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Vimy: Was it worth it?

From Friday's Globe and Mail

From a Globe and Mail story on Wednesday: “Election posturing will be put on hold this weekend when Mr. Harper and his family travel to France to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.” Right. That would be why the PM didn't invite opposition leaders to come until media pressure forced him to. That was after he said in the House two weeks ago that Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion cares more about the Taliban than about Canadian soldiers.

And told some troops this week: “If as a leader you cannot stand in front of our men and women in uniform, then at least get behind them.” No politics in military symbols.

It's true there was heroism at Vimy Ridge, as there is in most wars. But most of what goes on in wars is not heroic. Pierre Berton's book Vimy recounts how a Canadian soldier attempted to help a wounded friend who'd fallen into a crater, but an officer with a gun pointed it at him and forced him to keep advancing. He went on, his friend died. Another saw a friend's head severed by a Canadian artillery shell that fell short. The head flew through the air, almost hitting another soldier. The headless corpse took two steps before collapsing in the muck. Men died in mud holes, the top of their heads blown off, exposing their brains “like fish roe” while they pleaded for water.

The battle was basically won by a massive, relatively precise artillery barrage, behind which infantry advanced as carefully as they could. The German forces were routed after years of trench warfare stalemate, but the Canadians couldn't follow up because the shelling had so “harrowed” the battlefield that the big guns couldn't be moved across it. So there was no real effect on the outcome — the carnage continued, mildly relocated.

It was a pointless war that just led to the next, 20 years later, as most people now concede and many soldiers knew then. Canadian historian Harold Innis, who fought at Vimy and was wounded there, spent the rest of his life stunned at “the stupidity of the whole performance” and even more that he had willingly joined.

“War is primarily about the extinction of human life rather than victory or defeat,” British journalist Robert Fisk has said, with great exasperation, after witnessing too many wars. People keep forgetting that basic truth. Heroism occurs in war precisely because it is pointless, but individual soldiers act bravely anyway, in futile or evil situations. They redeem the unredeemable by their individual behaviour. The Second World War is an exception, and almost gave war a good name, in the sense that you can argue it was worth it — but it too should have been avoided.

The only inspiration to be drawn from Vimy is that some soldiers behaved nobly despite the obscenity and pointlessness. We go there to pay tribute not just to their bravery but to their waste. To use it to justify further waste, in Afghanistan for instance, seems to me more obscenity.

Why are “the Canadians,” 90 years later, in Afghanistan? In Leopard tanks, rolling across a medieval countryside. Is that how to win the hearts of Afghan peasants, while the “bad guys” are Afghan, speak the language and multiply? The First World War was also called a war between civilization and barbarism. But was Iran barbaric this week, when it released 15 British sailors unharmed? Is “our side” civilized, as it tortures innocent prisoners and refuses them legal process? There is no clear clash of civilization and barbarism in these conflicts, as many soldiers back then realized. The generals lived in terror of mutinies on both sides.

In his final chapter, Mr. Berton asked whether Vimy was worth it. He considered the claim that it forged Canadian confidence and nationhood and largely concurred. Its impact was profound. For the dedication of the original monument in 1936, 6,500 Canadians crossed the ocean, a huge logistical effort. Although the rest of the world largely forgot Vimy, it reverberated here; parents even named kids Vimy. It still echoes, as it will this weekend. Mr. Berton personalized it, assessed it with objectivity and concluded unflinchingly: “Was it worth it? The answer, of course, is no.” God, I miss Pierre Berton.

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