On Remembrance and Sacrifice

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the United States), the traditional debates have begun cropping up online. They tend to centre on whether we should wear the red poppy in remembrance, but beneath fashion choices lies the deeper question: can we commemorate veterans, without venerating war?

To me, perhaps because of my upbringing or my leanings as a historian, Remembrance Day has never carried with it the celebration of war that so many attribute to it, for a simple (and probably too simplistic) reason. Remembrance Day originated to mark the anniversary of the armistice agreement which ended the most horrific war in human history, World War I. The armistice came into effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918.  To me, Remembrance Day — and its indelible symbol, the red poppy — have always been about exploring the vantage point of a war just ending, when we finally have the opportunity to pause and take stock of all that has happened. If there is any celebration at all in the day, it is in the bloodshed having ended, in the hope for peace for future generations. Those hopes are tempered, of course, by the horror of war that can only truly hit us once it is over — by mourning all those who sacrificed, military and civilian alike.

I realize that is not what the red poppy means to everybody, and that some find it difficult to see the poppy, or Remembrance Day itself, as a symbol of peace. To be fair, both the symbol and the day have elements of praise and honour for the soldier, which implicitly include honour for what the soldier does. But even that, for me, is far from sufficient to make us turn our backs on the day, or on the poppy. War is terrible, but I have never been able to deny the crucial role that a soldier can play. Perhaps it is the classically overused example, but remembering my grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust is all the proof I need that war, though horrific, can be necessary.

Not, of course, that any of the Allied powers fought World War II to save Jews, just like the Vietnamese didn’t really invade Pol Pot’s Cambodia to save the Cambodians, and the North didn’t really fight the American Civil War to free slaves. But I find it hard to deny that war can have just results, in the right circumstances.

Against those examples are wars like Vietnam and Iraq, but it’s easy for us as Canadians to feel self-righteous about those, since our elected leaders were wise enough to keep us out of them. How might we feel if our fathers or our friends had fought there? The better example is the one that started Remembrance Day in the first place, World War I. It was, without a doubt, the most senseless waste of human life in history, 10 million military and 7 million civilian dead for no reason beyond nationalism and colonial ambition. It’s staggering, mind-numbing, to believe that humans ever descended to it. What’s more, it’s not even like the collective horror of the bloodshed shocked Europe into ensuring that it wouldn’t be repeated. Indeed, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch was disturbingly prophetic when he derided the treaty that ended the Great War as nothing more than a 20-year armistice. The Treaty of Versailles, of course, was signed in 1919, exactly 20 years before Nazi Germany invaded Poland to launch World War II.

That senseless horror has always fascinated me about World War I, that question of how human beings were able to kill so many for so little reason. It’s why, as I sat down to write an alternate-world novel, I decided to set it during a World War I-style conflict. My book is told from the point of view of a pacifist politician trying to end the war, and neither Deugan nor Brealand, the fictional countries who are the main combatants, can be said to be the “bad guys” in the story. The true antagonist is the war itself, and all of the forces on both sides that conspire to keep people fighting. It’s a different perspective from most war stories, and to me, World War I is the quintessential war in which to tell it.

Yet I still don’t find the answers easy. Despite the enormous costs of war, peace too has a price, and that is what my novel explores. As early as the third chapter, the hero asks one of her country’s most respected generals whether peace is one of his values. He replies that it is not: while he certainly wants peace, “some things are worth fighting for.” Thus begins one of the conflicts that drives the story. As it continues, our hero’s idealism is tested, and we see just how much she is prepared to sacrifice for the cause of peace.

That, ultimately, is what Remembrance Day and the poppy are about: the sacrifices that have been made, for better or for worse, in the hopes that peace will follow. It is a commemoration of peace, not war. It is a day we should not celebrate, but we should commemorate. We should remember it, mourn it, and, if at all possible, learn from it.


A New Way to Introduce Gateways

Exciting news on the novel front: I received the first round of feedback from my editor on Monday, and overall it was extremely positive. I’m now starting to work on some revisions, then it will be back to him for a more detailed and technical copy edit.

I don’t want to say too much about what is already in Gateways and what is being changed. One thing I will say, though, is that I’m considering starting a few chapters with some fake “excerpts” from fake historical sources, like this one, as a way of introducing parts of the world. I just wrote this one last night, so I may still do further edits or even scrap it entirely — but at least as of now, this is the new beginning I’m thinking of using for my novel:

In the popular imagination, the Great War lives on as a spectacle. Each year, as autumn is threatening to give way to winter, hundreds converge on the Maxalo Pass in Wassia, in the south-west of the Continent, to re-enact the battle that was once fought there. The mood is festive: vendors hawk sugary drinks, horns and trumpets blow, and women and men march proudly in the brightly coloured uniforms of a bygone era. The day belongs not to the long-suffering veterans of the conflict, but to a celebration of homespun southern hospitality.

Indeed, the conflict is remembered by many as a distinctively southern war. Certainly the greater part of the fighting took place in Wassia, where massive graveyards now stand testament to the many who lost their lives in its meadows and valleys. Is it surprising, then, that it is the southern front which has persisted in the cultural memory of the Continent? That schoolchildren, filmmakers and even military historians have been drawn to its cascading offensives and desperate stands?

When, however, the war is considered from a broader historical perspective – not merely as a series of battles, but as a phenomenon that influenced the future course of a Continent – then it is the north-west, the confrontation between the Realm of Brealand and the Republic of Deugan, where our focus is inexorably drawn. It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the Continent entered the modern era through the Gateway, that region which links the two combatants; and a study of the Brea and Deugan manoeuvrings along their shared border reveals to the historian not only a clearer portrait of the war, but also a glimpse at its more delicate and elusive cousin: peace.

(From “Introduction,” in Rothwell, Hering et. al., Perspectives on the Great War: The Northern Front (1725))

From there, of course, we would launch into the actual novel, which (at least so far) starts like this:

It was an old memory, the kind that lies concealed in the corners of the mind until it emerges in times of tension. A dirt floor, and a boy, and a night sky filled with so many stars that it almost seemed white.

Yeah … it may have looked something like this (image licensed as stock photo here) (Click image to enlarge)



I will be back soon with some law-related posts, as well as possibly one about dance organizing. In the meantime, please comment and let me know if there’s any topic you’d like to see me write about.



Life Into Fiction: Writing and Swing Dancing

At the outset, I promised that this blog wouldn’t be only about law. I do have another employment law entry in the works, on the Ontario Court of Appeal’s recent decision on the Metron Construction tragedy (Torontonians will remember the workers who plummeted to their deaths on a faulty swing stage on Christmas Eve, 2009). Today, though, I feel compelled to turn to the other two interests that I intended to use this blog for: creative writing and swing dancing. I want to talk about both in the same post.

Yes, that means what you think it means.

Ever since I started dancing more than a decade ago, I’ve wanted to write a novel about the experience. The prospect is at once enticing and overwhelming. How do you leave one of your greatest passions untouched, unshared? But at the same time, how do you confine one of the most important parts of your life to a printed page? How do you turn life into fiction?

Fantasy makes that easy. With Gateways, I’ve written a story that takes place in a different world. Yes, the characters need to be human, the plot realistic, the players’ actions and reactions believable, but fantasy still carries with it an enforced separation. You don’t worry, when a fountain of shimmering light is cascading among two lovers kneeling in a magical cavern, whether you’ve strayed too far into the autobiographical. Debates over the fate of the New Empire’s colonies may have similarities with the settlement negotiations I engage in all the time, but there is an important difference in character.  

Writing about college students in Kingston, Ontario is more immediate. If it’s less epic, that only makes it more personal. That may be why I’ve never been able to write more than three or four pages of swing dance fiction. Lately, I’ve been thinking of trying again.

The problem is that swing dancing doesn’t translate well into fiction. It’s just too happy. Novels thrive on conflict and drama, while swing is about letting go of cares, losing yourself in the music. It’s about open, welcoming communities. Fun and laughter. Awe and joy. The petty differences that sometimes arise between organizers just don’t cut it as drama that people would actually get invested in reading.

I’m sure lots of other dances have that joyful character, but you don’t see stories about that. Dance movies are usually driven by perfectionism, competition, or both. A classic plot is the girl admitted to the Intense Academy of Dance Intensity, where the teachers are mean and the classmates are meaner. She has to work herself harder than she’s ever worked before without losing her old friendships, her sense of self, or that guy who keeps getting better-looking as the movie goes on. The climax is a performance or audition, where she bravely throws away everything the school has taught her and gives a brilliant performance from her heart, with Mr. Suddenly-Attractive watching secretly from the balcony.

It may be a great story, but it’s not a swing dance story. In a swing dance story, you spend the entire movie hugging lots of people, clapping while others dance, changing your shirt because you sweat too much, and trying to figure out how many times you can really afford to go to Rochester in the same year. Even if you set the story at a dance competition, your characters are still going to spend more time dancing socially, drinking, and posting updates on Facebook than they will training or competing.

So I came to the realization that if I ever want to write a story about swing dancing, the first step will be to make sure it’s not about swing dancing.

Swing can be a backdrop. It can be a setting, a world, the thing that draws the characters together. It can almost be a character itself, in the sense of a mirror that shows you who the other characters are in the way they relate to it. It can even be a plot point, or two or three, the syncopated beat of a song, hesitating before pulling the reader forward to the next breath. 

What it can’t be is the focus. The focus has to be on the characters, and the characters have to have their own stories outside of the dance, out in what some of us like to call the real world.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about what those stories might be. The ideas are circulating in my mind. I have some great characters, and more and more jolts of plot and story. In fact, the entire ending sequence — which is always the first thing you need to map out — is taking some significant shape. It’s enough to make me wonder whether such a story might actually work.

There’s a lot more I could say about this idea, but let’s save some fodder for future posts. Besides, nobody likes spoilers, right? 

But I don’t want to get any hopes up. The vast majority of fiction writing projects that I start never get finished. Even Gateways was abandoned more than once along the way, before I decided to pick it up, dust it off and keep it going.

Just as important, Gateways is going to be my major writing project for some time. I really think it’s a great story that you’ll all want to read once it’s ready, and that is coming closer — I just heard today that I should expect to receive comments from my editor within the next week. But it’s nice to have another project percolating. It’s nice to know that there is a story, a story that’s kind of but not really about dancing, that’s bursting to be told.

Legal Gateways

**Please note this blog is no longer being updated. I hope you will visit my new site at http://www.briangottheil.com**


My name is Brian Gottheil, and I am a labour and employment lawyer in Toronto, Canada.


I’m also a lot more than that: I am the author of Gateways, a fantasy novel that will be self-published within the next year, and the president of Toronto Lindy Hop, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting swing dancing in Toronto and enriching the dance experience.

I intend for Legal Gateways to be my professional blog, broadly defined to cover all three of my professional and semi-professional activities: law, writing and dance. I hope to attract readers who are interested in each of these fields, and with some luck, to get the dancers interested in law and vice versa.

The title of the blog reflects the fact that the legal side is going to be the primary focus. To tell you a bit more about my qualifications: I have been practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law since 2010 with the leading global law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright, representing both unionized and non-union employers with respect to virtually any legal issue that arises in the workplace. I have a keen interest in mediation and dispute resolution, and in addition to successfully settling numerous cases on behalf of my clients, I have had the opportunity to act as a pro bono mediator for a dispute between a charitable foundation and its outgoing executive director. I’ve also been involved in major litigation concerning emerging human rights and constitutional issues.

I want to go into greater depth with some of these issues than other law blogs do. The format will start with a bottom-line summary for those readers who want to pick up the headlines on new legal developments that may concern them or their businesses. But I am also concerned with legal literacy — with people’s understanding of the law and the legal system — and I want the blog to be educational as well as merely informative. While labour and employment law will be the focus, I also intend to pick out and analyse other legal issues that are making the news. For example, in other forums in the past, I have written on the Superior Court decision that upheld the eviction of the Occupy Toronto protesters, and on the Ontario Court of Appeal decision in the Rob Ford conflict of interest case.

I’ll be briefer, for the moment, about writing and dance. As writing goes, suffice it to say that the title Legal Gateways doesn’t refer only to my intention to educate about law and the legal system. It’s also a play on Gateways, the title of my forthcoming novel. The manuscript of the novel is complete and is now in the hands of a very capable professional editor. I will keep you up to date on its progress. For dance, to get a better sense of the not-for-profit organization of which I am the president, check out Toronto Lindy Hop’s website and Facebook page.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to exploring these gateways with all of you.