Written back in 2008:
Over the weekend, I watched Passchendaele, the Great War epic by Paul Gross that brings a Canadian perspective to WWI. The movie has its strengths and weaknesses, but got me thinking about war in general, and its consequences.
When we hear about war in the words of politicians, it is in terms of the big picture; freedom, regime change, democracy, protection of ourselves and our allies from those who would do us harm.
When we hear about war from military spokespersons, it is often in terms of the nature of the combat situations and operations.
When it's the media, we hear numbers - numbers of dead soldiers, costs in terms of dollars, numbers of days spent in conflict.
When I think of war, I think of two things:
First, a memory I have of travelling in Sarajevo in 2001. I had visited that city because, as a boy growing up in small-town Ontario, I'd never felt the impact of war directly; I thought it was important to get at least a sense of what that experience was, what it meant to those who lived through it.
In Sarajevo, I saw a lot of sights familiar from news coverage - the bombed-out hotel, scenes of the main drag shelled and devastated and of course, people looking nervously at the tanks in their streets. Having experienced riots and such in South America, I was somewhat adapted to being surrounded by armed soldiers and army vehicles but the sheer, overwhelming military presence on the streets of Sarajevo (and throughout Bosnia) was unerving.
There were full convoys of tanks rolling throughout the city. In the downtown core, I ran into some UN soldiers - a Canadian and an Irishman - who, in casual conversation, told me not to step on sewer grates, as they weren't all clear of mines yet. One evening, after dinner and while walking through the Turkish Quarter, a friend I'd made on the street told me we should get indoors as there were still gunfights happening on the periphery. We wouldn't want to catch a stray shot. Though my untrained ear did hear what could have been gunfire, it could very well have been construction work. In any event, I saw people going about their lives, shopping, taking out money at a bank, as I did, under the veil of unstability and continual uncertainty about their very safety.
All that left an impression, but the image that really sticks out for me from my time in Sarajevo is of a group of boys playing basketball against the backdrop of a collapsed building. The ball missed their improvised net, went over a "danger, do not cross, landmines present" marker, and was lost. The kids were bummed because they had lost their ball to a minefield. That was their reality.
War changes borders, topples governments, and can even restore freedom. Whenever there is war, though, no matter the cause, life is disrupted. People die, both soldiers and civilians. The fabric of their lives is unwoven.
Later, in Zagreb, I met a couple of English teachers who wanted to share their experience of the war. They told me how, as students during the conflict, they denied the reality as an "over there" problem for as long as possible; they didn't want their lives to change. They told themselves the war was in another city, then in another neighbourhood, then on another street, right up until their living room window was shattered while they were doing homework. "We were just ordinary kids, like kids anywhere," they told me. "The war does not define us; it did, however, change everything."
Sun-tzu refers to war as a tool in the belt of nations to use as they conduct their affairs, and never a desirable one. War leads to death and damage to infrastructure, and this inescapeably. Whether conquorer or the conquored, liberator or the oppressed, in war, everyone loses; war is always messy.
The second memory that comes to me when I think of war is of a Dutchman, Leo, a friend of my grandfather's, another survivor of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Leo just emailed me recently, giving me an update on his health. At the age of 80-something, he'd just gotten a scooter. During World War II, Leo had found himself during WWII among those deemed undesirable by the Nazis, and was locked away from the world in a hell of man's making.
A couple years ago, at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of Buchenwald's liberation, I toured the camp, the "Little Camp" where my grandfather and other Allied Airmen had been placed, as well as the quarry where countless individuals were worked litterally to death. I toured with my grandfather and two other Canadians who'd been in Buchenwald, and went to a couple sites with Leo's granddaughter. Leo himself wouldn't visit the quarry, because even after more than sixty years, the pain of the memories of what he had endured there, the guilt at still being alive when so many had perished, was just too much for him.
I have visited war cemeteries with countless markers in rows that stretch beyond the horizon; I have stood on Juno Beach; I've crawled through preserved World War I trenches; I've sat in cafes in towns like Ypres, once obliterated by war. Even in Buchenwald, I have stood in front of the hooks on which hundreds were hung with piano wire and looked through the holes of the shooting booths where communists were shot in the back of the neck as they stood to be measured; I have seen the ovens where bodies were burned, and the pits where the ashes of lost souls were dumped, without ceremony. For some reason, it's Leo's personal experience, and the scars both internal and external that he still carries, that struck me the most. (Leo has passed away since I wrote this piece).
War is the worst occupation of man; however, so long as we continue to behave inhumanly to each other, there will be cause for just wars. Sometimes, the disease is so bad, surgery is needed to cut it out entirely.
We must never delude ourselves that all wars are just; even in just wars, attrocities happen on both sides. War will, however, always be with us. As Paul Gross' character says in Passchendaele (and I'm paraphrasing here) "war's something we're good at, and we've gotten good at it because we do it so often, and we do it so often because it's something we do well." It is unlikely that we, as a species, will ever mature enough to move beyond the compulsion to bring violence upon our own kind. We're far too selfish for that.
For those who hold the heavy burden of determining whether our nation (or any nation) goes to war, weigh the options with utmost gravitas. Going to war as a way to build up your nation's international reputation as tough is a terrible justification. Going to war because you believe it will satisfy a segment of voters is equally horrible. War is an evil, ugly undertaking. Don't even consider conflict an option until there are no options left, and then, be strategic, and weigh each decision with an understanding of the impact on lives those choices will have. In war, there are no winners; there are only differing degrees of loss.
For those who stand against war in all its forms, ask yourselves: what are you opposing? If it is senseless death, if it is destruction of property and culture, consider: sometimes in the real world, situations fester like a cavity, and the only solution is to go in and cleave out the infection entirely.
As Canadians, we are blessed to have had no conflict on our home soil within the lifetime of any of us living today. By the same token, we really have no real and thorough understanding of the impacts of war.
We must ask ourselves, every day, what we can do do help alleviate the burdens of war faced by untold millions of our own kind - human beings, whatever their ethnicity, religion or lifestyle. Sometimes, force will be the answer, but we must never assume force is THE answer until all other options have been excercised.
We must also thank our men and women in uniform for the sacrifices they make every day - but we must also try harder to understand just what those sacrifices are. To be a soldier is more than to put your life on the line for duty, crown or country; it is to remove yourself from what's familiar, to make choices that none but soldiers can ever even fathom, and to know that an impassable gulf of knowledge and experience will always exist between you and those who have never been through war. In truth, we don't just send soldiers to war, but their families as well. Husbands and wives, children and parents all carry the weight of conflict on their shoulders.