Remembrance and Resolve: Remembrance Day, Nov 11, 2009

I was on the phone when the ceremony started on CBC Radio today, but shared a moment of silence with the person on the line throughout the national anthem and the ritual that followed. I could faintly hear the chime of the Peace Tower from my desk, and even briefly opened my window to the chill to hear it better.

Remebrance Day is one occassion I celebrate, even if in a small way, each year. Of all the holidays and celebrations and festivities that occur for various reasons throughout the year, I truly feel that this is one day that holds a meaning worthy of the fuss. And, for anyone who disagrees and feels I don’t understand the meaning of remembrance because I am typically against the concept of war in general, and the wars in the Middle East in specific, I would gladly offer a boot to the nuts, or three. I think it’s the height of stupidity to stand for remembrance of sacrifice without also paying tribute, and due thought, to the reasons the sacrifices were made in the first place.

There are no great wars any more.

The First and Second World Wars were, and remain, a completely different proposition from what we call war now. You could try and reduce it to cold facts, such as how many soldiers have been lost or how many are in the field, but that doesn’t do justice to the men and women who died then, let alone those who fight today. We live in a different time, a different age of technology. Weapons are bigger and more efficient machines of death and destruction. We’ve gotten better at killing each other. The modern battlefield is part meat-grinder, part video game. Unmanned vehicles rain death and mutilation from above, controlled from far behind friendly lines.

These are not the trenches and mud holes where boys stood in the bloody mire of disease and decay to kill other boys or be killed themselves.

But, neither are the reasons for going to war the same as in those first two conflicts. The world mobilized in conflict during those two wars. The Second World War was a fight against a state aggressor bent on conquest and domination. The troops of Adolph Hitler had already overrun and captured an enormous swath of Europe by the time the west decided to get involved. Hell, the US didn’t get into the mix until they, themselves, were attacked. But, by then, the war was against the organized military of an entire nation, a military that had scored success upon success as it walked its way towards our backyards.

Maybe, at that, some things aren’t all that different.

To say that war is futile will, in our current climate, polarize a conversation. Today, you’re either for the soldiers or against. I love the bumper sticker, for example, that says “If you don’t stand behind our soldiers, feel free to stand in front of them.” To question the war in Afghanistan is tantamount to saying “I’m an intellectual, and I’m not Canadian.” People are exceptionally passionate about this subject, and many will react very passionately if the subject of the motives, reasons and value of the war is brought up in conversation. We have inextricably linked the logos of going into battle with the ethos of reverance for the men and women who gives their bodies and lives to the conflict. It may be the greatest disservice we can offer our soldiers.

I respect each and every soldier in the service of our nation because they are willing to do what I could never do; they put themselves at great, mortal risk for a cause that they themselves do not design, because they trust that the cause is just. I could never do that. I think too much. I’m too selfish about my life to give it to something that I don’t feel and rationally think is right, or sufficiently important. It doesn’t matter why those soldiers are willing to sacrifice, in my opinion; whether it’s because they feel they are serving justice and freedom, or just because they want a job (a surprising number, actually.) The fact is they each put themselves in front of something with a selflessness that I could not begin to approximate. That’s what I respect.

That’s what I bow my head and celebrate today; the bravery of the few to stand stoicly and serve a cause, even to their deaths. Because, one trusts that the cause is just, and the sacrifice necessary.

I also cast my thoughts to the reason why we’re putting these soldiers in harms way. War is futile. You can beat a person with your fists, even maybe scare them away from doing whatever it is you disagreed with, but fists will never change anything. As Bruce Lee once said, you can’t change a person’s ideas with your fists, you change a person with your mind. You can bomb the entire Middle East to glass, and you won’t have changed the ideas that fuel Islamic extremism. Actually, you might even reinforce them.

We make a lot of noise about the War on Terror and the struggle against terrorism. Canada has lost 133 soldiers to the war in Afghanistan, with nearly a thousand wounded. Some of those wounded have suffered incredible trauma, physically. Between 15 and 20 percent of soldiers returning from Afghanistan will bear psychological scars that will take years to heal, if they ever will. This is the butcher’s bill to date, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for a conflict that has been waged for most of this decade. And, none of it matters, and that’s what makes it all the sadder.

In the Second World War, there were tales of impromptu cease-fires between German and Allied troops. Squads from both sides sometimes put aside their weapons to share in a drink to celebrate Christmas, only to pick up those weapons and kill each other the next day. This, if anything, exemplifies the difference between then and now; in that long passed war, the soldiers fought as professional pawns of their governments, side from which they held far less or little animosity for eachother as people; today, do you think you could ever imagine a Taliban fighter setting aside his AK and sharing a drink, or coffee, with a Canadian soldier? Not bloody likely.

Our soldiers are fighting much like the soldiers of not so long ago, for a cause their government says is just. The Taliban fighters are fighting for a cause they believe their God has decreed. You can kill and maim as many of the Taliban as you like, if you don’t address the reason why they are fighting you in the first place, all you are doing is adding to a neverending pile of bodies.

The Second World War occurred, in part, because the restrictions and constraints placed on the German people after the First World War drove them into such incredible poverty that they were rendered psychologically ripe for the manipulation and mobilization that Hitler preached. Our mistake in creating those conditions does not excuse the consequences, but our part in it should be recognized. Islamic extremists exist because, to a very large degree, we created them. The US promoted religious fanaticism as a tool to stir a nation to fight a battle they, as Americans, we unwilling to be seen fighting against the Soviets. We created and fostered a violent mentality underpinned by a twisted interpretation of religion, and now we rail on the barbarism of that mentality. In short, we’ve been really effective at using our minds to create situations that we somehow think our arms, not our minds, will be able to undo.

I feel incredibly sad whenever I see a poppy, or the announcement of another fallen soldier. It depresses me that young men and women are placing their lives at the spearpoint of actions that are taken in support of a cause that they had no say in setting, because the comfortable people in their comfortable offices sit pulling the strings, either oblivious or indifferent to the lessons of history. And, as long as we keep fighting this war only with our military might, and not with the gift of our minds, we will keep seeing repatriation parades along the “Highway of Heroes,” and we’ll have more names to remember on November 11th. So, I choose to remember those soldiers who have given their lives or well-being throughout our Canadian history, and thank them for having the strength of resolve and courage to do what others, like myself, would not be able to do.

But, I also remember that those of us who do not share their courage have a responsibility to ensure that their sacrifice is not wasted, and that we use the weapons available to us -our memory, our minds, and our voice- to change the world so that we don’t have to ask their children to pay that price as well. If that’s “standing in front of” our troops, then I like to think it’s to separate them from the cliff they are marching off of.

I’d rather be accused of that than pushing them along from behind.

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