06 April 2007

Vimy: heroes or fools?

"I think they'll come back with a heightened sense of respect for our soldiers and also a heightened sense of pride in our accomplishments."
- Mitchell Bubulj,
history teacher

"It put Canadians on the map. It showed we could actually do stuff."
- Jeffery Bertrand, high school student

As quoted in The Globe and Mail, referring to the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in the First World War, on the occasion of a school trip to Europe which included a visit to the battlefield.

And what were these "accomplishments," this "stuff" we showed we could do? Well, killing people, actually. We showed we could kill Germans as well or better than the French and the British. And we could die as well, too. I have always been intrigued at the way people persist in saying they hate war and yet commemorate it like no other historical events. Nothing else we accomplish as a nation, no other stuff we do, seems to touch the emotional depths war does. If we hate war, we certainly love warriors, and you can't have one without the other.

Not that killing people can't contribute to a worthy accomplishment -- good stuff so to speak. In a noble cause, like ridding the world of an Adolf Hitler, for example, it is an unfortunate yet honourable goal. But there was nothing worthy about the First World War. It was little more than an exercise in bloody-minded European hubris. Its causes, whatever they were, were not Canada's business and we were fools to get involved. And what were the causes of the war? Why did they fight? Was it imperialism? arms races? outdated alliances and defence agreements? trade barriers? ethnic and political rivalries? all of the above?
Take your pick. A century later and still no great cause emerges. Twenty million dead for no good reason. Not much of an accomplishment here. Not much stuff to be proud of.

Some historians argue that at least something good came out of it. It was Canada's coming of age, they say. But on what evidence? We entered the war as British subjects and we exited as British subjects, and British subjects we remained until the Citizenship Act became law on January 1st, 1947, when for the first time we were legally Canadians -- a better date for coming of age. Or perhaps the appropriate date was April 17th, 1982, when we patriated our constitution and for the first time truly became masters in our own house. But coming of age because we proved we were good at killing and dying for an empty cause? I hope not. We could have better proven we had come of age by refusing to join the madness. Now that would have been an act of maturity.

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