Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Great War and the Afghan War

Watching CBC's The Great War the last two nights has been something of a revelation. Firstly that Al-Jazeera North would even create a production such as this - it goes against every peace-loving, war-hating, liberal, roll-over-and-surrender, Busharper-is-evil bone in their journalistic bodies. But someone, somewhere has overcome this and produced what I think is an exceptional piece of television. Sure, it's not perfect and historians may well find it not entirely accurate. Sure, they cast Justin Trudeau as a war hero who might one day return to lead Canada to united nationhood - little bit of subtle help for Papineau Liberals there. And in common with other Liberal icons it seems he still likes his home comforts. But I digress.

However, the strength of this production is in the ordinary citizens who are reliving the experiences of their ancestors. The combination of documentary showing the sheer, unimaginable scale of the destruction and horror, with the decidedly intimate life stories of soldiers and their descendants is perhaps the most effective way to tell the story of the war that CBC could have found. As an immigrant, it has revealed to me the profound truth of Canada's coming of age in the Great War; something I'd heard talked about but never really understood.

In English schools, the Great War was not taught in history classes, at least in my day. Perhaps this was because my teachers formed the tail end the generation whose own fathers fought, who had experienced the loss or seen the horror of the aftermath. I am therefore shamefully ignorant, and this show has done much for someone in that situation, if only to pique my interest in learning a lot more about this particular event. The particularly Canadian perspective on the Great War is enlightening and, DVD formats permitting, I think a lot of Brits would gain a lot from watching this.

It's inspiring to see and hear young Canadians paying their respects and pledging to carry forward the torch of the Great War Canadians. This is not something you ever see in Britain; sometimes it's hard to imagine there still being a Remembrance Sunday in the UK when the last of the WW2 veterans passes away. Young people there just don't really care.

But what of us, today, with men and women again serving a cause of freedom in a foreign land. How do today's Canadians compare with the hundreds of thousands who volunteered to ship overseas to a land they didn't know, in the defence of a country that was not their own?

The servicemen and women in Afghanistan know what they are there to do and they know the cause in which they fight, risk their lives and in some cases pay the ultimate price. Their families know it too. It doesn't lessen the pain, suffering and fear, but they understand the greater cause. Watching Vimy ceremonies, or interviews in high schools, I see teenagers that 'get it'. But I also see a generation of well-fed, comfortably-off liberal baby-boomers who not only wouldn't lift a finger in the cause of freedom, but who denigrate those who do. Leaders, opinion-writers, politicians who would completely turn their back on the Canada that the Great War built, and turn it into a pale imitation of freedom, where something they misname 'tolerance' erodes all notion of right and wrong, and where any threat or attack no matter how extreme or how evil would be met only with negotiation and surrender.

The Great War generation drew a line in the sand; they said that aggression and evil would not prevail against freedom and against the Canada they had come to build. No matter what the cost, Canada would prevail, and she did. Nobody wanted the war, the destruction, the loss, the pain and the suffering that took an entire generation. But the line had to be drawn and the war was the cost of standing up for right. Just so in Afghanistan. There will always be aggression and evil in the world and there must always be some who will draw that line again and fight against it, or eventually we will all be overrun.

3,600 at Vimy. 6 in Kandahar. The same troops, the same cause, the same fight for freedom and right. We should always honour them all.