Glib or Great? Douglas Coupland’s Memorial to the War of 1812

Working my way through Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War, I noticed his praise of Walter Allward’s 1907 Toronto memorial to the War of 1812, the Old Soldier.  The figure’s empty sleeve, pinned up in a way that foregrounds the missing arm far more than it supposedly conceals it, as well as his pained, heavenward expression, make the Old Soldier unique among Allward’s war memorials. The Toronto-born sculptor was most famous for his work on the Vimy Memorial in France, whose figures represent sentiments including Justice, Peace, and the Spirit of Sacrifice, an approach which probably reached its extreme in his proposed war memorial for CIBC that featured Civilization planting “his strong foot upon the neck of … [the] brute beast of willful war.”

I wonder what Richler would think, then, of the latest memorial in Toronto to the War of 1812.*

Erected in 2008 to a design by novelist and pop culture provocateur Douglas Coupland, the Memorial to the War of 1812 features sixteen-foot two toy soldiers. The British one, in gold, towers over the American one, in silver, prostate on the ground.  Coupland said the monument was a response to the American myth that they won the war, and “an incitement for people to remember what’s going on in the present as well as the past.”  Others called it an eyesore, an embarrassment, or disrespectful to the memory of the dead.

On this one, I’m with Coupland.  The sculpture is glib, but that’s exactly the point.  200 years later, it’s easy to treat the war as a simple case of us and them, winners and losers, pride and penitence.  The fact that there’s no Call of Duty: 1812 is a feature of disinterest, not any residual respect for those who lived through the war.  Coupland’s memorial challenges us to make sure we’re not reducing the war to a battle between toy soldiers.  In a millennium where the pity of war seems to coexist perfectly well alongside a willingness to treat war as the simplest of choices, for or against, sometimes a provocation is needed.

*It’s actually a rhetorical question.  He appears right at the very end of this video, sponsored by the same condo developer who commissioned the memorial as part of the City of Toronto’s “Percent for Public Art” program.  Channeling the same argument as his op-ed and What We Talk About When We Talk About War, his take is that it forces the viewer to think not just about the outcome of the war but to ask how mature is it to fight a war at all.  I suppose we’ll have to agree on the provocation and disagree on the final conclusion.


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