The prolific Ted Barris has etched a name for himself as one of Canada's foremost popular historians. While his previous titles have told the tales of epic battles - Vimy Ridge, D-Day - through the recollections of participants, Breaking the Silence is a departure.
While still giving voice to the veterans who experienced the hell, horror and humanity of war, Barris weaves the story of getting the story into the mix. As a result, this partial memoir takes readers into the world of the historian as he plies his trade, eliciting stories from those who lived them - as evidenced by his own father's reluctance to disclose his wartime heroism as a Second World War U.S. Army medic.
Barris recognizes that breaking down the barriers to reopen a veteran's emotional vault is not always easy. Through his dedication to educating Canadians about not only our collective martial heritage, but also the importance of recognizing past valour, he had earned the trust of the veterans. Here he details his extensive interaction with the military community.
It is from this template of personal recollections that he moves into the wartime reminiscence of his subjects. Naturally, many of the anecdotes come as a result of research for his previous titles. Breaking the Silence is in some ways the equivalent of a mathematician showing the process by which he attained the end result.Not only does Barris span nearly a century of wartime experiences - 1914 to Afghanistan - he also covers a tremendous variety of participant perspectives. While many of the stories touch on the combat experience of the sharp-end soldiers, he also shares the far more mundane tales of those who served, but never heard a shot fired in anger.
Remembrance is a key theme throughout, and Barris details how his persistent persuasion has had many a personal impact. Before attending the 1997 christening of the Wall of Remembrance, he had been on the radio urging listeners to "put a human face on war."
That appeal resulted in two sisters attending the ceremony clutching a portrait of their brother, killed 45 years earlier in the Korean War.
During an interview with D-Day participant Fred Barnard, Barris learned that the veteran had witnessed the death of his own brother on that fateful day. The resurfacing of that long and deeply buried memory is described as a "reunion of two."
Illustrating the war in Afghanistan is the April 17, 2002, tragic friendly-fire bombing incident that claimed the lives of four Canadian soldiers. This tragedy is revisited by one of those wounded in the blast and by a medic who treated the casualties. Barris notes that, in all of his experience, this was the first time his interview subjects were young men recalling recent events, as opposed to elderly veterans revisiting their youth.
Making that bridge between war experiences - from something discussed by senior citizens at Legion Halls to something affecting our young soldiers right before our eyes on nightly newscasts - is a potent reflection on something that has yet to fully impact Canadian society.
As one who covered a lot of the same ground, and having had the wonderful occasion to meet with many of the principal characters, I found Breaking the Silence something of a walk down memory lane. The one drawback was that the wartime anecdotes are not formatted chronologically, requiring readers to leap from conflict to conflict while trying not to lose the context.
That said, Barris is a natural storyteller. Whether he is bringing a veteran's exploits to life or detailing his own experiences, Breaking the Silence is an entertaining and informative read.
Scott Taylor, a former soldier turned war correspondent, has just published his memoir Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting.