I grew up in hopeful times.
In the 60s and 70s, wars were mostly proxy wars, fought by other countries in lands far away for unjust reasons. Or civil wars based on tribalism, racism and religion.
Canadians were peacekeepers and proud of it.
My parents and grandparents grew up in different times. Canada was new and more closely tied to Europe. Hitler was a very real enemy, a danger to the way of life of millions on the planet. The Aryan Nation, the scapegoating of minorities, the extermination of the Jews and the planned military takeover of the world threatened everything my father and his generation believed in, and he and millions of others were eager to play their part in offering the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. I was proud of my dad and my grandfather who fought in World War I. I was proud of the military medals for bravery that they themselves were ashamed of. I was proud that they had risked their lives for the world I grew up in.
When I started teaching, my friend Liz and I both taught thematic units in junior high about war. Beyond “In Flanders Fields”, we taught Mona Gould’s “This was my brother at Dieppe” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. I showed Helen Caldicott speaking about the nuclear threat in the NFB film “ If You Love This Planet”. I went to teaching sessions on disarmament. My library contained Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. We talked about the horrors of war and the bravery of our ancestors and how we recognized sacrifices they made.
They say the best way to understand something is to teach about it. But in all the time I have spent teaching about war, I don’t.
I don’t understand it.
I respect the sacrifices of my ancestors. But war is horrific. In today’s world, is war ever necessary? Is it necessary to make the ultimate sacrifice “for your country”? Millions upon millions dying and for what? Nothing made my dad angrier than seeing a coffin draped in a flag. I know he agreed with Howard Zinn when he said “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
Why war in modern times? Because one nation fears that another nation will control the ideology of another on the other side of the globe? Because one nation wants access to the resources of another?
How can it possibly be sweet and fitting to lay down your life for your fatherland?
But in the wake of the vitriol after the last provincial election, in the aftermath of Trump’s hate-filled campaign, in the misogyny revealed by the PCs, in the threats to the environment that will sustain my children and grandchildren, I’m beginning to see. I’m beginning to see just what it is about my way of life I would lay my life down for. Equal rights and global economic stability and respect for the grasses and rivers and air and land that sustain us and belief in diversity and social justice and compassion for the oppressed. How much do those things matter? Which of those would I offer up my life for?
I’m beginning to see what that means.
And it terrifies me.