This generation’s war

10 11 2009

As Canadians pause this Remembrance Day, and take a minute or two to honour with silence those who died in service to their country, there is one particular battle that should give us pause to reflect.

That battle is the will to understand – to truly hear and understand – what is happening today in Afghanistan.

In this oversaturated information age, we have access to combat images through television, news backgrounders at the click of a mouse and reams of copy from embedded journalists writing about their time with the troops. Today, more than at any point before in history, news consumers know what our Canadian troops are doing “over there.” We may even think we understand the politics behind this war, and, from the safety of our living rooms, we can debate whether “we” have a right to engage in combat in Afghanistan.

But knowing about a war is a very different thing to feeling its pulse, to actually being there in it. While technology can bring us images we couldn’t before access, it can also give news consumers a comforting illusion: that with foreshortened geographical distance, they have increased their understanding.

But therein lies the rub: if telling the story of war is easier than ever with technology, are the young veterans of this most recent war correspondingly more eager to share their stories?

That issue is one of the themes of Ted Barris’s new book, Breaking the Silence: Untold Veterans Stories from the Great War to Afghanistan, released last month. This chronicle serves as a platform for many soldiers who share their wartime experiences for the first time with the public.

Barris has some ideas about why some soldiers bury their stories and, most likely, the truth is that each reason is as unique to the veteran as the soldier’s experience of war. One common thread, however, is that the horror of war simply can’t be translated to anyone who hasn’t been through it.

While that horror hasn’t much changed, the public’s perception of war seems to have undergone a drastic shift. The Great War and WWII were valiant, honour-drenched wars that drew Canada’s young men into battle against a gigantic menace, which the Allied nations were determined to withstand through bravery, perseverance and a moral imperative.

The public’s perception of war seemed to turn with the Korean War, also called Canada’s “Forgotten War”. Unsure of our place in a conflict in Korea, the public held back from supporting the service of Canadian troops, and it took forty years to honour the men – over five hundred of them – who died in it.

Then, the link between honour and war shattered almost completely as the world watched the U.S. mire its troops in bloody Vietnam. Going to war was seen as a shameful, rather than an honourable act, and men who volunteered were seen as dupes rather than heroes.

Today, we must ask ourselves if there is still a stain on the principle of sending Canadian troops to war on behalf of another nation, backed by a smug justification of our greater “understanding” of the political issues at play.

If so, will the men and women who have served in Afghanistan find it easy to share their stories upon their return? Or will they find an army of armchair critics, unwilling to listen or learn from their experience, safe in their knowledge of what is “really” behind the theatre of war?

Unless we want Afghanistan’s front to become another forgotten Korean War, we need to encourage our veterans – young and old – to tell us their stories even if the rationale of their excursion raises doubts for us, or for them.

And unless we want to consign the men and women who served there to remaining quiet bearers of buried stories, we must face this battle more often than on Remembrance Day.

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