By Sean Bruyea-THE EDMONTON JOURNAL-November 15, 2008-pg. A.19
Most Canadians look upon military heroism with a combination of fascination and horror. As such, most of us understandably shy away from the question as to why Canadian men and women are willing to sacrifice their lives.
It is a truism and a cliche that soldiers (sailors and airmen/women included) have fought and sacrificed for “King and Country.” Such reflex explanations of sacrifice paint a dim view of the intellectual capacities of our brave men and women who have fought in Canada’s name.
There is another short answer to this profound question of the willingness to sacrifice: Men and women in uniform have been willing to die for something bigger and better than themselves, end of answer.
Yes, King (or monarch) and country are all bigger than each individual soldier. They are greater extensions of the family, the tribe; that which gives us protection, meaning and ultimately, a sense of immortality through honoured memory. These reasons are bigger, but are they better than the individual soldier?
Canadians make the conscious choice to enter the military, knowing full well that society may require the ultimate sacrifice. At the same time, our soldiers are intelligent people who understand the complexities of weaponry, command structures, communications, tactics and technology, all while adapting to a changing battlefield.
It is not blindly that a soldier enters the military. Nor can the soldier be burdened with weighing each military demand with “to be or not to be.” The soldier must know that the reason for sacrifice is as immutable and certain as human and divine reason can devise. Otherwise, to enter an existential debate every time an order is given would surely lead to a collapse of morale and the psychological stability of the individual.
Welcome the role of indoctrination. Basic training and military life are filled with references to duty, honour and sacrifice for Canada and Canadians. The indoctrination begins even before we join. We often hear the message of how Canada is a good, fair, just and democratic country. When we turn on the news, we thank our particular divinity that we don’t live in one of those Third World countries stricken by strife and turmoil.
Perhaps the most powerful indoctrination message is that which is implied in the pillar of military ethos: following the orders of government. Intrinsic to this unquestioning loyalty is the truism of democracies that the military is the tool of government. By implication, the military is somehow lesser than government.
Obeying government is an essential ingredient of what has come to be known as the “social contract.” In this contract, soldiers unquestionably accept death. This is what is known as “unlimited liability.” Soldiers accept unlimited liability as long as the political and bureaucratic masters promise to uphold their end of the bargain. For the soldier, this social contract has at its foundation a profound sense of faith and trust in the government to care for the lives of each and every soldier and the families who survive them.
Canada’s most famous Remembrance Day poem, In Flanders Fields articulates this contract:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep…
It is to Canadians and the Canadian government that the fallen have thrown the torch.
But what happens when the Canadian government, through budget constraints or poorly planned military action places the welfare of the soldier lower on the priority list? If soldiers are willing to give all they have in carrying out the government’s orders, should the government not reciprocate and give the soldiers all they need to carry out those orders?
Throughout the year, not just on Remembrance Day, another question must be asked: When the soldiers return wounded and broken, should the government not do all they can to care for the soldiers/veterans and their families? The government can’t have it both ways, sending soldiers to sacrifice while having a very limited liability in caring for these vulnerable Canadians.
Such a breach of contract is, at its heart, a profound betrayal of all that the soldier has sacrificed. War, for soldiers, must be the ultimate arbiter of justice. As such, it is fundamentally unjust that bureaucratic obstacles be erected which prevent caring for the wounded and the survivors to the best of Canada’s abilities.
When a soldier breaks the contract and refuses to fight, the soldier can be charged with the most shameful of military crimes — refusing to obey a direct order, or even desertion. When the government breaks its contract and refuses to provide the best care and assistance in an expeditious and just manner, the elected officials and bureaucrats suffer little or no consequence.
Yes, soldiers are willing to sacrifice their lives for Canada and Canadians. Are Canadians willing to sacrifice in order to care for the wounded, the fallen and their survivors? If not, can we afford to send our soldiers into battle without first anticipating all the costs of war, even those costs we are obligated to pay long after the war has ended?
Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist and advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and their families. Sean served 14 years in the Canadian Air Force as an Intelligence Officer. He is disabled as a result of his service in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91.
Credit: Sean Bruyea; Freelance
Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Nov 15, 2008