Commemorating Canadian military history
Winston Churchill was a notable student of history. “Study history, study history” he charged. “In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.” He noted further that, “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” Bearing the lone responsibility for standing up to the tide of Nazism in the bleak, early years of the Second World War, Churchill had very little to cling to in the present, but his knowledge of history, its cycles and its lessons - replete with the victorious and the vanquished alike, helped him to “keep calm and carry on.”
Military personnel take a natural interest in history for reasons that at first blush seem obvious. There are myriad aphorisms regarding the likely fate of those in uniform that do not absorb the lessons of past military endeavours. There is not, however, a great public interest in Canada’s military history — and this is both understandable and baffling in almost equal measure.
In the first, it is understandable because ours is a country that has enjoyed a great and long-lasting peace on its own soil. The last invasion by a nation state was the War of 1812 and it predated the existence of Canada itself.
There is virtually no physical evidence of it left, although if you visit the cemetery at St. Mark’s Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., you can seen the gashes left on the flat gravestones where U.S. army cooks used them as chopping blocks — but those are merely esoteric items of curiosity.
Fought on foreign soil
Canada’s wars have been fought on the soil of other countries. This has been a blessing as a nation and a peaceable society. Only those in uniform bore witness to the vast slaughter of the Western Front, the destructive, grinding advance of the Italian campaign and the assault on Fortress Europe. The Chinese assault on Kap’yong is likely known by only a relative handful of Canadians and even in our recent past not many actually experienced the dusty insurgency in Kandahar Province.
Canadians, as civilians, have never experienced war first hand in the same way as Europeans, or even Americans. War has not been experienced by Canadians save those who fought in it and it is therefore not a past that many Canadians may feel they have stake in and therefore lack a real reason to delve into the history of our conflicts — what purpose is there in doing so?
What is the benefit of looking backward at events that affected but a few?
We have forgotten the dramatic impact of the loss of a generation of young men as a result of the First World War, for example; a loss that some would argue changed the socioeconomic makeup of parts of the country — in particular Toronto and Montreal.
In many articles it has been noted that the current government has brought our military heritage to the fore, and this has been met with praise and condemnation both.
“The past is to be respected and acknowledged, but not to be worshipped,” argued Pierre Trudeau. “It is our future in which we will find our greatness.”
Many Canadians may be uncomfortable with overt commemoration, and often celebration, of our war-fighting heritage — especially when the more milquetoast archetype of the Canadian as peacekeeper is so readily available and so thoroughly palatable.
To commemorate our wars can, on the surface, seem utterly pointless. The First World War, for example, claimed the lives of 60,000 Canadians, ostensibly for the cause of freedom. We know from reading about that terrible war that their deaths had very little to do with freedom.
They were, in a very real sense, utterly pointless deaths, save for the fact that they alerted us to the terrible risks of nationalism, brinkmanship and the eschewing of rational conversation.
When confronted with this, it is understandably difficult to avoid reaching the conclusion that such events were the result of unenlightened times and are best categorized as such and forgotten — especially when this history of warfare so often uses the sanitized lexicon that emerged from the First World War where the killed became “the fallen” and even the worst events were buffed with a positivistic sheen.
“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” wrote the American Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
How can it then be wrong for most Canadians to want to turn their backs on a distant and unfamiliar military, the study of which offers few visible benefits of a mostly recondite or arcane nature?
The answer is simple — as Will Durant noted, “Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at the moment.”
The horror of the trenches led many to attempt to appease Hitler out of a genuine desire to spare their children the cruelty they experienced. The same sacrifice helped our prime minister, Sir Robert L. Borden, to have Canada act independently at the Paris Peace Conference — a colony no longer. Was this seat at the table worth the lives of 60,000 people?
Many would vigorously state, “No,” but at least their deaths were not entirely in vain. The Second World War has taught us the value of acting sooner, rather than later. Suez, Cyprus and Bosnia have shown us that Canadian soldiers can indeed keep the peace.
Over one million Canadians have worn the uniform of our nation and have taken that experience with them into their family life and into the fabric of our nation. For good or for ill, those in uniform have seen a darker, more sinister world than the one we find in our large and peaceful country.
Some have born witness at the cost of their lives, others their bodies and others still their mental health. Some believe that it is because of this sacrifice that those who were not involved should be more willing to learn about our nation’s military history, but I don’t believe that to be the case.