November 11, 2014, a day in Canada when everything has changed, and yet, as the Rabbi reminded us in his Benediction, nothing has changed. We are today a peaceful, respectful, law-abiding and trusted country among the world's medium powers as we have been for the last century-plus. We are also emerging from a series of events in the last three weeks that have shaken us all. The assassination of two of Canada's military personnel in cold blood, one by an auto the other by as assassin's bullet as he stood guard at the War Memorial in the centre of Ottawa, has left us newly charged with both appreciation for our military and the role they play in our lives, and also newly wounded in our perception of our country and our realization of the way the world has changed forever.
Both assassinations were perpetrated by radicalized Canadians, albeit troubled, dedicated to the cause of Islamic terrorism. Just today, we learned that our CF-18's had dropped their first bombs on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, following a formal decision by the Canadian government to join the campaign against this venomous scourge. It was only yesterday that we learned that a suicide bomber had detonated his body device, disguised as a student in a northern Nigerian town, killing some 49 young men, and wounding another 80. According to reports, the assassin in this case was a member of Boko Haram, (translated "western education is evil") another arm of Islamic terrorism, inflicting its poison whenever and wherever it can.
Officially, the military does not like to disclose casualties, as we learned from one of Canada's Generals involved in the Iraq mission explained on CTV's Question Period this past Sunday, just as Matthew Halton Canada's reporter from the front was forbidden from reporting casualties in the First World War, documented in his son David Halton's new book, Dispatches from the Front. During that war, the Canadian government did not appreciate the Senior Halton's "gloomy picture" of what he was witnessing in the European theatre, preferring a more glossy and sugar-coated version of events than Halton was willing to present. Today, however, with 24-7 reporting, embedded reporters in the war theatres, some facing beheading at the hands of the terrorists as they pursue a relentless campaign of fear and recruitment of the most fragile and seducible of young men and women from western countries are delivering hour-by-hour reports on the most deadly events.
The world has grown considerably smaller, at least in the time and distance as well as the volume of information flow that darts at lightning speed into every laptop and I-pad and smart phone on the planet the instant something happens. This is another of the ways everything has changed: we all have instant access to such a range of information sources from many countries, that we could easily drown in the bile of news-flow that discourages and even suffocates our spirit and our hope.
On the other hand, some 50,000 Canadians turned up at the War Memorial in Ottawa today, and the Canadian Legion sold some 20 million poppies, more than ever in history, all of this a defiant statement of the Canadian strength of will and solidarity (not solidity, as CBC commentator Brian Stewart called it in his comments on air) sending a message of determination to those troubled current and potential recruits to radical Islam that we will not be undermined, nor will will become victims of our fear.
For seven decades, I have held what could justly be called a detached view on Canada's military, sliding too easily into comfort with many comedic views that are summed up in the line, "In which war has Canada's contribution made a difference?" Mostly out of both ignorance and a distaste for killing, for guns, for top-down authority my life path veered further and further away from all things violent, including the military.
When I taught grade ten history to "tech boys" in 1967, in the midst of the Viet Nam war, as I have stated in this space previously, one student boldly asked in the middle of a class in Canadian History, "Sir, would you go to fight in Viet Nam if you were drafted?" I responded, "Only if I were permitted to teach, and not if I were required to bear arms and kill the enemy."
I have often wondered silently and recently more publicly why there is no graduate school offering formal academic training in peace negotiations, especially at the Canadian military universities. When I learned just yesterday of the sale of "white poppies" in British Columbia as a movement to promote peace, I wanted to purchase one, recognizing that some people who espouse the sale of red poppies find this initiative offensive and competitive with their tradition.
Is there not room for both red and white poppies to be sold in a Canadian context?
Another way Canadians have not changed, in spite of our recent parliamentary vote to send fighter jets and military personnel to Iraq to fight ISIS, is that we are a country of 33 million who by a large majority prefer peace to war, prefer conflict resolution to blood-shed, negotiation to fisticuffs, and even walking away to bullying. When I was in grade ten, a classmate had a dispute with me over what I considered a trivial matter, yet one he considered a matter of honour. As I departed school, carrying my books, I was accosted just inside the school fence by my tormentor who began to pound me with his fists, as a crowd quickly gathered. Without putting my books down, and without engaging him with my own fists, I suggested we both pay a visit to the principal's office to settle our dispute. Of course, that was the "chicken way out" in the mind of my opponent, as he continued to pound away, only to look up and find the principal coming to break up the fight. Whatever punishment he received I have no idea, to this day; I do know that he eventually enlisted in the Canadian Navy and likely served an honourable career. The principal, for his part, however, showed his colours many years later when, having been asked, after I completed a master's degree, for a letter of reference to a doctoral program in education at an Ontario university, by this scribe, secretly wrote that this candidate is not emotionally mature enough to be considered a candidate for a doctoral program in education. Finding out who our friends and enemies are is neither a simple nor a second-long process; it takes decades to learn the colour of one's character, and while I may have taken the "chicken" road in grade ten, I have often wondered what road that principal was taking some seventeen years later. On reflection, like too many of his "leader-peers" in education, he preferred controlled appearances to somewhat unpredictable and uncontrolled reality, and was ready and willing to step over a professional line of judgement of one of his former students, good enough to have been invited to 'teach' the French class in which he was then substituting for the ill French teacher but apparently not good enough to enter a doctoral program in education.
Today, Canadians know that ISIS is a serious threat, an unequivocal enemy, and a force to be eradicated by whatever means necessary. Today, conversely from my previous seven decades, I would consider it an honour and a duty to engage in the fight against this scourge. Today, the barbarism that rages like a tsunami across the globe, incubated albeit too often by injustices incalculable and inexcusable, nevertheless, requires both a deep and profound searching of our collective unconscious, as well as our 'western' history, without in any way apologizing for or amending our healthy education of men and women for an unchartered future of diminishing life-sustaining resources. There is no principal who is charged with refereeing our growing conflict with radical Islam. There is no organization capable of reining in this monster. There is only the collective will, imagination, courage and spirit of each Canadian and each citizen of every other civilized country, including especially those committed adherents to a moderate and respectful practice and interpretation of Islam, whose active participation is essential in neutralizing this toxic human chemical, reducing it to its smallest and least toxic precipitate and then euthanizing that precipitate from our shared future, without being ready or willing to endure a lasting radioactive residue.
Today, we remember, for as the rabbi reminded us, without memory there is no continuity and there is no identity. And he also reminded us that thanks without action of support is hollow. We are now all soldiers in the unchartered and unpredictable winds of war that are raging in too many quarters through suicide bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, beheadings, propaganda videos, theft of residual arms from previous conflicts, and the linkage of previous Bucca prison camp inmates with former trained military personnel from the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
And on this Rememberance Day, 2014, we all know the restricted capabilities of the military; we all know that eventually talking will have replace bombs, missiles and hard power and then, the degree of our collective commitment to the termination of this current scourge, as well as our willingness and courage to deter the threat contained in Mikail Gorbachev's recent warning that we are entering a new cold war, as well as our collective commitment to collapse the canyon that has grown between the have's and the have-not's will be necessary if our grandchildren are to enjoy the scope and degree of freedom that our current generations have enjoyed, resulting from the bloody and traumatic and courageous actions of our grandparents and their grandparents.
And we will have to grow our tolerance for "gloomy pictures" at the official level if we are even to being that long and arduous process to peace and security and stability that everyone seeks and yet this madness of violence continues and grows.