War is a terrible business. That is why we commemorate the fallen with two minutes of silence once a year, or on the anniversaries of battles, like June 6 for D-Day.
What troubles many Canadians is our government’s inability to remember the survivors of war and their families for the remaining half-million minutes that make up a year.
What is the debt we owe our military veterans and their families? How do we clearly define this debt, so that it means something tangible?
This debt has been called a “social contract” or “covenant”. President Barack Obama and others call it a “sacred trust”.
Canadian veterans are now engaged in a bitter court battle with Ottawa over the terms of the so-called New Veterans Charter, which offers veterans a lump sum payment instead of a lifetime pension. The federal government, which is fighting the lawsuit, has argued that “at no time in Canada’s history has any alleged ‘social contract’ or ‘social covenant’ … been given effect in any statute, regulation or as a constitutional principle written or unwritten.” Veterans and Canadians are rightly shocked.
But that’s the trouble with lofty expressions like “sacred trust” — they mean different things to different people. It’s their vague nature which makes them so powerful. Soldiers live and breathe morally-charged words — and are ready to die for them.
Government casually parrots those words, but with little or no commitment. Sacrifice. Duty. Honour. Keeping faith. The eternal gratitude of a grateful nation. All of these words and phrases have become little more than political platitudes. The ‘debt’ becomes muddied while veterans are abandoned and denigrated.
To clear the waters, let’s understand why we owe veterans and their families this unique debt in the first place.
The military is unlike any other profession. When a citizen puts on a military uniform, he or she must forfeit all manner of rights for the clear purpose of doing what Canada wishes, when she wishes, to whom and how she wishes, without protest. Government can and does legally order the military into harm’s way, with both soldiers and government knowing full well that soldiers will be killed or disabled for life.
Much of this we understand. What we don’t understand, or openly discuss, is how soldiers do this so willingly when most Canadians would be repulsed by the idea of making such a personal sacrifice.
The answer is indoctrination — a dirty word from the Cold War days. Indoctrination is alive and well. It is an extreme form of persuasion to convince an individual to do something he or she would otherwise consider ludicrous. Military indoctrination is the most intense and legally permissible secular form of persuasion.
Military indoctrination brings individuals together into tightly knit, hierarchical units. The individual is, as the cliché goes, “broken down” and then built up in the image of the military. The Canadian version of this is the doctrine of “mission, soldier, self”. Each military member devotes all psychological and physical resources first to the mission, next to protecting comrades, and last (if there’s anything left over) to self-preservation. Is it any wonder that 80-year-old veterans still show up on Remembrance Day wearing uniforms they only wore briefly in their youth?
Military indoctrination is reinforced by a unique, enormous and byzantine legal system which punishes everything from infractions of grooming regulations to war crimes. It also punishes desertion — which is another word for quitting a job, a right all other Canadians enjoy. The military machine makes these soldiers profoundly dependent upon the state and the military in all aspects of behaviour, perspective, career management, housing, finance, family support and medical care.
Eighty years ago, renowned Marine General Smedley Butler gave his personal insight: “Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.”
So there is, in fact, a clear quid pro quo — not just an intangible social contract or sacred trust. In making a soldier, the nation takes all that makes someone a free citizen. After military service, Canada and Canadians are expected to return that soldier to everything that makes for a healthy, independent citizen. If wounded, Canada must comprehensively care for and compensate that soldier for all he or she has sacrificed for Canada, especially lost future potential.
It’s cowardly of any government to claim that fiscal austerity prevents fulsome public assistance after soldiers have kept up their end of the bargain. It makes for an absurd and clearly one-sided contract — one where government takes everything it can from the citizen soldier, but is miserly when it comes to giving back.
Sean Bruyea is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on military, veteran and government issues.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.