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.

Sin­is­ter world

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.

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