Alcoholics Anonymous and Remembrance Day: How They Grew Up Together

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, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

By Jeff Vircoe

The verse is likely familiar to anyone who has stuck his or her nose into the 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 11 approaches, it is 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” (1914-1918) was one of the main geopolitical events in the lives of all the key players in A.A.’s formation.

Bill Wilson himself was a veteran of that First World War, though he did not see action.  Dr. William Silkworth, the medical director at Towns Hospital in New York City, the detox centre 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 dilemma, not just the religious Oxford Group approach.

In Europe, psychologist Carl Jung had also served as a Swiss army doctor. Jung, however, believed a spiritual transformation to be 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 military and A.A. connections remained easy to see. How would newly sober soldiers, sailors and airmen and women handle a major conflict sober?

The next book of significance written by Wilson was the 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 battle field.

“When World War Two broke out, this spiritual principal had its first major test,” Wilson wrote. “A.A.’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 A.A. carry them through? Well, it did. They had even few alcoholic lapses or emotional binges than A.A.’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 military and recovery connections 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 A.A. meeting that could be found in any town, in any country. Yet this is anything but a typical A.A. meeting.

The Salerno Beach Head 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 centre by society, the media, parents, governments. To Canadians, much of our birth as a strong, emerging nation to be reckoned with came on the Western Front battle fields 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 11 clearly carry a different edge from any other statutory holiday. The bright and blood-red poppy appears on the left breast, undeniably visible. Whether one has an opinion on the wars the poppy signifies or not, it is 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 made and lessons learned. Many A.A. 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 is 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 into an attitude of gratitude.  Without the oldtimers, 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 2 million. The oldtimers did. Without them, there is no 12 Step movement and, arguably, no treatment centres. Alcoholics and addicts would face an entirely different set of parameters in their battle.

On November 11, Remembrance Day is marked in Canada, while Veterans Day is dutifully noted in the United States. Both note the end of hostilities in the First World War. Bill Wilson, one of A.A.’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 A.A.’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 A.A.’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 long past or ongoing.

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