In recent years we have seen a systematic attempt to re-brand Canada as a ‘warrior nation’ where soldiers are heroes; the Canadian military is an institution for nation-building; and war is a necessary and benevolent instrument of public policy.
As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, we must think carefully about how we remember and understand war in our history. Is it central to who we are as a nation, the necessary anvil for the forging of a collective identity?
I don’t think it is. At the very least, it is a lopsided perspective that ignores the quiet, largely hidden and unsung creative work of nonviolence that undergirds everything. A gun or at a tank can’t build a road or a hospital or a communications network.
The warrior nation is a partisan project. By turning soldiers into heroes, our political spin masters are seeking to shield themselves against dissent. Those who dare to question Canada’s military policy in Afghanistan, for example, are attacked for disrespecting the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers.
In a democratic society where soldiers are bound to follow the directives of elected officials, public debate is the only protection soldiers have from corporate agendas and reactionary foreign policies.
It was Aeschylus (525 – 456 BCE) who first said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” The ugly truth is that war is about killing, and being killed. It is mass trauma that affects everyone who is swept up into it, including soldiers.
The men who kidnapped me called themselves mujahadeen — Holy Warriors of God. They once asked me, “What would you do if the Americans invaded Canada? Would you not take up a gun and fight to protect your family and your country?” It was hardly a surprise my kidnappers saw themselves as “good guys” forced to take up the gun in defence of their country. It was no more surprising than hearing American soldiers say they are fighting “the bad guys.”
My experience as a hostage is a window into the psychology of violence. Every act of violence seems to have a pointing finger behind it, an accusation, a narrative that explains and justifies it.
War turns us into the very thing we hate. There is no difference between a soldier and an insurgent. They are both actors in the same play, protagonists of the same story. The only difference is in the name they assign to each other. This is not a judgment of individual soldiers who risk their lives in the service of their country. Rather, it is a judgment of the institution of war and the dynamics of violence.
War is a blind spiral of retribution and death. This is the truth the warrior nation wants us to forget. When our commemoration of World War One begins July 28th, let it be with the cry, “War never again!”
(Editor’s note: James Loney is the author of Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War, the story of his 2005 kidnapping while working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He is currently studying for his Masters in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University.)