There was a flurry of news stories last week about an open letter, signed by 15 University of Regina professors, calling on the university president, Vianne Timmons, to reverse her decision to participate in something called "Project Hero." The program pays for the tuition and course fees and provides $1,000 a year for "dependents of Canadian Forces personnel deceased while serving with an active mission."
The letter to President Timmons argues that Project Hero "...is a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We do not want our university associated with the political impulse to unquestioning glorification of military action."
As you might guess, this glorification of militarism was introduced by our former gun-slinger chief of the armed forces, Rick Hillier. The letter points out that Hillier signed on to it soon after becoming the chancellor of Memorial University in Newfoundland. It goes on to state its objections:
"In our view, support for ‘Project Hero' represents a dangerous cultural turn. It associates ‘heroes' with the act of military intervention. It erases the space for critical discussion of military policy and practices. In signing on to ‘Project Hero', the university is implicated in the disturbing construction of the war in Afghanistan by Western military- and state-elites -- as the "good war" of our epoch. We insist that our university not be connected with the increasing militarization of Canadian society and politics."
For their actions in trying to defend the university's reputation from an association with blatant jingoism, the fifteen Profs have been treated to a wave of attacks from assorted bottom-feeders on Canada's right. One of the Profs wrote me that he and the others have been subjected to "...a vilification campaign directed in part by right-wing politicians in the Conservative Party and the Saskatchewan Party [the Saskatchewan equivalent of Harper's Conservatives]. As a result, we have been at the receiving end of a wave of vitriolic hate mails, full of terrible language and demands that we be fired from our university positions."
This kind of mindless verbal violence is reminiscent of the hate campaigns being fomented by the extreme right of the Republican Party in the US against Obama -- campaigns that do not even bother to hide their racism. It is indicative of how easy it is to undermine and gradually change a political culture rooted in a desire for peace and a suspicion of militarism.
The willingness of people to send off hate message without spending a couple of minutes thinking about what the Profs were actually saying shows how important it is to challenge this dumbing-down of our political culture.
As I wrote to Timmons "I feel for the soldiers sent to Afghanistan because the rationale for their ‘mission' is a lie. They are being deceived and many in addition lose their lives or experience injury or post traumatic stress disorder.But no one involved in an illegal and immoral war can be called a ‘hero.' It diminishes the idea of heroism and cheapens it."
Project Hero is purely political and has nothing to do with looking after "our troops." It is a transparent effort to stop people from thinking about the meaning of our occupation of Afghanistan and our ugly collaboration with US imperial interests.
Project Hero cynically exploits the very soldiers it pretends to be supporting -- soldiers who are dying, being wounded and having their lives changed forever in large part because of the lobbying of former general Rick Hillier to take on a combat role that those soldiers were ill-equipped to handle -- both in terms of training and equipment. Over 140 Canadian soldiers dead and hundreds more seriously wounded so Hillier could go out and talk about "killing scumbags."
In fact, the children of soldiers wounded or killed in combat are already afforded generous access to university education. Garson Hunter, who teaches social work at the U of R and is one of the signatories of the letter to president Timmons, served on UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus as a soldier with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
He pointed out to the Regina Leader Post that the program was set up in 1953 under the Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act. According to the Leader Post, "...the Act uses federal government funding to pay up to $5,000 per academic year to cover tuition and course fees, plus a $372.44-per-month living allowance. Last year, 95 students across the country were covered under the Act, costing taxpayers roughly $500,000."
Project Hero has no government funding -- universities sign on to the program individually and the money comes out of funds normally earmarked for general student assistance. In short, it takes money from students who actually need it and gives it to those who have access to generous funding already.
While the 15 profs have had to endure a hate campaign, they may turn out to be the real heroes of the day for alerting people to this program. Those of you in other university communities might consider investigating to ensure that your presidents aren't getting similarly duped into militarizing our culture.