Monday, November 30, 2009

Lies I tell to soldiers

I don't tell the lies directly, but politicians and poets tell them for me.
  1. We will remember your sacrifice forever. Since we ask for absolute sacrifice from soldiers, sailors, and combat aviators, we offer them unlimited memory. But while many of us make an effort remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives on our behalf, wars fade into history, and thus, sadly, irrelevance over at most ten or fifteen generations. Since most of the young men we send off to die in war give up any hope of making a mark on the world by something other than their sacrifice, we owe them the truth.
  2. You died in a noble and necessary cause. Most Canadian soldiers who died over the past century have died in worthy causes. But a dishonesty at the heart of this statement poisons it, because we would ask our soldiers to die even in bad cause. So many people just like ourselves have sent their children to die in manifestly unjust causes over the centuries that it would take extreme egotism to believe we would not do the same. I remember a Remembrance Day hymn from long ago: "tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved, your memory hallowed in the land you loved", that captures the problem perfectly. It implies that all soldiers fighting for a cause they love prove their virtue and earn the love of their compatriots. But in saying that soldiers who died for a cause they believed in deserve honour in memory, even if they died for Hitler's Germany, we contradict the argument that the soldiers we and our forbears sent to die did so in a noble, or at least a necessary, cause.
  3. We will put an end to war after this one. Fewer politicians have told this lie recently; I do not know whether I should welcome a break from hypocrisy, or despair at the thought that so many people seem comfortable at the thought of war as a means of settling political disputes going on into the indefinite future. Whatever politicians today have taken to saying, though, millions of young men still lie under graves in Flanders from two wars which politicians promised them would end war. Every time we go to war either reluctantly or eagerly, we break faith with two generations of young men, who went through horrors so that we could have lasting peace. 
I also tell soldiers two things that definitely are not lies:
  1. Thank you for your service. While I wish fervently and work for an end to all war, I know that it will take hard work and struggle to accomplish it. How can I not honour the impulse that leads men and women to service and sacrifice?
  2. I wish you safe return. May you come home whole in body and mind, to a warm welcome.

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