The Next Chapter·Proust Questionnaire

Military historian Ted Barris takes our Proust questionnaire in honour of Remembrance Day

Barris has written 20 books, including the bestsellers Juno and Dam Busters, and half of them have focused on Canadian men and women in wartime.
Ted Barris is a Toronto writer, journalist and professor. (Submitted by Ted Barris)
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Military historian Ted Barris has written 20 books, including the bestsellers Juno and Dam Bustersand half of them have focused on Canadian men and women in wartime.

His latest book, Rush to Danger, shows the efforts of medical personnel on the bloody battlefields of Europe. The nonfiction book was inspired by the experience of his father, Alex Barris, as a medic in the Second World War. 

Barris dropped by The Next Chapter to answer a Remembrance Day edition of the Proust Questionnaire.

Who was your favourite painter?

That would be Arnold Hodgkins, a Canadian army medic who served in the Second World War. And also Ted Zuber, who was a Canadian army sniper who served in the Korean War. Both of these men were also sketch artists. At the time of their service in the Second World War and the Korean War respectively, they were not known for their artwork. 

But after their service, when they came home, they took the sketches that they'd stuck in their haversacks or in their diaries and began to work with them. Ultimately their works were recognized officially as Canadian war art and were acquired by the federal government. As a consequence, they have become Canadian war artists.

Where would you like to live?

I've had the extraordinary privilege of travelling to Europe many times, leading others who are not familiar with battlefields where Canadians served. I've often thought it would be great to spend some time sitting, taking in these places —  places like Vimy, Juno Beach, Dieppe — just to be there next to these places where Canadians served and died. It takes more than standing in front of a monument and recognizing that they died at 19 — their name, rank, serial number and all that stuff. I want to be able to take more time because of lives lived there and lost there.

Who are your favourite heroes in real life?

Because of my complete immersion into wartime history, I've learned that heroes are not the men who are recognized with great medals and citations and monuments, but just the average servicewomen and servicemen who put their lives on hold in the Great War, the Second World War, the Korean War or, more recently, during peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia Herzegovina, Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan. They left all that behind because they had a greater calling. In that service, I consider them heroes. 

What is your favourite journey? 

My favourite journey is the short trip up the stairs of my house from the main floor to my office on the second floor. It's a very short trip but it's a calling every day that I look forward to. I go there with that kind of call to action. But also knowing that having interviewed thousands of veterans, all those voices are waiting for me to knock. The journey to that office every day — and it is every day — is a joyous one for me. 

What is your greatest achievement?

I don't know if it's an achievement but it would certainly be something I'm proud of. Several years ago, I was contacted by the ministry of Veterans Affairs and I was told that I was going to receive the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation. I realized how humbling and how important it was. It was veterans who had decided that I deserve this honour as a historian — and as someone preserving their stories. Because it was they who had given me this honour, it meant so much more. I wear that pin on my jacket all the time as a humbling thank you to them in my effort to preserve their stories.

Ted Barris's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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