My great-grandfather served in the Boer War and then in Europe during the Great War. Another died from poison gas. As a little girl, my grandmother watched Zepplins bomb London from the back garden. My grandfather organised convoys from Newfoundland in the Second. His brother was wounded three times leading a company of infantry from Sicily up the boot, only to be killed in a training accident in England near D-Day. I am not a veteran. I did nothing in my few years in uniform to earn that title. I saw no combat, participated in no overseas operation, and wear no medals. I mostly helped support and train other soldiers and go on exercise. I encountered the best and the worst of people, developed a special sense of humour, and found reserves of wherewithal I would have never known I'd had. That is all.
When I was a kid, a cadet, and then finally a soldier, 11 November largely consisted of observing or later marching with formations of veterans of two World Wars and Korea and the following decades of peace keepers and NATO vets. The last group began to include a good number with UNPROFOR and S/IFOR ribbons from the Balkans. The Legion and our messes would be packed with World War Two vets and we'd drink beer and hear the stories until the wee hours. The Cenotaph services were solemn, war was lamented and condemned with speeches and poems, sacrifice was praised, and veterans deeply honoured. The playing of Last Post does not cease to mist my eyes.
We lost our last Great War veteran this past year. We are losing veterans of the Second World War at an exponential rate. Very soon there will be none. There are peacetime veterans scattered about and even though Afghanistan is a major conflict, it is dwarfed by the scale of those conflicts before it. It is, if I might say this, our first peacetime war. Veterans of this one won't be near as visible in society as the million or so who returned in 1945 and brought the entire nation, from farms to factories, from war to peace. We won't have hundreds of thousands of fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, to remind us of how bad it can really get if we as a society and a civilisation lose the plot again. There are precious few voices left now that can tell us exactly how lucky we are to have lived in peace for so long and the critical importance of preserving it. And remind us of what this long peace cost their generation.
The effects of this shift are now so quickly palpable. On 11 November 2008, a former fighter pilot turned Conservative member of parliament recited not a line from the McCrae's wrenching call for peace or some careful words about the danger of war, but a tasteless barrack ballad by a USMC padre glorifying the military and chastising those who did not bow at its altar. This man publicly fantasized that the Russian air force posed a threat the Olympics. This man was from a party whose leader so recently declared in the House of Commons that his was the only party for the troops. There was sulphur in the air that day and it weren't from the gun salute.
Over the past several years too, we've seen members of the governing party don military uniform and rank as habit.
Nevermind that they hide OUR wounded from us and pass bills that slash their benefits. Nevermind that the prime minister suspended parliament rather than answer hard and justified questions about the conduct of the war.
Nevermind that his government put Air Canada's whinge ahead of the logistical needs of the Canadian Forces at war.
Nevermind that this government maintains our - optional - committment to this - optional - war that produces this current generation of veterans. The prime minister's word and we stop making new combat veterans. It is that simple.
We've watched this government deploy the armed services against the Canadian public whilst we were exercising the very freedom that the fading generation bled and died to defend. We've seen those Canadians questioned for their actions there by a member of this government also seen in unearned rank and uniform.
We've seen this government elected, twice, by enough Canadians to give it a minority power. We've seen it consistently receive the support of about a third of this country. It, and its leader sometimes poll in very close to majority territory. The the repititious theme of taxes-troops-terror undeniably resonates with enough Canadians to blind them to reality.
Something has gone wrong. Perhaps we've been untouched by war for too long. Perhaps we've wound back the clock to the spirit of August 1914, and we're waving the Union flag and waxing excited about the looming adventure with the Hun. Perhaps the cultural narrative about this country's great martial nobility trumps a critical look at what is happening. Maybe there's some sick cultural addiction for the emotion we feel when we observe the selflessness that results in flag-drapped caskets and severed limbs and minds. It looks like the great existential struggles of the past, but without the existential risk. The symbolism allows some to feel all warm and gooey and self-righteous about the evil peaceloving hippies. There's no need to donate our aluminium cookware for fighter planes, nor ration our meat and butter. The overwhelming majority of us do not fear ourselves and loved ones crewing destroyers, leaping into fire from infantry landing craft, or being blown out of perspex turrets 25 000 feet over France. Or now, being torn to shreds by an IED on the same dusty road your compatriots were blown to pieces on four years ago.
Or perhaps simply knowing the troops are fighting somewhere decked out in hi-tech kit is opium to their hockey-fan rage at what the Liberals did to the armed forces in the 1990s and the UN peacekeeping that they fear failed and wussified the armed forces. Or some similar symptom of political encephalitis.
Chamberlain is often slammed in hindsight as an appeaser (even though he did eventually move to war), but I suspect he feared what the next war would bring given the unfathomable horror of the last one. Even his detractors felt only that war was inevitible. None mongered over it. The last one almost killed us and the next one looked like it might succeed.
But here in this country today we have the luxury of a war of choice fought by few. A war cheered gladly by pundits and politicians who wax noble about the sacrifice of the troops while they, like all of us, sit at home with the TV and not so much as a bomb-shelter in the backyard and ARP warden in the street. A war used as a wedge by politicians to shore support for their party and leader from the public and the military. We saw this recently on here when commenter 'justin', former military, politely asked us to shut-up in our questioning of all of this.
We can see how toxic is the combination of the fading of the reference point greatest generation with the political partisanship by a Canadian government of unprecedented martial authoritarianism. It infects and rots our society, and permits and enables the worst of us.
What does Remembrance Day become for a country like this?
- At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
- We will remember them.
I pray that we do.