It seems strange now but I was a long way into adulthood before it truly dawned on me that soldiers don't just get sent out to get shot. The recognition came through a photograph. It was a large photograph -- the sort of photograph people who don't have much money only acquire through special occasions. It hung in my grandparents' dining room where we only ever went at special times -- times that made eating in the kitchen not-good enough.
It was a picture of my grandfather, dressed in his uniform, with his sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. I presume it was taken just before he went away to the trenches of the First World War. After my grandparents died and their home was broken up, I didn't see that photo for a long time. My mother kept it somewhere. Then, she hung it up. She put it at the top of the stairs. I saw it when I went to England to visit her.
Right away, that photo gave me a shock because I realized that the face that was looking at me was not just the face of my grandfather, but also of my son. We'd always been puzzled as to who on earth in the family he took after. As I came to the top of the stairs, I knew.
He was about seventeen at the time and we had been watching All Quiet on the Western Front. It had weighed heavily on both of us that he was almost at an age where -- if there was a war on -- he would be called up. "What would you do?" I'd asked him. He'd'd waited a moment before he answered. "I think I'd have to go," he said.
It was what I'd expected and yet I hadn't been certain for my son was (and is) very much a man of peace -- the go-to for others when difficulties abound. A man of peace, just like my grandfather who was, in truth, the kindest man I've ever known. He loved to laugh and he loved to make others laugh with him, even though the jokes were mostly at his own expense. He loved his garden, he loved to send us home with great bouquets of flowers. He loved to be with children. He had not the slightest hesitation in helping my brother and me tear up his lawn in scooter races (which he timed for us); clutter it with boxes, chairs, junk, as we created a series of trains.
I have no idea why his picture was what brought me my epiphany. I just know I looked at it -- there at the top of the stairs, in my mother's house, so many years after his portrait was taken. All of a sudden I could feel all through me: soldiers aren't just sent out to get shot. Soldiers are given guns. Soldiers are expected to use them. Soldiers, wherever they come from, kill.
So, had my grandfather? He'd certainly never talked about it but then he'd hardly talked about the war at all.
I remember this on Remembrance Day, when there is so much mention of the fallen; when I am called back to my childhood, born in England in 1942, raised very much with the sense that we were the ones who'd suffered. It somehow seems important that I keep this knowledge front and centre -- part of the recognition of all that war will do.