Only the hardest of hearts would not be moved by the images and details that circulated after the killing of Corporal Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa last month: his status as a single father, the words of the stranger who rushed to give him CPR—“you are so loved”—and the many photos of Cirillo’s dogs, who so clearly loved, and were loved by, him.
Cirillo died a symbol of the soldier’s life he dreamed of living full-time, standing on ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial. He also died cruelly young, as with so many of those commemorated by official Remembrance Day ceremonies, including the Canadians killed in Afghanistan. Predictably, his killing instantly became the grounds for an outpouring of patriotism.
The Prime Minister wasted no time in also casting Cirillo’s killer in a political script. Within hours of the shooting, Harper addressed the nation from an “undisclosed location”: “Fellow Canadians, in the days that come, we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had.”
Harper continued: “Attacks on our security personnel and our institutions of governments are, by their very nature, attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians, as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all. But, let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.”
As Noah Richler pointed out in a very sensible commentary, on the intimidation score Harper was apparently speaking for the rest of us. His office quickly cancelled a scheduled visit to Toronto to confer honourary Canadian citizenship on Malala Yousafzai.
As for accomplices, it turns out that Cirillo’s killer Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had none. Nor did “ISIL-inspired terrorist” (Harper’s term) Martin Couture-Rouleau, who two days earlier had killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent by driving into him. And all that connected the two killers was self-radicalization as adult converts to Islam, along with evident mental instability. Zehaf-Bibeau had even tried to get himself convicted of robbery in hopes that jail time would help him kick a crack addiction.
But if Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau were not the terrorists the Harperites hoped for, both the killers and their victims have been made to serve the latest instalment of Harper’s populist and militaristic nationalism, in a storyline where “we” must “strengthen our resolve” to “fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.” If we lose a few civil liberties along the way, isn’t that a small price to pay for “our values”? Besides, what’s a little electronic tracking if you have nothing to hide?
What do poppies have to do with it?
As Ian McKay and Jamie Swift put it, the airbrushed history promoted by “warmonger politicians” is often at odds with the memories of those who experience war first hand. For some veterans, the mismatch between politicians’ words and the brutal reality of battle is simply unconscionable.
In London, Veterans for Peace organised a march to the Cenotaph outside Whitehall under the banner “Never Again.” Ben Griffin, a former paratrooper who served in Iraq, explained that their wreath of white poppies was to recognize “the fact that the majority of those killed in modern warfare are civilians.” Their shirts read “War is organised murder,” a quote from Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the First World War.
Patch himself refused to take part in Remembrance Day ceremonies, saying they were “just showbusiness”. Likewise, Harry Leslie Smith, a British veteran of the Second World War, said 2013 would be the last year he wore a poppy: “I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.”
In Canada, navy veteran Malcolm French explained to the CBC why he wears two poppies alongside his service medals: “The red poppy represents the sacrifice of the fallen. The white poppy represents the hope for a better future, where young soldiers, sailors and air crew do not have to die.” French derided the “professional rage artists” who, in their attempt to silence the pacifist campaign not only contradict the idea of freedom they trumpet on Remembrance Day, but “deflect our attention from real issues.”
For French, these “real issues” include the derisory treatment of Canadian veterans under the Conservative government: its closure of Veterans’ Affairs Offices, the erosion of benefits to injured vets, and the lack of support for those with mental health issues stemming from combat.
For the same reasons, a new coalition of six Canadian veterans organisations has announced it will boycott all photo-ops with government politicians this Remembrance Day. Another such group, Our Duty, has asked journalists to ignore Stephen Harper and any other politician “tempted to speak to the media, or pose for pictures.” “Exploiting veterans for political gain is offensive,” the group said, but too many politicians lack the integrity to stand aside.
More Canadian veterans of Afghanistan have now died from suicide than were killed in combat there — a statistic that speaks not only to gaps in mental health services at home, but also to the futility of a military mission aimed, as Graeme Smith put it, at “trying to stamp out extremist ideas with … 2,000-pound bombs.” In The Dogs are Eating Them Now, a book produced from years of “visceral immersion” in Afghanistan, Smith suggests that Canadians “had better get used to accepting risk in their lives” because there is a “limit to how many people you can kill as a preventive measure” — and more, a limit to how many people you should kill as a preventive measure given that the actual risks posed by terrorism are relatively small.
If the gristly reality of “our war in Afghanistan” is one silence that needs breaking, so too is the silencing effect of the Harper government’s dichotomized vocabulary, in which “terrorism”—“their savagery”—always exists in opposition to state democracy, foreclosing the possibility of state terror.
Take the Conservatives’ unbending support of Israel, a state whose appropriation of Palestinian land and water, destruction of infrastructure and agriculture, and blockade of Gaza, keep the region “suspended on the edge of a humanitarian crisis”. Last summer, when the United Nations estimated that 70 percent of the 2100 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army were civilians, Harper blamed their deaths on “terrorist attacks” from Gaza and said that “solidarity with Israel is the best way of stopping the conflict.” (Seventy-three Israelis were killed in the same conflict, 66 of them soldiers.)
Heroes and villains, right and wrong, us and them
My thinking about all that is conditioned by Lost Lives, a chronicle of every death in the Northern Ireland Troubles. I was living in Belfast when the book came out. In a radio interview, one of the authors asked people to read through the entries from an entire year uninterrupted as a way of humanizing the conflict. Doing so, I remember being struck not only by “the sheer waste and horror of war” but also by how the deaths connected to each other, how every single one rippled outwards, tearing apart the fabric of so many other lives in the process.
Similarly, Canadians mourned Nathan Cirillo’s death because we could imagine him as a person. We could imagine how his death ripped apart other lives. We could imagine his five-year-old son, now an orphan. We could imagine his dogs waiting, futilely, for him to come home.
What we do with this empathy is another question. Cirillo’s girlfriend for one has argued for interrupting a “ridiculous” debate about whether he was a hero: “What we SHOULD be talking about is the dismal state of mental healthcare in our country … [and] how we can PREVENT another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the REAL source of this tragedy.”
Or, as Harry Smith put it: “If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.”
In short, we can reserve our empathy for those we easily identify with, in the service of a story where the lines between right and wrong, us and them, heroes and villains, are clear and bright and justify asking young women and men to die for a “cause”.
Or we can commit ourselves to working for a world in which people everywhere are allowed to live for one.
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