Opinion by EHN Guest Writer
Written by Jeff Vircoe, journalist.
Here Lies a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death
Drinking cold small beer.
A good soldier is ne’er forgot
Whether he dieth by musket
Or by pot.
—Bill’s Story, Chapter One, Page One, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
The verse is likely familiar to anyone who has stuck their nose into Big Book for any length of time. The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, was visiting Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, England during the Great War when he spotted a tombstone with the words inscribed on it. “An ominous warning—which I failed to heed,” Wilson wrote.
As November 11th approaches, it’s appropriate to consider how the history of the fellowship that has saved millions of lives is tied into the concept of remembrance, as well as the historical and spiritual parallels that exist between the program and the military.
The First World War, known as “The Great War,” was one of the main geopolitical events in the lives of all the key players in AA’s formation. Bill Wilson himself was a veteran of that First World War, though he did not see any action. Dr. William Silkworth, the medical director at Towns Hospital in New York City, the detox center where Wilson’s spiritual experience catapulted him into a new dimension in his search for sobriety, was also a veteran. Silkworth, of course, was the influential doctor who strongly subscribed to the theory that alcoholism was a disease and not a moral failing. He was the one who urged Wilson to talk to his shaky alcoholic recruits about the medical aspects of their addiction and not rely only on the religious Oxford Group approach.
In Europe, psychologist Carl Jung had also served as a Swiss army doctor. Jung, however, believed a spiritual transformation was the only way alcoholics could recover from their hopeless state.
With the Second World War clouds on the horizon as the Big Book was published in the spring of 1939, the connection between the military and AA remained easy to see. How would newly sober soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women handle a major conflict and remain sober?
The next book of significance written by Wilson was 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, published in 1953. In Step Three, on page 38 of that book, Wilson answered the question of dependence on a Higher Power on the battlefield as follows:
When World War Two broke out, this spiritual principal had its first major test. AA’s entered the services and were scattered all over the world. Would they be able to take discipline, stand up under fire, and endure the monotony and misery of war? Would the kind of dependence they had learned in AA carry them through? Well, it did. They had even fewer alcoholic lapses or emotional binges than AA’s safe at home did. They were just as capable of endurance and valor as any other soldiers. Whether in Alaska or on the Salerno beachhead, their dependence upon a Higher Power worked. And far from being a weakness, this dependence was their chief source of strength.
Modern global conflicts have certainly been a huge aspect of day-to-day living for people in recovery. From Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kuwait City, 9/11, and other key moments and places have become sobering reminders for people all over the world to take time to remember those who sacrificed for others. And, for many sober alcoholics, they can see how the military played a key role in Akron and New York City in paving the way for them to find help in the program.
Sometimes the actual meeting place is where the connections between the military and recovery, past and present, are most noticeable. One such meeting is held in a chapel on Tuesday and Friday nights at 8 p.m. It’s an open meeting, with a discussion format. There’s no smoke break. It’s wheelchair accessible. Basically an AA meeting that could be found in any town, in any country. Yet this is anything but a typical AA meeting. The Salerno Beachhead Group meets at the largest Coalition airbase in western Iraq, far from its namesake in Italy where the Allies landed in September 1943.
The second week of November is nearly here, a time when reflection is put front and center by society, the media, parents, and governments. To Canadians, much of our birth as a strong, emerging nation to be reckoned with came on the Western Front battlefields of France and Belgium. Vimy Ridge. Passchendaele. The Somme. Names and places synonymous with Canadian heroism, with incredible acts of bravery and terrible losses of life. In the Second World War Canadians may remember the Liberation of Arnhem. Operation Overlord. Juno Beach. The Korean conflict. More recently Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan, where 158 Canadians lost their lives.
The days leading to November 11th clearly carry a different edge from any other commonly observed memorial day. The bright and blood-red poppy appears on the left breast, undeniably visible. Whether one has an opinion on the wars or not, or what the poppy signifies, it’s impossible to not notice this symbol of sacrifice.
In meeting rooms around the world, old-timers often remind us to remember those who walked the walk ahead of us. Risks were taken. Successes were achieved. Mistakes were made and lessons learned. Many AA slogans and clichés can be tied into the principle of looking back on our lives. “If you don’t remember your last drunk, you probably haven’t had it yet.” Or, “It’s okay to look at the past, just try not to stare at it.”
But, maybe it’s okay on Remembrance Day to look back, to think about the importance of people who went before us because those memories, those salutes to our past can be tied feelings and expressions of gratitude. Without the old-timers, there simply would be no program. Current members did not invent service work. They did not create the 12 traditions which bind the fellowship together in numbers around two million. The old-timers did. Without them, there would be no 12 Step movement and, arguably, no treatment centers. People with alcohol or drug addictions would face an entirely different set of parameters in their struggles.
On November 11th, Remembrance Day is observed in Canada, and Veterans Day in the United States. Both commemorate the end of hostilities in the First World War. Bill Wilson, one of AA’s cofounders, was in uniform during that campaign. In November 1934, Bill was visited by his childhood friend, Ebby Thacher. Ebby was attempting to help his old buddy deal with a drinking problem which had landed him in Town’s Hospital four times over the previous couple of years. Ebby had gotten the Oxford Group message from Rowland Hazzard, an alcoholic who had been told that the only answer to his disease was to find some kind of spiritual transformation. The Oxford Group’s system gave Rowland that spiritual transformation. Rowland would later lose two sons during the Second World War.
Rowland to Ebby. Ebby to Bill. Bill to Bob. One alcoholic talking to another. Poignant dates and places are woven through the fabric of AA’s rich history. Exactly one month after Remembrance Day, Bill Wilson fought for and protected his sobriety date and would never drink again.
This Remembrance Day, connections with AA’s history are plain to see. The principle of honoring those who came before us is as much a part of the program as it is to those who lost friends or relatives in wars past or present.
Virtual Remembrance Day Livestream
Join us for a special virtual Remembrance Day ceremony hosted by New Start Foundation and EHN Canada, featuring celebrated vocalist Robert Pilon.
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About Robert Pilon
Our special guest Robert Pilon is a stage, television, and recording artist best known for playing the signature roles of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, both in the Toronto Productions and across Canada. Robert has sung nationally and overseas, commemorating Wounded Warriors at Vimy Ridge and the 75th anniversary at Normandy. He has toured worldwide, bringing Robert Pilon and Friends to the international stage, recorded 2 CDs, and was a guest on Frank Mills’ Platinum Christmas album. He has starred in his own award-winning television special, A Canadian in New York with Gordon Lightfoot, Morley Safer and John Kim Bell among his guests, and has been on numerous television specials over the years.