Remembrance Day this week looked a lot like an exercise in rebranding — by the Canadian military, for its purposes and the Harper government for its own. The motives of each are different but they jibe.

In its origins, 11/11 was complex and contradictorily charged. The horrors of the First World War — the gas, trenches, the futile, bottomless gore — were a ghastly, vivid memory. It focused on the soldiers themselves and, especially, on the striking image of The Unknown Soldier, which transformed into The Forgotten Man of the Depression years. You hear it, too, in the first words of the UN charter after the Second World War, where global leaders seem shamed that, “twice in our lifetimes,” they let the “scourge of war” occur.

You still see that complexity, I think, in the close-ups of veterans in berets as cannon boom or jets fly by. What’s in their minds: Teenagers they knew who never even got started? Their own persisting nightmares? What was it for? Was it worth it? Questions quite possibly without answers.

But that sage bewilderment seemed lacking in our generals. They just appeared chuffed by the respect and focus our military is (finally) getting (again). “I think we’ve come a long way since the ice storm and the floods,” said General Walter Natynczyk. He might have added, “and those blue-helmet missions for the UN.” This is their new vision for Canada’s forces: a real army fights wars rather than keeping peace, and since we’ll never start our own, that means getting in on those waged by the big boys in the U.S.

It’s ironic that we are still in the shadow of the Fort Hood shootings in Texas, since it is there that many of our officers, including Rick Hillier, served and may have come to share those American military values. It’s doubly ironic since the Fort Hood shootings were clearly linked in the mind of the alleged killer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where I fear that kind of military vision has already led: to blowback and far less security at home.

This week, too, our commanding general in Kandahar, Jonathan Vance, said we would “demand honesty, integrity and good performance from all levels of government or we won’t stay.” But that’s pretty much what the Taliban delivered and why Afghans grudgingly tolerated them before we went in. So what was the purpose, besides changing the image and role of our military? Perhaps these guys have spent too much time at Fort Hood and seen Patton once too often. Maybe they should just be issued copies of the hot new video game, Call of Duty, without needing to stand in line.

The Harper government supports this new vision but its own goal is more to rebrand the role of government. It’s a great way to get government out of the business of social and economic activity by shovelling funds into the military. If you want to see where this kind of thing leads, look south again: They can’t even get a discussion of universal health care going for fear of how much it will cost, but spend militarily with few or no questions asked.

The Harper Tories are also engaged in rebranding Canada. It surely pained them when Tommy Douglas, the father of medicare, won that CBC contest for Greatest Canadian. If they succeed in their project of re-nation-building, who might win then? Don Cherry, perhaps, who also ran? The PM and the generals have every right to try some rebranding and are doing so astutely. But these are processes in motion; the endings aren’t known. The Globe ran a rebranding piece headed, “Canadians embrace new role for military.” Yet, inside the article, we learned Canadians remain “more comfortable with Joe … who declared: ‘I believe in peacekeeping, not policing.’ ” And (like Afghans) they oppose the Afghanistan mission, while embracing the troops. The contradictions, like those of the real Remembrance Day, linger.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.