.
If a worthy conflict arises, there is a strong urge inside of me even now in my sixties, to man up. It’s why my wife often finds me watching Netflix battles that require armour, swords, catapults, and real hand to hand combat. But we live in an age where the enemy is hard to find. In an odd way, I am a victim of my own times. One can only dream. Call me, I’ll be ready to set my face like flint, to inform my loved ones with a gravelly voice; “I’m going in. Don’t anybody try to stop me!”