The newly fallen

By 
  • November 2, 2007
{mosimage}Since 2002, Remembrance Days have taken on a special poignancy. The memories of loved ones fallen in battle are no longer from the distant past. Today, they include those who have died in Afghanistan.

The tragic loss of the more than 70 young Canadian soldiers in that conflict provokes emotions that still sear the hearts of those they left behind. They remind us, if we had ever forgotten, that war is hell.

In sheer numbers, the war in Afghanistan may not be comparable to the great military conflicts of our times. In the First World War (1914-1919), 628,736 Canadians fought and 66,573 died. In the Second World War (1939-1945), more than one million Canadians participated and 44,927 lost their lives. Even in the Korean War (1950-1953), 26,791 Canadians fought to unsuccessfully prevent the fall of North Korea into communist hands; 516 died. These major conflicts understandably left a permanent wound on Canadian society.

Yet, in an age of instantaneous communication and omnipresent mass media, each death in Afghanistan sends ripples of sadness, anger and dismay across the country. Canadians have been wounded and killed in the country’s many peacekeeping initiatives abroad, but never in such numbers as to make an impact on the public imagination. The battlefields around Kandahar are, for better or worse, today’s Ypres and Vimy Ridge.

Still, unlike in wars past, the sight of our young men and women dying in Afghanistan has not inspired images of the glories of war. For this lack of martial sentiment, at least, Canadians can take solace.

And so we should remember our fallen in Afghanistan on Nov. 11. Not out of patriotic fervour or sentimentality, but out of deep sadness and, in fact, anger. We should be angry that Canadians are dying in such a far-away country. And we should ask angry questions of our government. Why does there seem to be such a complacent attitude about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan that Prime Minister Stephen Harper can say with imperturbability that he expects it to go on until at least 2011? What are the realistic chances of raising up a government and military there that isn’t fatally handicapped by corruption and incompetence? What realistic plan does Ottawa have to improve the situation, rather than just maintain a precarious status quo? When is the price too high?

Remembrance Days are not meant to be political statements. Nor are they moments for partisan jousting. Rather, they are about mourning — for the loss of those we loved, true, but also for all those who die innocently in conflagrations around the world. Our mourning, though, should not lead to despair. Even as in dignified silence we pay our respect to those who have died in uniform and pray for their souls, let us also not forget that we owe them all a debt — to work constantly to prevent further deaths in war.

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