60 Years after D-Day, Canadians Ponder Sacrifice | The Canadian Encyclopedia


60 Years after D-Day, Canadians Ponder Sacrifice

WHAT'S WORTH DYING FOR? A half-century after Korea, 60 years past the heroism and tragedy of D-Day, and with our last living links to the "War to End All Wars" soon to be severed, it's a question fewer and fewer of us have had to answer.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 7, 2004

60 Years after D-Day, Canadians Ponder Sacrifice

WHAT'S WORTH DYING FOR? A half-century after Korea, 60 years past the heroism and tragedy of D-Day, and with our last living links to the "War to End All Wars" soon to be severed, it's a question fewer and fewer of us have had to answer. And one, it seems, most Canadians will never be forced to contemplate.

A couple of generations ago, however, millions of us were sure we knew. A large majority believed certain causes - freedom, democracy, ending tyranny - automatically justified putting our military in harm's way. And when the government called, we lined up to volunteer.

Maybe it's just the passage of time, but today such certitude seems as quaint as travel by buggy. Black and white political arguments are quickly shaded gray. Twenty-four-hour news channels bring war's suffering, sorrow and death into our living rooms at a flip of the remote. Our leaders judge our tolerance for sacrifice to be a fraction of that immortalized on monuments across the country. Evil is something Canadians condemn, not combat.

Yes, our military made token contributions in the first Gulf War. CF-18 fighter planes bombed Serbia to help secure Kosovo. We've been on the ground in Afghanistan since the beginning, in limited but meaningful ways, and suffered our first combat-related casualties in half a century. When asked, we regularly send troops to hot spots to keep others from killing. But the idea that this country will ever again consent to having millions in uniform, fighting and dying in faraway lands - regardless of the reason - is almost unfathomable. Has the world changed so much in the span of a few decades that worthy causes no longer exist? Have our national principles evolved? Are Canadians wiser than we once were, or simply more selfish?

There are no easy answers. But an exclusive new Maclean's poll provides an interesting perspective. Respondents nationwide were told that a rallying cry for Canadian troops during the two world wars was, "For God, King and Country." Asked what they personally would be willing to die for - and allowed to pick more than one category - 83 per cent said their family, 32 per cent said their country, and 28 per cent said their God. Only five per cent said none of the above - suggesting that, no matter how much times have changed, many Canadians still at least talk a good game.

When people discuss a "just war" today, it's the global fight against Hitler and his Nazi-Axis that they usually invoke. A ruthless dictator and his allies, bent on expanding their repressive empires, threatened much of the "free world." Hindsight knowledge of the Holocaust and other crimes only strengthens the case that defeating Fascism was a moral necessity, not a political choice.

The reality of why we fought is more complex. There was never unanimity. "If you walked around in the late 1930s and listened to trade unionists, university students, the younger generation, there was no enthusiasm," says Desmond Morton, the McGill University historian. "They looked at these guys who had gone over in WORLD WAR I and gained nothing from it. The attitude was 'not for me, thank you very much.' Then we found ourselves in a war and the old atavisms proclaimed themselves. We got patriotic again." Many Francophone Quebecers never viewed it as their fight, and conscription only deepened the divide.

On the battlefields, survival and comradeship often took precedence over political ideals. At home, the sacrifices - both human and material - being made for victory were impossible to forget, but the peril to our way of life rarely seemed imminent. Still, whatever their misgivings, most Canadians remained convinced they were on the side of righteousness. We committed to the larger purpose and stuck it through to the bloody and costly end, six long years later.

Nothing since has been so clean-cut. In 1950, we sent a hastily assembled brigade to Korea with the UN as part of a "police action," and found ourselves in a hot war - our last to date - that cost the lives of 309 Canadian soldiers. But the seismic shift in our foreign policy - our transition from warriors to peacekeepers - began six years later with the Suez Crisis, when Lester Pearson perched us on the middle ground between our U.S. and European allies. The idea of using soldiers to end hostilities rather than begin them is an innovation that Canadians take immense pride in. If our national identity was forged at the battle of Vimy Ridge, as many are fond of claiming, we discovered our preferred self-image the first time we put on a blue helmet.

It is, by any measure, a remarkable transformation. In the course of three generations, we have gone from having proportionally one of the world's largest militaries - in 1945, almost 10 percent of our population was in uniform, and our navy ranked behind only Britain and the U.S. - to one of its smallest. Many of our hard-won battlefield triumphs, once sources of national pride, are now mostly forgotten. Brian Orend, a University of Waterloo philosophy professor who specializes in the ethics of war and peace, says his students have little enthusiasm for the use of Canadian Forces in any mission but humanitarian ones. "The whole peacekeeping propaganda has been very effective, especially on the younger students," he says. "That's essentially how they view Canada's role - we're there to clean up. The major operations are for the major players - America, Britain, France."

And almost nothing, it seems, will shake our entrenched world view. On Sept. 11, 2001, we mourned our own dead and grieved along with Americans, but our nations quickly diverged on the question of how to respond to the threat of global terrorism. It took many months before opinion polls tapped into the widely held Canadian sentiment that U.S. policy was at least partially to blame for the tragic attacks. But the day after 9/11, Orend asked one of his classes whether the United States would be justified in going to war against their attackers. Of the 65 students, only three said yes. "I was floored," he says. "It was the first time in my teaching career that I had ever been rendered speechless." Self-defence is the classic condition for a just war, but apparently our distaste for armed conflict and leeriness of American power is so generalized that we now question such a basic national right.

For many people, that change in Canadian attitudes is a virtue, not a shortcoming. Jeremy Hinzman is a wiry 25-year-old with intense blue eyes and a freshly shaven head. One year ago, he was serving with the U.S. Army's 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan. Last January, on the eve of being shipped to Iraq, he deserted, and drove with his wife and infant son to Toronto to claim refugee status. "There comes a time when you have no choice but to confront what is going on, even if you are a soldier," he says. "I understand the way the world is and how it's probably necessary for wars to happen. But I also think it's wrong. It is a fundamental failure of humanity."

Hinzman, who grew up in Rapid City, S.D., joined the military in January 2001, to finance a college education. He knew combat was a possibility and hoped the training would prepare him. Instead, boot camp made him realize he simply wasn't capable of taking a life. After the 9/11 attacks, he began reading about American foreign policy and developed deep doubts about the morality of warfare. His application for conscientious objector status was denied. Hinzman says he knows there have been reasons to fight in the past - he cites the struggle against the Nazis, and suggests we would have been justified if we'd taken on Stalin - but says there's no way he could envision himself picking up a gun. "It would be a hard choice, I would be pressed, but war is barbaric no matter what the reason."

You can argue that much of our modern reluctance to embrace military action is a function of whom we live next to. Our decision to pass on America's last disastrous military adventure, Vietnam, and stay out of the current Iraq imbroglio, were popular at home. But does our fear of committing for the wrong reasons keep us from defending causes and ideals we do believe in? Has the bar been set unrealistically high?

Retired Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire has first-hand knowledge of the cruel limits of compassion and principles in geopolitics. As the Rwandan genocide unfolded, he struggled and failed to motivate the UN and world powers to step in and stop the slaughter. "Rwanda, as I was clearly told, had no strategic value geographically, no resources other than coffee," says the former peacekeeper. "All it had was humans, and there were too many of them. It was overpopulated." Countries with the capability to bring solutions - political, economic or military - to conflicts too often pick and choose where to apply their influence. "There's no real overriding factor of humanity and suffering in what they're doing," he says. "They're simply acting, particularly the big powers, in what is their national interest."

Still, Dallaire is optimistic that change is looming. He was heartened by Paul Martin's recent pledge to make Canada a "catalyst" for nation-building in the world's hot spots. And he's excited by Ottawa chatter about a more muscular foreign policy, one that would use our military not just to keep peace, but to forcibly export values like multiculturalism, order and good government. "There's got to be something more than just keeping Canada running. We need a focus," says Dallaire. "We don't have the right to be pissed off and simply stand on the sidelines."

Whether the public is ready for such a drastic turn and its attendant costs is another issue. As we are reminded on sombre anniversaries like D-Day, those who fought, and too often died, for our country in the past did so in hopes of sparing us from a similar burden. It's now been more than a half-century since we last had to answer the question of what we truly believe in, what we in large numbers would pay the ultimate price for. The times have changed, so have the threats we face. How much our values have altered is what remains to be tested.

See also WORLD WAR II.

Maclean's June 7, 2004