Building a nation with body bags

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The old refrain “War, what is it good for?” raised a valid question. But it's a question that doesn't much trouble the Harper crowd.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government — and the military lobby with which it is closely associated — isn't squeamish about war. It promotes war as the stuff of nation-building.

Last week was a big week for war. First there was the full-court commemoration of the almost 3,600 Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge 90 years ago.

Then there were the tragic deaths of eight Canadian soldiers killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

Our political and military leaders wasted few opportunities to draw comparisons between Vimy and Kandahar, in an attempt to equate the puzzling, unpopular Afghan mission in the minds of Canadians with the country's most celebrated military battle.

Of course, the personal sacrifice and bravery of the Canadians who died — both at Vimy and Kandahar — deserve our gratitude and respect.

At issue is not their laudable courage, but the Harper government's use of it to glorify war, to cultivate the notion of war as the great nation-builder.

What's striking in this way of thinking is how little attention is paid to the purpose of any particular war and how much is paid to the idea of waging war.

Consider the current slogan of the Canadian Forces: “Fight with the Canadian Forces.” No mention is made of what or whom is being fought, or why. The message instead is just get out there and fight.

How's that for a notion to instill in our young people! We can hope they'll know not to try it out at home or school, but to confine their aggression to fighting unidentified foreign people in faraway lands.

For that matter, despite the heroism at Vimy, it has never been particularly clear what World War I was all about. Few wars, with the exception of World War II, have a clear and compelling purpose.

Yet, rather than war being seen for what it generally is — the ultimate human failure and the ultimate human agony — war is held up as the stuff of greatness, as the tie that binds us together. Only through the sacrifice of war do we come to see ourselves as a nation.

Of course, there's always a much-hyped enemy lurking in the background to get everyone's blood boiling, whether Kaiser Wilhelm II or the Taliban, and an endless chronicling of the enemy's misdeeds.

Conveniently left out of the narrative are the misdeeds committed by our side.

So we hear lots about the barbarism of those who resist our Western invasions (of Afghanistan and Iraq) and little about the suffering we impose when we bomb their villages.

We go on at length about the plight of the 15 British hostages in Iran, even after Iran released video footage showing them being served tea and sitting comfortably watching soccer games on TV.

Of course, nobody likes being held captive. But let's just say that if one had to choose, one would probably opt for that Iranian “ordeal” over, say, that other ordeal with the electrodes and the forced stacking of naked bodies in front of snarling dogs, presided over by grinning U.S. troops.

The notion of war as nation-builder is being used as a convenient substitute for the other sort of nation-building, the kind that involves creating strong public programs, institutions and facilities that provide real benefit to citizens, rather than just giving our young people the experience of killing others or being killed or maimed themselves.

The same crowd that loves to wallow in the glories of war loves to cut off funding for this other sort of nation-building.

Even as the Harper government has dramatically increased military spending, it has eliminated the national child-care program that was finally put in place, and it has allowed private, for-profit medicine to push ever deeper into Canada, undermining the strength and viability of our public health-care system.

The significance of Vimy is said to be that Canadians fought together as a coherent unit, rather than merely as part of the British army.

But bringing Canadians together as a coherent unit to fight poverty and homelessness, to build a stronger public health-care or child-care system, or for that matter, to devise a national energy strategy or a real plan for participating in the worldwide battle against global warming — there's little interest in that sort of nation-building.

It seems that under Harper, we'll do our nation-building with body bags.

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