HOW AND WHAT ARE WE TO REMEMBER?

BY Jim Harding

Poppy sales skyrocketed across Canada this fall, suggesting growing awareness of the human costs of war. Perhaps there was more empathy for soldiers suffering from trauma, especially after a rash of news stories about soldiers committing suicide. In just one week there were four soldier suicides.

Or is something else also going on? Might the recent killings of two soldiers and the Harper government’s military and counter-terrorist agenda have played a role in shaping this year’s Remembrance Day?

It’s worth asking ourselves just what we should be remembering on Remembrance Day. Are we to remember those who lived to tell us what war is really like; those who would never romanticize war? What should we remember about those who “paid the ultimate price” or, if they survived, lived crippled and/or traumatic lives?

In a democracy the military is to be a means not an end. And surely the war dead and survivors alike wouldn’t want the outcome of war to be the militarization of society? But is the line getting more blurred, especially under the Harper government? Have recent events blurred the matter even further. Are we seeing Remembrance Day being used for ulterior purposes?

Motives matter and they shape outcomes. We should seriously scrutinize the motivations that may lie behind the ways in which our soldiers are honoured. Pro-Harper politicians apparently stand ready to exploit public gratitude for our veterans, while failing to provide the resources required for their healthy reintegration into society. Fatal flaws in the Veteran’s Charter continue to expose how the government actually views and treats veterans.

Public sympathy for veterans can also be used as a means to bring military symbols further into mainstream society, such as militarily branding mainstream sports events. Some use our sympathy for veterans to prop up a view of “the nation” that stresses military history and patriotism more than the democratic values that our military is said to be defending. The role and sacrifice of peacekeepers, for which Canada had worldwide respect and gratitude, has almost become invisible under Harper.

FAMILY MEMORIES

Some things about Remembrance Day are not as open to manipulation. Thankfully our remembering can be highly personal. I mostly remember my late mother and what the two world wars did to her and through her to our family. Her father, who was a Colonel in the reserves, died at the end of WWI leaving his young bride, my grandmother, to raise four children on her own. My mother, only five, was devastated. Then, during WWII my mother lost both her brothers, the uncles I had never met, one who went missing in the RAF, and one who, like many soldiers, died of infection. The shrunken family of three women carried on as best it could.

I can vividly imagine other families carrying their own painful memories from these wars. A whole new generation here and abroad will have to endure pain and confusion after more than a decade in Afghanistan, and now, with the entrance of Canada into the seemingly never-ending Iraqi quagmire.

DISCOVERING PTSD

I’m not sure our family even knew what was happening; it took me decades to realize the pressures of being the first grandson in this male-depleted side of the family. I was gifted my dead grandfather’s ceremonial sword, which, hanging on a beam over our stairway, reminds me of the grandparent I never met.

Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD wasn’t identified until 1980, long after these wars ended. The earlier term “shell shock” tended to trivialize soldier’s harsh experiences and we continue to have societal denial about the emotional scars that soldiers bring home.

If we knew more about the consequences of going to war then we might be better able to remember this at Remembrance Day. In “fighting for peace of mind”, in the Leader Post’s Nov. 5, 2014 QC magazine, Terrance McEachern reports on a federal survey of 6,700 full-time Canadian soldiers. It found that one in six was suffering from serious mental health or addiction problems, which is well above the national average. More telling, since 1995 there have been 214 full-time male soldiers who have taken their lives; since 2004 ten female soldiers have also committed suicide. Compare this to the 158 soldiers who died during the Afghan war. Of these, 123 died during combat, the rest dying from friendly-fire, accidents, or other non-combat circumstances.

Killing and being killed in the line of duty is apparently worth honouring. But it’s not that easy to build up militaristic ideology by talking about soldiers dying by their own hands. Yet war-related PTSD is often involved in the high incidence of soldier suicides. Soldiers suffering from PTSD can’t easily reintegrate into daily family life. They try to avoid traumatic memories; they can suffer from moral injuries resulting from bearing witnesses to unimaginable violence and degradation. This applies to peacekeepers as well as soldier combatants.

VETERAN’S CHARTER

The Harper government introduced its Veteran’s Charter in 2006. It was promoted as a new social contract with vets but Veteran groups were immediately outraged at the attempt to institutionalize financial instability, inadequate vocational rehabilitation and the lack of family support. It looked more like a cost-cutting exercise than a way to concretely express gratitude to veterans for their service. The attempt to deal with injured veterans with one-time buy outs sparked an unprecedented level of veteran activism.

Though the Charter was amended in 2011, the January 18, 2014 issue of the Legion Magazine reported that the Veteran’s Ombudsman remains very critical of the legislation. Without revamping, he asserts that it will still have a severe impact on incapacitated soldiers who lack some benefits and have no pension. After retirement some soldiers could be left to live in poverty and homelessness.

It is interesting to read the ten sentences that mention veterans in the 2013 Speech from the Throne. Most of this is self-congratulatory platitudes about standing with soldiers, while there is almost nothing about actual commitments to help soldiers facing the challenges of PTSD, unemployment, poverty and homelessness. But Harper did take action: he closed nine veteran service centres across the country. No wonder more and more veterans are becoming cynical about the present government’s military rhetoric.

HONOURING THE LIVING

Harper seems to prefer the rhetoric, for he would have to “commit sociology” to find out anything concrete about the quality of life of soldiers in our midst. Until recently the high soldier suicide rate was kept in-house. There is nothing to tell the public whether a soldier was killed in combat or by their own hand, when their body is returned home in a flag-draped coffin.

Clearly more needs to be revealed about the underlying neglect of soldiers in the face of such ideologically-motivated praise. We know that the trauma of war can severely and permanently marginalize people. There are presently 260 homeless vets in the Veteran Affairs database, but this is clearly an underestimation; an outreach program just in Ottawa, has located 140 homeless vets. A Toronto survey found that 16% of the city’s homeless were vets.

The laying of wreaths to dead soldiers has more symbolic, political value than ensuring the social and psychological needs of living vets are actually addressed. Glorifying the war dead can divert attention from the pain and suffering that the living returnees bring home. And it’s important to remember that due to changes in protective equipment, a higher percentage of soldiers are now surviving combat and coming back both physically and emotionally maimed. Lest we forget!

It’s safer to focus on the fallen soldiers, who have no voice to tell us what actually happened to them. Meanwhile, survivors of war are often ignored and neglected, left as voiceless as their dead comrades. The harm of being left voiceless and powerless is compounded by the desperation that comes with trauma. Sometimes veterans who have witnessed the violence and degradation on the battlefields see only one way out.

Perhaps we should put aside the symbols and do some serious soul-searching about the socio-economic conditions facing Canadian soldiers. It may be better to reflect on this on Remembrance Day.

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