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Jamie Murphy was our kind of soldier, both keeper and, one hoped, maker of peace. On patrol in Kabul last week, just days before he was due to return home, he died, victim of a suicide bomber. His death elicits yet again the painful question: Why? For a better world? Yes, we answer in chorus, but we know that the chances of that are faint.

Once upon a time, Samuel Johnson could say: "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier." Soldiering was associated with manly virtues. Death in battle was invariably glorious. Today, by contrast, almost all Canadian men would announce happily that they have no intention of ever becoming soldiers, and in keeping with such lack of interest if not disdain, we citizens of this wonderful and wealthy land proclaim penury and send our troops to posture peace with decrepit equipment.

What has happened to the grand ideal of soldiering? What have we done with our military heroes? Why, when one of our soldiers dies, is it so difficult to find meaning?

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Samuel Johnson lived in an age when the rules of combat were firm and soldiers were obvious symbols of valour. Jamie Murphy was in uni-form; his merchant of death was not. Their violent and tragic encounter expresses the agonistic nature of our age. Where is the enemy? Indeed, who is the enemy? The war on terrorism, like most of the wars of the past century, does not follow given guidelines. Former definitions and distinctions crumble. Clarity yields to uncertainty and abstraction.

Modern military cemeteries around the world point to that uncertainty, none more poignantly than those of the Western Front in the First World War. An entire generation sleeps in Belgium and northern France, "this massed multitude," as King George V called it in 1922 on his pilgrimage to the old front line, "of silent witnesses to the desolation of war." There's a Toronto cemetery on that Western Front and an Adanac cemetery. I've always wondered who decided to spell Canada backward there on the Somme.

If you look in the visitors' books of those cemeteries, as I did some years ago, you'll find undying emotion, frequent rage, but few answers. The British are most likely to cite poetry; Rupert Brooke's reference to "some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England" being without question the favourite line. The Germans and Scandinavians issue political or pacifistic appeals: "Europäer vereinigt Euch!" (Europeans unite!). In the Canadian commentary, in Flanders, at Vimy and on the Somme, the one constant is: "Proud to be a Canadian!" That comment has an oddly assertive ring in these fields of doubt. It's actually stunning how often, in the serene surroundings, others dare to write "In vain." That clipped phrase echoes through these "silent cities" (Kipling's image) like a savage obscenity.

So how do we find meaning? In tradition, ceremonial and religious, there is a modicum of consolation. To grieving families after the Great War, as the cemeteries were being prepared and 4,000 headstones a day were being shipped across the English Channel, the British government distributed a booklet of suggestions for inscriptions, with quotations ranging from the Bible through Shakespeare to Dickens -- "Greater love hath no man . . ." and so on. Many families chose from those suggestions. But the literary outpouring of disillusionment -- Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, R. C. Sherriff and Ernest Hemingway, among others -- that gushed forth about a decade after the war, as the cemeteries and monuments were being completed, was heavily critical of the stated purpose of the war.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (available in Ballantine Books) rode the crest of that wave; it appeared in German in early 1929 and overnight became a commercial phenomenon, the first international bestseller, translated quickly into more than 20 languages, including Esperanto. Lewis Milestone's remarkable film version of the novel won the Academy Award for best picture of 1930. Deep melancholy pervades Remarque's account of a class of schoolmates who enlist and one by one are ripped apart, spiritually and physically. "I think we are lost," says Paul Bäumer, the main character.

Lost? We certainly have had difficulty ever since in representing the meaning of modern history, especially of war and its attendant horrors. Paul Fussell's collection, The Norton Book of Modern War (W. W. Norton, 1991) demonstrates that. Music and the visual arts seem to have had more success in evoking a world of discontinuities and abject terror than have most of our prose offerings.

If words must remain the primary tools of civilized discourse, we are inclined in times of crisis to prefer poetry to prose. Hence we find Wilfred Owen -- he, too, died just before he was due to come home -- a cut above Remarque, despite the latter's success; and we still cite John McCrae's In Flanders Fields on Remembrance Day (though we're no longer sure about the third verse). Similarly, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land may suggest more to us about the interwar period than any history book.

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Jon Silkin's anthology, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (many editions), is an indescribably sad representation of modern war. Theodor Adorno would say that after the horrors of the Second World War there could be no more poetry. Perhaps he, caught up in the totalitarian fallacy, got it all wrong; perhaps, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, poetry -- and the humility that attends ambiguity and multiplicity -- is all we have left.

The First World War continues to resonate and reverberate a century later. Plans to build an international airport on the Somme -- the village of Vermandovillers would give way to the main terminal -- and to extend a motorway from Ypres to the coast, running along Pilckem Ridge right through the old Salient, have unleashed new wars, only political and verbal so far, but emotions run high. For some, this ground is sacred. For others, it represents opportunity. Both sides claim necessity.

The always uneven struggle between piety and urgency is probably best articulated by youth. When I looked in the Menin Gate visitors' book one evening after the Last Post ceremony -- a ritual performed daily at the Ypres memorial since Nov. 11, 1929 (apart from the years of German occupation, 1940-44) -- two young British punsters had just articulated their feelings. In bold hand, each had written the same two short words. This time they were not "In vain." They were "Dead good." Now what could be more succinctly postmodern than that comment, with its juvenile vulgarity and yet at the same time its ability to capture paradox, irony, confusion and humanity? Dead good.

Modris Eksteins is the author of Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.

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