Remembrance: A Day of Questions

This Remembrance Day, as ever, i think about my father, and the lessons he taught in his life, things i continue to ponder now that i’m a parent. What will my life teach my child?

As i sat in her school gym listening to the little kids reciting In Flanders Fields, while above them hung a powerpoint slide of a war painting, i thought, not for the first time, that our general take on this solemn occasion is quite skewed.

We seem to be leaning more and more toward jingoism, the very worst sort of patriotism. We exhort our children to remember the heroes, our veterans, and all they sacrificed for our freedoms. What do we teach them of the realities of soldiers’ lives and work these days? What are we doing with our national freedom?

It is so darkly ironic, when we’ve joined forces with the most over-armed and jingoistic country on earth, taking up arms against nations that have not declared war upon us, to talk about sacrifice. When “our side” have drones that, at no risk to the operators, bomb villages and hospitals, who is making the sacrifice?  We get the civilian refugees of these wars, if and only if we are willing to offer them a chance to come here, where, make no mistake, we will eye them suspiciously, wondering if they are the Foe.

When the horrible life of the refugee is the only viable option for millions, and they undertake to flee to safety across stormy seas, to countries whose offer of refuge is unreliable, who is sacrificing?

As for our soldiers, why are they heroes? Is it heroic to die? Does death become heroic because in your life, you chose the path of warrior, regardless of how you die, and regardless of the justice of your mission? Why do young Canadians join the Armed Forces? Do they do so with a dream of vanquishing some demonic Foe? If that is the motivation, we are then required to support methods of indoctrination that leave any survivors ill-equipped to live as honourable, heroic, or even comfortable citizens, in our multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-coloured society.

If they must be trained to ‘take up the cross and keep faith’ with the men described in Flanders Fields, ceaselessly fighting The Foe, they must of necessity dehumanize those who are designated The Foe.

How is this compatible with a new reality, where we have a Defense Minister whose promotional photos look like he could be the very militant, insurgent, terrorist our soldiers are supposed to target as the demonic Other, the Foe? And how does this help us deal with the increasing numbers of warriors who come home broken; some in visible ways, so many more broken in heart and mind?

What are we to make of the increase in PTSD? Is it because people are more willing to report it? In that case, are we as a society willing to deeply ponder the meaning of that reporting, and put our resources into healing the warriors? Or shall we ignore them now that they speak, just leave them to stagger through their remaining days, often visiting their demons upon those they love best?

This Remembrance Day, as often, i find more questions than answers, more reason to doubt than to celebrate the worth of our national involvement in foreign wars.

However, there is this: for better or worse, being allowed to join the army gave my dad a road off the Reservation, and out of the endemic poverty of our Apartheid system.

He served in UN Peacekeeping forces in Egypt, Cyprus and Korea. Wherever he went, the photos he took were like these:

Korea Scavengers 1Koreans scavenging 1954 1

Egypt, Boy on Tank 1

My father brought back scars of many kinds, but he had gone to soldiering already wounded, by the policies of our own government. What matters is that he brought back something else he’d taken:  a determination that things could be better for people, that those in need could be fed and housed. And that is work for all of us, every day. And that is worth remembering, today and every day.

dad & bert plant potatoes

It is a new day. We have a government that includes an Aboriginal Minister of Justice; our Attorney General now comes from the community most over-represented as victims of injustice. And yes, we have a Minister of Defense whose cultural background and appearance force us to recalibrate our image of ‘Canadian Soldier,’ for he himself is a Veteran. What will these new Ministers lead us to enact, in terms of the struggles for justice and freedom both home and abroad?

What will we now, as a society, ask of our soldiers? And how shall we work for peace?

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