Remember and grieve

Posted on November 6, 2009
Filed Under Commentary | Leave a Comment

Most of us know too many couples who have lost a child. We all notice that their aura dims. Our minds refuse to think about what losing a child would be like.

At the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, most of us pause to honour, remember, and grieve the deaths of the tens of thousands of soldiers who were mostly so young and so beautiful as to be thought of as children.

Certainly the photographs of the Canadians dying in Afghanistan look like children to the age groups that constitute the majority of Canadians.

At Christmas, 1915, an impromptu peace broke out on the World War I front lines. Stanley Weintraub’s book “Silent Night,” catalogues the events in great detail.

Thousands of soldiers, living in miserable conditions, far from their families at Christmas, shared their humanity across the lines for awhile.

John McCutcheon’s song, “Christmas in the Trenches,” captures the poignant spirit of it in a few verses.

My grandfather, a veteran of the Boer war, and a Company Sergeant Major in the trenches of WW I, used to speak of it although I cannot trust my memory as to whether he participated or not.

Most historians now agree that WW I was not at all necessary and almost an accident. For four years after Christmas, 1915, some 6,000 soldiers were killed every day. There were never as many yards of ground gained as there were men killed.

Weintraub speculates on what might have happened if the peace had spread that Christmas and the war had ended. No one can know, of course. Not all of the consequences are ones we would welcome. One of his thoughts is that the U.S. might have annexed the Canadian West connecting to Alaska. Another is that France might have reclaimed Quebec. He said Canda was not as strong, united, and nationalistic before the bonding brought about by the war.

He muses about which political careers might never have bloomed without the war. He reminds us how many of the best and brightest young minds of Europe were mashed into the mud of the trenches.

We are used to hearing about how the world wars were a huge stimulus to science and technology. Weintraub speculates about the lost intelligence and leadership of the millions of dead. What might they have accomplished?

Millions of lives were pointlessly wasted in World War I.

To properly remember, respect, grieve for and honour our debt to them, I think we have to be scrupulously careful about putting our young soldiers in harm’s way.

In poker, business, and our personal affairs, it is difficult to decide not to throw good investment after bad.

The lives of our soldiers, the cream of their youth, are so much more than money.

And yet, in the unforgettable words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, in Flanders fields.”

If we cannot help create a more just society in Afghanistan, we owe it to our soldiers to get them out of there as soon as possible.

If we can gain peace and security for ourselves and the unfortunate people of that historically oppressed land, we owe it our dead to give some value to their loss.

The biggest problem, always, with such ventures is the comparison between our and their perception of what victory looks like. If victory means a gang of crime lords exploit and abuse the people instead of a particular group of religious fanatics, did we invest the blood of our youth wisely, with respect, value and support for our troops?

The problem, I think, is that we did not go to Afghanistan to bring democracy and justice to the land.

For years before the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center towers, we heard horror stories about the cruel abuse of Afghani citizens, most especially women and girls, by the Taliban government. Russia had invaded in 1979 in support of a communistic government. State ownership, control, and women’s rights were among the elements of communism the tribes and Islamic sects opposed.

In fact, there are so many tribes and sects in the spottily settled country that finding common ideas to weld them into a real nation appears unlikely. By comparison, Quebec’s separatists and Alberta’s Wild Rose Alliance party members are beer-league rivals.

There is an old saying, usually attributed to Arabs that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

That may be the case in war, at least until that enemy is defeated, but then what? Is it not likely that one of your enemy’s enemies now becomes your enemy?

It can also work both ways. If drug lords refining heroin from poppies are the enemies of the Taliban, does that make them our friends? Will they not find some other enemy of ours as much or more to their liking?

Which Afghani sect or tribe does have a western view of democracy or women’s rights?

The first Gulf War, on George Herbert Walker Bush’s watch, was a success. The allies chased Saddam’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait, declared victory and went home.

Canada, in support of our neighbours, friends and family, the United States of America, went to Afghanistan to punish the Taliban government for harbouring Al Qaeda and its terrorist training bases.

If the NATO allies had hit the Al Qaeda bases and Taliban military bases and government centers hard and then gone home, subsequent governments, even Taliban governments, might have been careful not to provoke another round.

As it is, Afghanis have more examples of how our presence there has been accompanied by civilian death and suffering than they do from the Taliban years.

A common comment is that the Taliban were extreme but not corrupt.

It is also hard to impose a democratic government on a nation where no one has any strong attachment to the idea. In a land where the tribe and, or, the religion has been the government, the secular compromises of democracy look weak and heretical.

It even looks a little bit as though North American politics is getting more like that. The extremes are becoming more and more shrill.

I sincerely wish we could bring secular democracy to Afghanistan and the women and girls there could have the political, financial and sexual independence women of the western world are gaining. Sadly, I conclude that that wish can only be accomplished, if ever, by the people who live there.

My remembrance, gratitude, value and support for our troops this November 11 and my wish for this Christmas is that we, as quickly as possible, remove our beautiful young people from the ambushes of Afghanistan.

Think what they could accomplish alive. Think of their unborn children. Think of their parents. Think of Christmas, 1915.                    DAC


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.