Harper claims his “thoughts and prayers” are with the family and friends of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the two Canadian soldiers tragically killed last week. Then why is he sending troops to kill or be killed in Iraq, while cutting pensions to veterans amidst rising suicides? If they "gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society," why is Harper using their deaths to further restrict our civil liberties and make us less safe?
Americans saw the tragedy of 9/11 used to wage war on Afghanistan and Iraq—which helped create ISIS, while fueling military spending, Islamophobia and attacks on civil liberties at home. As the 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows wrote on the 10th anniversary of that tragedy, “On this day we ask those who feel compassion for our loss to expand their compassion to include others who continue to experience loss ten years later: innocent families in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing the loss of their loved ones and displacement from their communities as the result of war and political strife; Muslim-Americans subjected to bias and violence at home; those denied the protections of our Constitution and law, whether in Guantanamo or in our own country; those suffering from job loss and economic dislocation related to the cost of war and rising military budgets; and those who have seen their civil liberties and freedoms exchanged for the false promise of security.”
Harper is similarly highjacking tragedy, and not for the first time. As an article in The Guardian explained, “Harper is no stranger to Manichean politics, or to repackaging unpopular security measures in the wake of tragic events. For example, Bill C-13, the so-called cyberbullying act, shamelessly exploited the death of teenager Rehtaeh Parsons and other victims of cyberbullying to reintroduce components of its unpopular online surveillance bill, C-30.”
While Harper hid in a cupboard, it was a nurse and former medic who tried to save Cirillo, shot by a homeless man with addiction and mental health issues. When Harper emerged it was not to stop Canada’s participation in the war that is fuelling ISIS, reverse the government’s deregulation of gun safety (though they did quietly delay a bill so they can pass it later), cancel his planned $36 billion cut to healthcare, or announce investments to end homelessness and support those with mental health and addiction issues. Instead Harper vowed to redouble wars abroad and “national security” at home—using the tragic deaths of Vincent and Cirillo to multiply tragedy around the world, while eroding civil liberties and continuing austerity at home.
Given the violence unleashed on Afghanistan, it’s no surprise that troops following orders would suffer as well. The war and occupation of Afghanistan was sold as peacekeeping, rebuilding and women’s liberation, but as Canadian General Rick Hillier clarified in 2005, “We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.” This has a traumatizing impact on soldiers. Just last month it was revealed that more Canadian soldiers have killed themselves than were killed in Afghanistan, and military families are desperately trying to prevent this statistic from rising.
Corporal Thomas Dixon has tried to kill himself three times since coming back from Afghanistan. His mother is concerned he has undiagnosed PTSD and is not getting the help he needs. As she told the CBC, “Growing up [in the] cadets, he loved it. Then he went over to Afghanistan. That’s when things turned around for him. He came back, he was very moody, he had a temper—all the signs you would see of people who have PTSD…He tried to hang himself with a t-shirt. He’s crying out for help and nobody’s there. I do not want my son to become a statistic, but that’s what’s happening.”
Denying the trauma of war is built into the very terminology of PTSD, as George Carlin explained years ago: “There's a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It's when a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can't take anymore input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap. In the First World War, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the Second World War came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn't seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue. Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It's totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car. Then of course, came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it's no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder. I'll bet you if we'd of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.”
The military continues to bury the pain. Lieutenant Shawna Rogers died of a drug overdose in 2012 and her parents tried to find out why. Her mother, a nurse, compiled documents relating to her daughter’s complaints against the military. The military threatened legal action against her parents if they didn’t turn over the documents and attend the military board of inquiry. As her father, a retired plumber, told the Ottawa Citizen, “The board of inquiry is a kangaroo court and we didn’t want any part of it. There’s no bigger hell than losing your daughter. We were grieving and they were kicking us while we were down.”
The fight to defend pensions
The military is not only kicking but also cutting. While Harper wants to spend $490 billion on the military over the next 20 years, it’s clearly not to support veterans. In 2006, veteran Sean Bruyea criticized the pension cuts contained in the New Veterans Charter as a “callous, bureaucratic move to save money on the backs of disabled veterans.” The military responded by leaking his medical information in an attempt to discredit him. But this hasn’t stopped veterans from fighting to defend their pensions.
According to Major Mark Campbell, who was wounded in Afghanistan, the New Veterans Charter cuts 40% of veterans’ income. As he explained in 2011, “This New Veteran's Charter is a grotesque travesty. It is an abject betrayal by the government of Canada to our new generation of disabled and wounded veterans. What kind of deal is that? The people of Canada should be outraged…Junk the New Veteran’s Charter. It’s crap.”
In 2012 some veterans removed their medals on Remembrance Day, and last year some turned their backs on Conservative MPs during Remembrance Day ceremonies, “just like the Conservatives are turning their backs on veterans,” veteran Claude Latulippe explained.
This is part of a pensions fight across the country, which can link jobs and services and build unity between civilian workers and workers in uniform—a prospect that worries the Tories. This January, veterans joined protests organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada against the closing of eight Veteran Administration offices that provide services and benefits. Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino claimed “the veterans were used by the union. They were duped.” Veterans were furious and demanded Fantino’s resignation, and WWII veteran Roy Lamore reacted to Fantino’s apology by calling it “ridiculous, stupid and the worst thing” he had ever heard. Another veteran, Daniel Drapeau, shredded his Conservative membership card, saying, “They keep hurting us and they won’t stop.”
Remember when soldiers said no
A few months ago veterans rallied on Parliament Hill to defend their pensions. As organizer David MacLeod said, “If you can’t afford the wounded, you can’t afford the war.” This is the real spirit of Remembrance Day, when soldiers tired of being used as cannon fodder refused to fight.
Even the first Christmas during WWI saw this spirit, when British and German soldiers declared an unofficial truce and exchanged gifts rather than bullets. The military command cracked down on fraternizing, but the spirit continued. In April 1917 after another bloody offensive, tens of thousands of French troops refused to fight, and the military resorted to mass arrests and death sentences to restore “order.” In October 1917 millions of Russian soldiers joined the revolution for peace, land and bread—which ended the eastern front. In late October 1918, German sailors refused to fight and triggered a revolution. Soldiers and workers organized democratic councils that swept the country in the first week of November, on the 10th the Kaiser fled the country and on the 11th the armistice was signed. Canada and other imperial powers tried to keep the war alive by sending troops to invade Russia, but Québecois soldiers resisted deployment from Victoria to Vladivostok in December.
Now, as we approach the anniversary of the “war to end all wars”, Harper has joined yet another war in Iraq—a continuation of the 2003 war and occupation that killed a million Iraqis and paved the war for ISIS. The Iraq War also killed thousands of soldiers, which would have included Canadian troops if Harper had his way in 2003. But the peace movement saved Canadian troops from joining the death toll—by stopping Canada from joining the war—and continues to support US Iraq War resisters.
A recent Military Times Poll found 70% of active-duty soldiers opposed sending combat troops to Iraq, but the US went ahead—and already a 19-year old Marine is dead. Harper now wants to use the tragic deaths of last week to justify sending more troops to Iraq. He will turn Remembrance Day on its head—turning a day of peace and healing created by war resisters into a celebration of war, a justification for eroding civil liberties, and lip service to veterans while he cuts their pensions and ignores their suffering and the suffering of all victims of war. The real legacy of Remembrance Day is to support the wounded—including both veterans and refugees—not the war. This means peace not war, solidarity not racism, strengthening not eroding of civil liberties, and redirecting military spending into jobs and pensions, healthcare and education, and environmental justice.