by Andrew Caddell
The Hill Times
November 15, 2017
OTTAWA—In two of her greatest works, Paris 1919 and The War that Ended Peace, author Margaret MacMillan sketches out both the causes and the effects of the so-called “Great War.” Throughout the 20th century, the effects of that war were still being felt across the world.
In my own family, there are stories of the warm summer of 1914. My grandmother and her eight siblings enjoyed a glorious time in Kamouraska, Que., downriver from their home in Quebec City. Then the winds of war swept across Europe, Great Britain, and into Canada and their lives were changed forever.
My grandmother’s brother Garnet enlisted immediately. He was an avid athlete, a charming man who worked as a bank manager in Quebec. He assured them all “the war would be over by Christmas.”
Instead, in April 1915, Garnet and 1,000 other Canadians died in the first chlorine gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres. Another thousand died in the week to follow. His body was never found, and lies somewhere beneath the poppies in the fields of Flanders. Decades later, a friend of mine asked my great-aunt Elga, then in her 80s, why she and so many of her friends had never married. She replied, “All the boys left for the war and never came back.” It was a terrible war, and yet it established Canada’s bona fides in the international sphere, as MacMillan has written.
In the Second World War, my father enlisted on the day after war was declared, served in England and in combat in Sicily and Italy, rose from “gunner” (private) to captain and came back to marry my mother five and a half years later. He lost many friends in the war, but he and all his comrades who came back focused on building the future to honour those who had died. That is how they became known as the “greatest generation.”
My own son, James, decided to emulate his grandfather and join the “brotherhood of arms,” as he called it. From 1992 to 2004 he served in the militia, and volunteered to go to Bosnia in the UN peacekeeping force dealing with a conflict that was an echo of the First and Second World Wars.
Through him, I learned a lot about the modern Canadian military. I learned that “We are not peacekeepers; peacekeeping is a job soldiers do,” that we often sent soldiers abroad with substandard equipment, and dangerous missions in the field were vetoed by the
Prime Minister’s Office due to the fear of casualties. As a result, James wrote to me, “The British and French call our CANBAT battalion ‘Can’t bat.’”
All during the time he was away, I carried his will in my pocket and practised the lines I vowed to say if the worst happened: “James volunteered for this assignment; he was doing something he loved and believed in. He knew the risks and was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
While he was a solider, he never underestimated the risks he was taking. But he made sure those around him knew he was not happy the government of the day did not appear to be supportive of, or understand the military. Before he died in an accident in Bolivia in 2005, he was pleased the Canadian Forces were being rebuilt.
Remembrance Day is an opportunity to reflect on what we expect from our military. The government’s robust new defence policy is cause for optimism among those who believe a country cannot have a foreign policy without a defence policy. But it has to be backed up by action: training, expenditure, modern kit, and the willingness to accept challenging assignments. Because if you shirk the heavy lifting for fear of casualties, you will be the object of scorn and ridicule by your allies and your enemies.
My great-uncle, my father, my son, and countless others knew the risks they were taking by going into combat zones. As the world becomes a more dangerous place, if Canada wants to be taken seriously, it has to make sacrifices, whether in Mali, Ukraine, or elsewhere. Offering equipment or training to others because we do not want to deal with Canadian combat deaths, does not honour our veterans or those who serve now.
While the loss of each Canadian Armed Forces member may be tragic, putting them into dangerous places and providing them with the means to keep or restore peace is the price we pay for respect as a country.
Andrew Caddell retired July 11 from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as a broadcast reporter and as an adviser to Liberal governments in Ottawa, St. John’s, and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com.