Thursday, February 09, 2017

The white battalion

Donald Trump on the campaign trail by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
by Gage Skidmore , via Wikimedia Commons

A friend and colleague of mine, an officer in the Canadian Infantry, taught me "Old King Cole" ("beer beer beer said the privates, merry men are we"), and he taught me about the White Battalion. The White Battalion is a tradition in the Canadian Forces, or at least in some regiments. It is a term for the regimental dead. As my friend explained to me, regiments disband, their colours hung on the walls of churches for time and nature to return them to the Earth, but white battalion never disbands; its members are transferred to an active regiment. Soldiers remember, honour, and grieve.

The act of remembering war dead has many expressions in many places, but it works out to the same basic contract: a society will ask its young men, and in some cases its young women, to put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the nation. In return, the nation will carry the names of everyone who gives their life in its service down through history in honour. It is a covenant painted on the walls of thousands of churches. It is carved in the stone of war memorials in villages and cities across the world. It forms the basis for a signature piece of American political rhetoric: Lincoln's Gettyburg Address. It is a part of the hearts of millions of families.

All of which may help explain my reaction to Donald Trump's address to an assembly of American commanders. As their commander in chief, he has the right, indeed the obligation, to talk to them. As members of a service with a long and proud tradition of service to a democratic political system, they have an obligation to hear him, and by convention they listen politely.

US Civil War Soldier's Grave between circa 1860 and circa 1865
by Matthew Brady via Wikimedia Commons
All that said: his way of speaking to his military chiefs, his assumption he could enlist them, and that he had already enlisted them in his conflict with the American press, his smug confidential tone, all this put me off at such a deep level it surprised me. Donald Trump, after all, has made some terrible statements. Without thinking very hard, I can list at least half a dozen things he has done that would make me seriously ashamed. This is different. This is a case where shameless behaviour could have a cost.

This is the president who, as a candidate, disrespected a gold star family. As Harold Ballard said in another context, "There are some things you just don't do". And you don't do them because we have only one reward to offer those who give their lives in battle to defend their country or to redeem the blunders of its politicians. That reward is memory and honour. Let me not speak here of common sense. Let me assume the soldiers pledged to defend the United States will honour their side of the covenant with the nation, however shamelessly their president flouts his part. It is simply wrong for Donald Trump to disrespect the family whose son died in the service of his country, however deep his political disagreements with them, and then schmooze with his military staff as though respect for the dead of war had nothing to do with the defence of the nation.

This president has surprised me with ignorance and heartlessness, but I expected him to. I find it surprising how his lack of shame affects me, although I probably should not.

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