Military Matters

25 Oct

My children sometimes ask about the war in Afghanistan.

Why are Canadian soldiers fighting and dying there? Who are they fighting? What started the fighting? Who is winning? How long will it last? Those kinds of questions. Good questions. Not always easy to answer and explain.

My kids – not yet out of grade school – are no more and no less aware of the news of the day than any other typical kids their age. They pick up on some things in the media, talk a little bit about current events in class.

And their questions about Canada’s military mission are being asked by many children and adults alike in this country.

But the fact they are even thinking about about the role of the military in this country, and about Canada’s involvement in international conflicts, is… well… a sign of the times, to be sure.

When I was their age, I don’t remember giving much thought to what Canadian soldiers were doing. I did not grow up with any real personal connection to the military. And there was little in the culture, in the education system, or in the media, to foster more than a vague sense of its significance.

In fact, there was a sense in this country – up until recently – that issues of national defence, of security, of war, and of the military were a bit too… American… and not as important to Canadians as other matters of public policy.

That, of course, changed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks five years ago. And those attacks, of course, led to Canadian boots on the ground – and casualties – in Afghanistan.

In the days following 9-11, then-foreign affairs minister John Manley said something that seemed to resonate among many Canadians.

“Canada does not have a history as a pacifist or neutralist country,” he said. “Canada has soldiers who are buried all over Europe because we fought in defence of liberty, and we’re not about to back away from a challenge now because we think somebody might get hurt.”

Indeed, the era in which I grew up may have been a historical anomaly in this country – for better and for worse, an era in which Canadians could afford to ignore their military.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations lived through two World Wars and the Korean War, conflicts in which many Canadians fought and died.

My only link to war and the military was indirect – a great uncle of mine who I never knew. He served as an enlisted man in France during the First World War. In the Second World War, he was a colonel and regiment commander.

When I was in grade school, and my classmates and I were asked to rise and stand in silent contemplation for a few minutes every Remembrance Day, I would think of my great uncle.

Actually, I would think of photographs of him I had seen. Those photos formed my only real tangible connection with him and, really, with anything related to the military. So when it came time to think about something on Remembrance Day, that’s all I could think of thinking about.

Today, Remembrance Day ceremonies have again become major annual events. Crowds line up ten rows deep at the National War Memorial to cheer old – and some not-so-old – veterans. Our military, our international missions, and our country’s place in the world have become prominent concerns in our public life. Debates over these issues have come to dominate the discourse of our political leaders.

And – for better and for worse – our children may grow up with more than just a vague, indirect sense of what sacrifice and war really mean.

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