by C. H. Wells
“War Is Hell”
That famous phrase is attributed to US Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, though it is unlikely he was the first to ever make that observation, and he certainly wasn’t the last.
Some might find it ironic that a military leader, then or now, should be the one to voice such a thought. But who would know better what war is? And who could have seen more of it, at its most devastating – whether on the battlefield, or in the wreckage left behind in towns, villages, countryside … in human civilization.
The last “battle” fought in Canada, according to my research, was the Battle of Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, which ended The Northwest Rebellion. That was in 1885. The last time a foreign country set foot on Canadian soil, as an invasionary force, was during the War of 1812, which ended in 1814 – over two hundred years ago.
Little wonder, then, if we Canadians have become a tad complacent when it comes to our need for a military service. We have been very, very lucky. As basketball coach Dick Motta once quipped: “War is the only game in which it doesn’t pay to have the home-court advantage.” And we have seldom had that.
Yet Canadian troops, in recent times, have seen action abroad. As members of the Commonwealth, Canadian military personnel were called into action to support Britain, during the second Boer War and the First World War.
After the independence bestowed by the Statute of Westminster, our forces, now truly and independently Canadian, also participated in the Second World War. Among other campaigns, Canada suffered shocking losses of life during both the Dieppe disaster, and the great successes in Normandy, on D-Day.
Our role in helping to free the Netherlands, and in hosting Dutch princess, Juliana, and her daughters – one of whom, Princess Margriet, was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital – has been celebrated annually, since, via the National Capital’s Canadian Tulip Festival.
The festival was initiated after Princess Juliana’s gift of gratitude – one hundred thousand tulip bulbs – was sent to the National Capital. In subsequent years, tens of thousands more bulbs were sent, supplemented by gifts from other Dutch bulb growers, throughout her reign as queen. This has become a lasting reminder of the gratitude of the people of the Netherlands for Canada’s help and sacrifice during the Second World War.
Since that time, our Canadian military has been involved in the Korean War, The Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and several other conflicts. They have served not only in war time, but in peacetime as well. Cumulatively, Canada has supplied more personnel than any other nation to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, with then Foreign Minister Lester B. Pearson winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in handling the Suez Crisis in 1956.
In fact, our participation in peacekeeping operations only slowed, to vastly reduced numbers, in the wake of the horrific scandal of the Somalia Affair in 1993. Most Canadians were aghast that “we” could possibly be responsible for such an atrocity. And, indeed, it did represent the antithesis of what our country, generally, regardless of political stripe, believes itself to be and believe in.
Shamefully, our Canadian peacekeeping troops, along with those of other participating countries, have also unquestionably contributed to the shocking escalation of child prostitution rates in South America, Asia and Africa, during their tenure.
Equally shocking is the fact that, within our own military – as, admittedly, within many other forces – female personnel often face more danger of rape and abuse from their own comrades than from enemy combatants. We clearly still have a long way to go before we deserve the reputation for honour and decency that should be our legacy.
As a rule, however, throughout their history, the Canadian Armed Forces have enjoyed a good, solid, and respectable reputation across the globe. They have represented themselves and their country well, at times in extremely challenging circumstances.
Today, they sometimes serve their country even against protests from vast numbers of their fellow citizens at home. But as much-beleaguered US Army General Wm. Westmoreland once rightly observed: “The military doesn’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” And though some politicians would have us believe – as former PM Stephen Harper was fond of suggesting – that being unsupportive of Canada’s presence in any given theatre of war is tantamount to hatred of the military, I hope you, in the Forces, understand that this is not so.
Please know that you will always have our support. The politicians who order your deployment may not always have our support, but there is never a time when we do not want you to follow your orders, do your duty, go where your government asks you to go … and make us proud.
Lest we forget, however, who is ultimately responsible for our forces being called into action, I can only suggest to each of you, who are not in the military, to head for the nearest mirror: Yes – that person – right there! You are responsible, my friend. Because, let’s face it, our government represents us. … [Yes, yes, I know that argument – I didn’t vote for them either.] … And if our government, in the past, has not followed the wishes of the majority of Canadians, then it is because we did not make our wishes clear enough, we were not vocal enough in our protests, we did not make our demands sufficiently-well to our politicians.
So remind yourself, the next time any Canadian serving in our military – whether by land, sea or air – comes home in a box, or permanently disabled, or shattered in mind and spirit, they did so because YOU, through your government, asked them to … and so did I.
Sobering thought, isn’t it? Kinda makes you want to see peace “breaking out all over.”
During the Vietnam War protests, in the 1960s, a line from a Carl Sandburg poem – though slightly modified – became a famous bumper sticker and a slogan against war: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?”
Even the most cursory search of the Internet will turn up volumes of quotes on war and peace, from Eve Merriam’s: “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’ “, to Thomas Mann’s stinging rebuke, that: “War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”
The inimitable Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain put it this way: “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out … and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel … And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for ‘the universal brotherhood of man’ – with his mouth.”
Jimmy Carter’s poignant words were broadcast around the world: “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”
However, until comes that tsunami of sea change sufficient to alter the heart and mind of humanity, that rids us, forever, of war on this planet, we need our armed forces. And our allies need us. It would be naive to think this is not so.
Because we need our military, we need courageous and dedicated men and women to people it. Men and women who are willing to ‘step up’; who choose to place their own lives in danger; who will endure the grueling hours of training – sometimes working with inadequate and outdated gear and equipment – and living, at times, in appalling conditions … even right here at home. [Have you seen some of the accommodations our military personnel are expected to live in?!]
Like our firefighters, police officers, and other ‘first-responders,’ our armed forces must train, learn, practice – and memorize and follow all of the “rules of engagement” set out for them. They yearn for an opportunity to test themselves, to ‘show their stuff,’ and yet they must wish that none of it will ever be needed: to hope for an opportunity to apply what they have learned, means that they must wish for human lives to be at risk – something no one, surely, wants.
Even once called into action, no amount of training could prepare anyone for the sight of dismembered limbs and twisted metal where, seconds ago, was the vehicle carrying their friends and colleagues. Yes, war is hell.
And in peacekeeping, the admonition to do nothing but ‘observe’ is sometimes unbearable – and unconscionable – as witnessed by the experience of Canada’s Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, UN Force Commander in Rwanda during the genocide there, when the demands of his own decency overrode the commands of his superior officers. His book, Shake Hands With The Devil, describes the events that led to his disobeying orders in order to save lives.
There are many stories of courage, triumph and defeat, throughout our military history. In fact, there are as many stories as there are individuals who have taken the pledge to defend our country.
This Remembrance Day, while we honour those who gave their lives for our freedom, I would like to ask every “civvie” reading this commentary to do one small thing: when you’re out and about this day, and you meet with any of our men and women in military uniform … please … stop a moment, stick out your hand, look that person square in the eye, and say just five little words.
Those same words I would say, here, to every member of our Canadian Armed Forces – from the lowliest ‘grunt’ to the highest ranking officer. I say them with sincerity, with humility, and with deepest gratitude: “Thank you, for your service.”