On November 8th, 2015 I had the privilege of representing the Legion at a presentation of Man, Art, Action at Canada House in London. Coming out of the London Underground that day held a surreal quality for me. Marv Westwood, the developer of the Veterans Transition Program, chatted idly to me as we made our way towards the embassy. With his greying hair, glasses, and languid manner, Marv looked the spitting image of a Professor of Counselling Psychology. Truth be told, I remember very little of what he said to me that day—I was too entranced by the city to pay much attention until we turned a corner and were suddenly struck by the sight of Nelson’s Column towering over us with cold command.
“See that?” Marv asked, “That’s Trafalgar Square. They had a huge celebration there on VE day.”
“I’ve heard,” I answered vaguely, bringing to mind the grainy, black-and-white images of jubilation. It wasn’t even half a mile away where Winston Churchill appeared on the balcony of the Ministry of Health to triumphantly declare the first Victory in Europe Day. Thousands of Londoners had rampaged through the streets afterwards, hugging, shaking hands, and dancing. That night, for the first time in six years, London’s streets were lit without fear of aerial bombing. The square still seemed to reverberate with the tremendous power of that release.
Canada House lies on the eastern edge of Trafalgar square, its impressive stone façade looming over the legion of tourists perpetually snapping selfies on the massive bronze lions standing guard at Nelson’s Column. As Marv and I approached, the marbled opulence of the interior was clearly visible through several large windows facing the square. However, after passing through the large double doors and entering the main reception area, I found myself most impressed not by the glittering foyer, but by two art pieces which together dominated the room. One was a massive mural depicting scenes from Afghanistan and bearing the names of Canadians killed in the conflict. The other was more macabre: a totem pole, carved out of coffins, bearing the names of the dead and inlaid with maps and satellite imagery of Kandahar. Both of these works were created by soldiers who went through the Veterans Transition Program, many of whom are now part of Man, Art, Action. These two art pieces were to form the backdrop of a live performance, the centerpiece of the project. The idea was to create a visible representation of the invisible burden that many Veterans carry.
While Marv and the rest of the group chatted with the event organizer and set up their equipment for the performance, I wandered around the room regarding the art from every angle. The totem pole in particular fascinated me. I traced my hand along the ghostly images of Afghan roads inlaid in the wood; they were the very roads I myself had driven down years ago, sun on my face, dust swirling up around me and hanging like a cloak. I saw the names of well-known places—places that still burn in the collective memory of modern Canadian soldiers: The White School, Route Lake Effect, and Route Fosters (later Route Hyena). Somewhere in my house I have these same maps. They lie hidden in some junk drawer, these relics of my early 20s. I still don’t know why I grabbed them as my deployment ended. At the time it seemed important to take something physical back with me. Whether they were a reminder or a trophy I can’t say, and I’ve never known what to do with them. If you ask, most soldiers will tell you that they’ve kept some memento of their deployment, though, like my maps, they may be buried and long forgotten. Everyone brings something back from war.
The crowd that gathered to witness the exhibition was small. It was made up mainly of invited dignitaries and Canada House staff who chatted jovially in the gilded setting of the foyer. I felt quite out of my depth in this kind of company and had resolved to get a glass of wine when I (and everyone else) was startled by a booming voice calling an unseen body of troops to attention. More than a few people flinched and a hush fell over the room as the four Veterans involved in the production slow-marched their way through the crowd to begin the performance. They all wore black shirts, combat pants, and grim expressions as they approached the stage in measured, deliberate steps. The joviality of the room seemed to evaporate in the stoic presence of the performers.
The performance began. For about 20 minutes (the play had been significantly abridged in the interest of time) the audience sat transfixed by the four Veterans who banished the bare stage and glistening foyer and called into being the dusty, winding Afghan streets. No props were used—the performers mimed rifles and turned the steering wheels of invisible armoured vehicles with outstretched arms. The Spartan nature of the production did nothing to lessen the authenticity of the moment. In a memorable scene, one of the Veterans tries to give first-aid to his friend after a roadside bomb explodes. With an empty fist he poured QuikClot on the wounds, burning his hands in the process. “It should have been me,” he quietly sobbed into his unresponsive friend’s shoulder, “it should have been me.” I could almost smell the blood.
At the end of the performance, a weighty silence hung in the room. Marv got on the empty stage. He wore a sad smile, and there was a tension in his normally relaxed posture. I could tell he was proud of the production, but he seemed hesitant to break the forbidding silence. “So… Veterans helping Veterans, wouldn’t you say?” he asked finally. Just like that, the spell was broken. The audience exhaled as one body, and began to fidget while Marv thanked the hosts and talked about the Veterans Transition Program. He explained in his soft, sing-songy voice how the idea for the program had been born out of his experience interviewing WWII Veterans. These Veterans, he told us, had returned after the war, but they had brought with them an intangible burden. Their bodies were at home, but their minds still haunted old battlefields. In sharing their stories, Marv explained, these Veterans were able to revisit the sites of traumatic events and put down the burdens they had carried away. “Westwood!” Marv gruffly addressed himself in a pantomime of a grizzled WWII Veteran, “You know what the problem with your program is? It’s 50 years too late. Promise us you won’t make the young guys wait for it.”
It wasn’t long after I returned from Afghanistan that it became apparent some of my friends had brought something back besides maps. You could catch hints of it in the frustrated airs they put on, or in the awkward pauses in conversation. Many didn’t know what to do, so they drank or took up menial labour jobs. They quit the army, grew beards, and stopped showing up to military events. But for all their attempts to shed the external trappings of the military, it was clear they had not truly reconciled themselves to civilian life. They went to work in their issued tan T-Shirts. They wore their jeans tucked into desert boots to the bar. Their identity was still bound up in their deployment. They had brought Afghanistan home with them.
One by one, these friends of mine found themselves in the Veterans Transition Program. Scientists who study the brain have found that the sub-conscious mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality (this is why you get choked up watching a sad movie, even though you know it isn’t real). The program takes advantage of this by re-enacting a traumatic event from a Veteran’s past. Through re-enactment, Veterans are transported back to the time and place of their trauma. There they can say goodbye to a friend, or give themselves permission to relax, or be forgiven for a perceived fault. In essence, they seek absolution from their former selves. The Man, Art, Action project, and the performance at Canada House, was the final outgrowth of this process. It externalized an internal journey in an effort to promote the Veterans Transition Program and to demonstrate that the burdens that Veterans carry with them can be put aside.
That night, after it was all over and everyone had left the building, I walked out into the brightly-lit street and once again saw Nelson’s Column towering overhead. After the emotionally charged atmosphere of the performance, the air was cool and refreshing. A street performer was in Trafalgar Square, juggling fire in front of a small group of tourists. I thought about a friend of mine who had deployed with me. He once told me that he remembered certain gory occasions only in black-and-white images. He figured it was his sub-conscious trying to protect him from the horror of the experience. It’s an interesting concept—the mind paring down memories in an effort to make them more palatable. In a way, this is not unlike what I had seen onstage that night. After all, the play was a dramatized version of the performers’ own stories. It was evident that the memories still burned these soldiers, but by changing them into a performance they have been partially stripped of their destructive power. The memory remains, but its most troubling aspects have been contextualized into a broader narrative.
Marv said that the WWII Veterans he interviewed found an emotional release in the simple act of telling their stories. Maybe by imposing the structure of a story on their memories, they achieved a certain mastery over them. Maybe by becoming their own narrator, they gained the ability to finally say “the end.” Memories are the most important thing soldiers bring back from war. Perhaps in the process of telling our stories, we figure out how to live with them.
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