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As a country at war, we're in the mood for Vimy

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

The glorification of war. Watch for it. With the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, it will be coming to your screens all day long.

There will be wall-to-wall misty-eyed news reports and our governing politicians will love it. There is even corridor talk of exploiting Vimy for election purposes. Let it trigger a wave of patriotism -- then drop the writ.

Countries at war, no matter how small the war, tend to get caught up in military fervour. Nationalist impulses take over. Troops, most every country's troops, are cast as heroic no matter what they do or do not do and, in a stampede of patriotic ritual, politicians and celebrities rush to the war zone to honour them. They get their pics taken in battle gear. They show what consummate patriots they are.

This week, Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team, descended on Kandahar. He bore gifts of new jerseys and sticks so our troops could play better ball hockey. It was pure hokum, but a nice gesture and he went on to say what a phenomenal job our soldiers are doing. While not pausing to wonder what he actually knew about the mission, our news media lapped it up.

In what may be a sign of the times -- the new Canadian times -- the hockey owner's cheesy war boosterism grabbed twice as much press attention in Ottawa as any recent war demonstrations.

Afghanistan has become an easy war to take. There have been no casualties on our side in months and, although significant progress is hard to discern, we are getting more and more comfortable with our presence there. More worrisome is the notion that we are getting more comfortable with the whole idea of war.

From Vimy, we evolved. After the Second World War, we became the country that stood for peace, a middle-ground arbiter. But now, in so many ways, the peacenik decades have receded. Now we call for new military might. Now we protest less against nuclear stockpiling and abrogating of treaties. Now, we have a government that can't bring itself to condemn one of the great horror shows of our era: the Iraq war. Now, rather than opt for the role of peace broker, we rush to choose sides.

We have a wonderful comedian, Rick Mercer, who likes to visit the war zone. Give him a chorus of dancing girls and he could pass as our Bob Hope.

In Parliament, we have an atmosphere in which anyone who questions our role in Afghanistan is liable to get hit with the infantile slander that he or she doesn't support our troops.

In our top military officer, Rick Hillier, we have a man who sees himself like a great U.S. general and who repeatedly charges that our military was put through a decade of darkness. He doesn't mention that with the end of the Cold War, most all countries slashed military expenditures, for obvious reasons. He doesn't mention that this country was near bankrupt in the mid-1990s and cuts were universally demanded for all departments -- including defence. He doesn't mention that what he considers darkness included one of the most luminous decisions any of our governments ever made: staying out of Iraq.

Today, our government has us in a war that is much more worthy than Iraq. But it would be good to know, since our Prime Minister favoured the Iraq invasion, what lessons he may have learned from it.

The commemorations at Vimy Ridge are important. In a country that is short on defining moments, Vimy certainly serves as a shining one. But the event should not be politicized -- opposition leaders weren't invited to attend until it was too late -- and rather than being used to glorify war, its anniversary should serve as a reminder of the idiocies that led to the death of millions in that war.

Jacqueline Hucker, an art historian who served on the restoration team for the Vimy monument, eloquently articulated the sentiment. "Vimy is not a victory monument," she told the Ottawa Citizen. "There are no signs of victory there at all. It expresses our obligation to the dead, and the grief of the living."

Our obligation to the dead is hardly war boosterism. It is finding solutions other than war.

lmartin@globeandmail.com

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