Monday, April 24, 2006

Lights off and full-mast.

I was about to add my two cents to Dana's post about the Harper government's decision not to fly flags at half-mast anymore for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan when I saw Dave's report that the Tories have further adopted the Republican playbook by barring the press from the airfield where the bodies of four soldiers are arriving home.

The Toronto Star reports:

Canada’s death toll in Afghanistan has reached 17, and Conservative government officials fear the mounting casualties could present a political problem.

Why, one wonders, if the Tories are so concerned about the political problem, did they acquiese to the NDP's demand to open up Parliament to a non-binding (i.e. irrelevant except for restating the parties' positions) debate on the mission just a few weeks ago?

I'm still more intrigued, though, by the flag decision (announced by the Tories a few weeks ago and noted, though I missed it, by Mike at Rational Reasons), because it raises questions beyond just straightforward politics and spin-management. While the Liberals rightfully pounded yesterday on the "callous" decision to keep the flag at full mast as the soldiers' bodies returned, the CBC provided the other side of the debate: many military people don't think the decision to lower the flag should be made at politicians' discretion, and veterans groups don't like the practice because it affords a status to current casualties that wasn't afforded to Canadian casualties of other wars.

It has to be said that Sheppard's piece wasn't helped by its invocation of some run-of-the-mill WSJ op-ed page hyperbole about the Liberals showing "an almost pathologically antimilitary" streak in lowering the flag too often. But that seems, if anything, like a symptom of a larger problem. In today's Globe and Mail, Roy MacGregor gets at it really well:

Greg Clark, who is best remembered as a humour writer for the old Star Weekly, won the Military Cross at Vimy and spent the Second World War filing dispatches from the front. After so much experience, so much horror, he could only conclude that "War is so small, so sad, so inexcusable."

Small numbers -- such as the single soldier in the tomb and the four who died on Saturday morning -- are quantities the mind can grasp. According to the Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, the last 100 years saw 42 million die in wars. It is a number with far less effect on the imagination than the one that was a carpenter, the one that delivered mail, the one who liked to laugh.

No wonder the roses cringe.

The only rationale for war deaths is just cause. It is why we say they have made the "ultimate sacrifice" and, undeniably, they have. We salute them and, as the concrete letters beside this monument promise, "We shall remember them . . ."

It feels odd, though, to look up at the Peace Tower from this place and see that the Canadian flag has not been lowered. From now on, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said this weekend, tribute will be paid as it was in the past, "all casualties of war or operations on one day -- November 11."

It is almost as though the government of the day realizes there are more days like this coming, perhaps many more. We hope not, but fear so.

It seems to me that the biggest implication of lowering the flag for every soldier killed in Afghanistan -- so long as it's done consistently -- is that we can, in fact, afford to honour every life lost in battle -- a (for lack of a better word) luxury that wasn't available to us in the largely necessary but terrible bloodshed that dominated global politics just a little over a half a century ago (and, in fact, has dominated most of Western history). So isn't this a profoundly good thing, the clearest sort of sign that, despite our technological capacity for evil, we live in a better world, a better century, than the ones that are behind us?

And is it therefore insulting to the soldiers of previous generations to demonstrate how their largely anonymous sacrifice brought us to a place where every Canadian who falls in Afghanistan -- and every American who dies in Iraq -- can be remembered individually as a specific life lost? Granted, I'm a yuppie grad student who will never have to face combat or even boot camp. I don't claim to understand military culture or mores. But even so, that the Tories want to return to the practices of the past in honouring the dead strikes me less as a sign of respect for the formalism and stoicism of military life and history than as a somewhat ominous warning that the worst of that history isn't yet behind us, that we haven't actually come as far as we think, in Afghanistan or beyond it.

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