Swords into Plowshares

March 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

The story goes that my grandfather — my mother’s father — served in the army in World War I, and for part of that time, he guarded German prisoners of war in (or very near) Paris.

While in France, he purchased a pair of binoculars, which were passed along to me at some point. They look like they’ve been through a war: chipped paint, a bent shade, a cracked lens, a wonky focus wheel.

He also brought back a trio of what at first glance seem to be brass vases. They are, in fact, artillery shell casings.

Grandpa (and, I assume, other guards) gave spent shells to the German POWs, who then worked the cold, killing brass into art. On one, they hammered the American eagle and shield, and engraved “World War” in English. On the other two, they preserved the names of the battles during which they were captured: Argonne and St. Mihiel.

I don’t know how they did the work. Perhaps they used improvised tools, or perhaps the guards gave them tools. That information never made it into the story, but it’s not important. Not to me, anyway.

What’s important to me is that the prisoners were entrusted with heavy metal objects that could easily have been turned into weapons and used against my grandpa and his fellow guards. That they knew this and gave their prisoners the shells anyway speaks volumes about the guards.

Maybe I’m being naive, but it seems they didn’t torture or waterboard or otherwise abuse their prisoners. Instead, they gave them tools and spent shells so that they wouldn’t be bored.

That the POWs turned the shells into art instead of weapons speaks volumes about them, as well. World War I seethed with ugliness. It introduced chemical warfare, and trench warfare, and tanks, and other means of wholesale murder.

And yet.

Instead of making weapons, the German POWs made art. Beat swords into something more enriching than plowshares.

By today’s logic, they should have hated each other, the guards and the POWs. Instead, they worked together to create a brass raft in the middle of a sea of death.

For my grandfather, it was probably a way to keep his wards entertained and placid. For the Germans, it may have been just something to keep their hands busy.

But for me, it’s a message. Every time I look at that trio of shells, I think of those soldiers in what was then the world’s worst war — guards and POWs, men on opposite sides, people who had seen horrors unimaginable — working together to turn weapons into art.

Those shells are a reminder to me that we always have a choice, to be ugly or to create beauty. I hope you’ll choose the latter; the world’s ugly enough as it is.


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