Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (2023)

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (1)

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Michael Petrou is a historian, Veterans Experience, at the Canadian War Museum.

As a child in the 1980s, he was fascinated by World War II. Model Spitfires and Mustangs hung from my bedroom ceiling. I transformed the backyard sandbox into the Egyptian desert of 1942, where Montgomery's British 8th Army faced off against German Field Marshal Rommel the desert fox.

Years later, when the sandbox was converted into a vegetable garden, my father dug up tiny painted plastic soldiers while weeding his tomato plants.

He had connections to the war that were more direct than my imagination could conjure up through model airplanes and arena battlefields. My grandfather, an officer and tank commander in the Canadian Army, fought in Sicily and mainland Italy and helped liberate the Netherlands.

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (2)

Plaques indicating that he had been a soldier were placed around his house. A musty military banner hung on the living room wall next to the pool table. In another room hung a painting that my grandfather's co-workers had given him when a brain aneurysm forced him into early retirement. It was a caricature of my grandfather, huge head and body stuffed into a small Sherman tank surrounded by humorous depictions of his wartime experiences. A busty, dark-haired beauty was sitting in the tank with a bunch of grapes dangling from her fingers, probably in Italy. A dog urinated on tomatoes drying in the sun. Even the tragic events became comical: the plane above was a British plane that bombed my grandfather and his comrades in a friendly fire incident.

Yet when I occasionally asked my grandfather about the war, he said little. It seemed to me at the time that the war made only a superficial impression on him, or at least that it did not last long.

But there were other echoes of the war in his life that I didn't understand as a child or that I found out about later. At family dinners we listen to Vera Lynn, the British singer who serenaded and inspired Allied troops during the war. On walks through a city park, my grandfather would warn me not to hurt the frogs, which he cupped in his hands to attack and capture. My mother told me that when she and her brothers fished in a nearby pond when they were children, they would bring them home in a bucket to show her mother, and then my grandfather would bring the fish to the pond and let them walk around. . He caught live spiders in the house and let them out. He hated camping. He did not like to eat lamb. He carried a 1939 Canadian silver dollar in his wallet. His high school teacher gave it to him when he enrolled. He was in his wallet the day he died.

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (3)

Eventually, it became clear that the war was not just one phase in a long life, but was deeply imprinted in the most intimate aspects of who my grandfather was: his eating habits (he had eaten enough mutton during the war to survive). ninai) to extreme kindness of him and disgust of him for violence. The same can be said, to varying degrees, for all veterans and, in many cases, their families. The same is certainly true for Canada itself.

However, when we think about war, we often don't think about what will be left when it's over. Service personnel go home and become civilians again. How is this transition? How has war and/or military service in peacetime changed you? What are you missing? That you remember? What do they share with their loved ones and what do they keep hidden except when their nightmares wake up the house? And if war changes veterans, how are they changing the country in which they live?

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Exploring these questions to better understand the experiences of veterans in Canada is the goal ofIn Their Own Voices: Stories of Canadian Veterans and Their Families, an oral history project launched earlier this year at the Canadian War Museum. We interviewed hundreds of veterans from World War II to the present, as well as their families. We hope to trace the ripples that conflict and military service can create, throughout a veteran's lifetime and even across generations.

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (4)

In recent years, the general public has become much more aware of the ongoing emotional trauma that combat and military service can inflict. But it's also true that for many veterans, military service is a happy memory or a moment that had a positive impact on their future lives. Peter Godwin Chance, a 101-year-old veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic and the Royal Canadian Navy's D-Day invasion whom I recently interviewed, said those who didn't fight in World War II missed out on the "birth of a nation." . " I had. .

George MacDonell, who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and survived more than three years in Japanese POW camps, returned to Canada at the age of 23 with a 10th grade education. Like thousands of other World War II veterans, he received back-to-school funding from the Veterans Educational Rehabilitation Program. Mister. MacDonell finished high school in just over a year, then enrolled in college, where a close relationship with a teacher helped him come to terms with the lingering trauma of war. He excelled in college and later in business and government.

Despite the almost impossible task of defending Hong Kong and the many hardships of the Japanese prison, Mr. MacDonell has refused to see himself and his colleagues as victims.

"Soldiers go where they are sent and follow orders," he said. "And the good news is that we won the war and kept our freedom, so there's nothing to complain about. Let's get on with our lives."

His perspective on a war that brought him so many horrors is remarkable, but so is his postwar transition. How does a 23-year-old war veteran go back to high school and rebuild a life so dramatically cut short?

Mister. MacDonell said he has had "wonderful support" from the government, from his physical rehabilitation to funding his higher education. Other Hong Kong veterans, feeling abandoned by a government that initially sent them to Hong Kong, stingy with pensions after the war and did little to bring Japanese war criminals to justice. No two veterans' experiences are the same, which is why it's so important to gather multiple perspectives.

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (7)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (8)

Some veterans faced unique challenges due to their ethnicity or beliefs. Max Dankner, a Canadian Army veteran from Italy and Northwestern Europe, returned to Montreal concerned about what he had seen and done during the war. Some mornings his mother would come into his room and find him crying under the bed. Mister. Dankner wanted to go to the police. He had delivered shipments on a motorcycle during the war and thought that this experience as a policeman would come in handy. He went to a recruiting office in Montreal and, even though he was a wounded combat veteran, they told him, "We don't take Jews."

A Vancouver native, Frank Moritsugu enlisted despite the fact that he and his family, along with other Japanese Canadians, were interned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and were later forced to move to Ontario, where they worked on a farm. He remembers explaining his decision to his parents: “I said, 'Father, if I join the army, I'll show the people here that we're real Canadians and they'll relax.'

The membership may have convinced Moritsugu's neighbors of his family's loyalty, but he returned from overseas service to a Canada that still denied him the right to vote because of his ethnicity. Shortly thereafter, an RCMP officer knocked on his door and reminded him that, as a Japanese Canadian, he had to carry a registration card and obtain a permit if he wished to travel. "I'm back to where I was before I introduced myself," Moritsugu said. But, he added, because he and other Japanese-Canadian veterans put themselves at risk to serve their country, they were effective advocates for their political rights, and decades later, when they campaigned for compensation for their wartime internment .

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Returning veterans changed Canada in many other ways, from requesting greater government assistance for people with disabilities to the kind of shelters that were built in Canada's post-war suburbs. Women World War II veterans, 50,000 of whom served in all three armed forces and the medical service, also opened the doors to careers previously closed to other women.

"When we got together, I think we did it to show that we could do something," recalled Blanche Bennett (née Landry), who enlisted in the Women's Canadian Army Corps. A few years ago, she flew from Prince Edward Island to Ottawa for a celebratory event. She was wearing her medals. The pilot, a woman, saw her and stopped Ms. Bennett as she was exiting the plane.

"She said, 'My love,' and she hugged me tight: 'I wouldn't be doing this job today without you,'" Bennett said. "And I was like, oh my gosh, did he really say that? And the more I thought about it, I thought, yeah, he did. So I think we've done something to be proud of."

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (9)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (10)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (11)

Of the nearly 1.1 million Canadians who served in uniform during World War II, only about 20,000 are still alive. Capturing their finds while we can is a priority for the Canadian War Museum. But we spoke to veterans of all eras, to gather their unique points of view, but also to understand what experiences they share. Some themes are timeless, weaving together wars, conflicts, and Canadians across decades.

Nearly 200 years ago, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, envisioned Odysseus, the mythical Greek hero of the Trojan War, finally settling on the island of Ithaca after 10 years of war and 10 more attempts to return to his family. In Tennyson's interpretation, Odysseus, or Odysseus as the Romans called him, is restless and unhappy. He rules his kingdom and his people, who "accumulate, sleep, and eat, and know me not." Those who live in Ithaca did not fight Odysseus "on the windy plains of windy Troy" and therefore can never really understand him.

This feeling of confusion when a soldier enters the civilian world is a theme that comes up frequently in interviews with veterans. They miss comrades working together toward a common goal and common danger. Even civilian life rarely offers the same satisfaction that comes from clearly meaningful work. "I've never had the same sense of purpose in my life that I had in Afghanistan," said Phil Hunter, who served as a medical technician and armored ambulance driver in Afghanistan. When we spoke for the interview, more than twelve years had passed since Mr. Hunter had returned from Afghanistan. He started a family and started a new job, but he still felt a little homesick for his time there.

Perhaps because military service is something civilians don't easily identify with, those who have that experience are able to connect with each other in ways others cannot. That's why meetings, pilgrimages, and even nights out in the Legion can be so important to many veterans.

Blanche Bennett organized a reunion in 1981 for all the women who had served in Halifax during the war. Some 150 veterans attended, including some from England and the United States. They were "really looking forward to coming back," she said. "It was a long time ago." Two decades later, when Bennett turned 80, eight of the women she had served with during the war attended her party. "Oh yes," she reminded herself. "We stick together like flies."

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (12)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (13)

Not all veterans want to go back to where they served. In 2019, Russell Kaye's family had to convince him to visit Juno Beach, where he had landed on D-Day 75 years earlier. "I've been trying to forget it for so many years, and all of a sudden they want me to remember it," Kaye said. "It's something I didn't think much of or something I buried, I guess." He eventually agreed, later describing the visit as one of the highlights of his life. He met older Frenchmen who had their own stories as children during the liberation and was able to visit fallen comrades. “I had no idea that cemeteries are the most beautiful places. And there are so many. I saw so many graves of people from my regiment and people I knew from my weapons department.”

These connections can connect people who have fought for different countries in different wars. Benjamin Hertwig, an Afghan veteran, whose first volume of poetryslow war, a finalist for the Governor General's Literature Award, once collapsed at a family dinner after someone mentioned a soldier being in Mr. Hertwig's. His grandfather, who fought in the German army during World War II and used to be an expressive and exuberant man, kept quiet. Mister. Hertwig left the table. "He met me in the hallway and put his arm around me. He tried not to speak. He didn't try to ask questions. He just said, 'I see,' and then he came back into the room and that was it," Hertwig said.

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If there are universal veteran experiences, there are also those tied to a specific conflict or time of service. Being a "peacemaker" is a monolithic title, with no direct relationship to a rank or unit, or even a single war, encounter, or rotation. There are profound differences between the way Korean War veterans viewed their service and was recognized by the state and the veterans of both world wars. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War were not part of a Canadian force in its fight against fascism, and were even placed under state surveillance upon their return (although many served in World War II).

Veterans of the North West Campaign of 1885, to further problematize the status of veterans, included British career soldiers, Canadian militia, and Métis and Indian warriors, all fighting one another, with different memorabilia, monuments, and commemorations.

To cite a more recent example, last summer thousands of Canadian veterans of Afghanistan watched as the Taliban, against whom they had fought for years, took over the country, kept girls out of school and forced Afghan Canadians to they fought and bled to retreat. . For some this was to be expected. For most, it inspired painful feelings and appreciation for Canada's long war.

"I still don't have a lot of answers," said Alex Duncan, a special forces veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, when asked how he is building peace with his service and sacrifices in Afghanistan today. "And I think about that all the time now that I have this little boy. I want to give him an answer one day when I look at all the photos and memories and hear my friends who have passed away. I want to be able to give him a 'so what?' Do you know why all this happened, what was the result?

"Some days I have a hard time convincing myself, but I know there were some corners in Kandahar province that we made safer where children could go to school for several years while we were there. I saw little moments of good. War is chaotic , and wars don't always go our way. I guess I'll try to remember that we've done well on a very small scale and in small pockets and small periods of time. And if I remember those times, I can probably sleep at night."

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (14)

One of the first lessons from Afghanistan might be that what matters is how wars end, how those who fought them think about their ministry. World War I produced many of the rituals and memorials Canadians are most familiar with, from Remembrance Day to poppies in buttonholes and cenotaphs in nearly every major city in the country. Yet many Canadians look back on that conflict and wonder if Canada's reasons for going to war, "for King and Empire," justified the sacrifice. World War II brought a clear victory against an unspeakably evil enemy. The effort and price paid for that victory was shared by all Canadians, no doubt affecting the way veterans of that war coped with their return to civilian life. The Korean War affected far fewer Canadians and ended in chaotic fashion. The war is all but forgotten, and those who fought in it have often been forgotten.

It is too early to tell how Canadians will view the war in Afghanistan in a few years, although the veterans who fought in it may offer unique perspectives. For Tyler Wentzell, who led a liaison team with operational mentors in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in 2008, military service itself is important, regardless of the results.

“I take solace in the fact that sacrifices are important because we need people who are willing to sacrifice for Canada. And the way the world works and the tools of government etc. are out of your control. Then you find solace in service and sacrifice, because that's what we need to keep what we have."

Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (15)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (16)
Commentary: How does war change soldiers and how are they changing Canada? (17)

In Tennyson's poem, Ulysses resolves his discomfort with a bourgeois life at heart and at home by deciding to board his ship and set sail once more: “There is the port; the ship blows out its sails. He brings with him "My sailors, souls that have labored, toiled, and fought with me."

Some veterans are really drawn to the military, drawn to the camaraderie and work that feels important. Javin Lau is a veteran of the Canadian Iraqi Mission, where Canadian soldiers train Iraqi soldiers, including the Iraqi Kurdish militia known as the Peshmerga, to fight ISIS, known as the Islamic State. Like Mr. After completing his deployment to Iraq, Lau was eager to enter the world of civilian work. Three years later, he quit his commercial real estate job to sign a full-time contract with the reservation. The tools and resources at his disposal in his work in the private sector are impressive, he said, but "I think I want more determination."

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Other veterans find ways to experience, as civilians, a resemblance to what they did as soldiers. Phil Hunter was a computer programmer before going into the reserves and becoming a medic. Today he is a flight paramedic and transports patients in the intensive care unit by helicopter. The high risk of helping those in need provides him with a much-needed shot of adrenaline and fuels an "addiction" he's had since he returned from his mission. Mister. Hunter recently brought a woman in preterm labor to a hospital just five minutes before she was due to give birth. He says there is a similar intimacy between being with someone who is giving birth and being with someone whose life is ending, for example, due to severe trauma sustained in a shooting in Afghanistan.

Still other veterans miss their service little and mostly want to leave it behind as they start a family and a new life. They don't go to meetings, have few memories, and speak so little that their own children have almost no idea what they did in the war.

Some can never forget even if they wanted to. During the deployment to Afghanistan, 158 Canadian soldiers were killed and more than 2,000 wounded. Many are scarred, have been amputees, and survived their injuries rather than succumb to excellent medical care. For them, the war is imprinted on their bodies. For others there are invisible wounds. The most common clinical term these days is PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Gregory Bailey, who served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan in 2007, calls it "spiritual shrapnel." It is a wound as real as a bullet.

Almost everyone who experiences war or wears a uniform even for a short time is changed by it. And just as veterans are transformed by war and service, so are the societies in which they live.

The veteran experience is an integral part of Canadian history. To better understand ourselves as a country and as members of its many communities, we must uncover this experience, record it for future generations, and do everything we can to understand it. A good place to start is to ask veterans what happened when they took off their uniforms and listen to what they have to say.

Veterans or their family members interested in participating in In Their Own Voices can contact Michael Petrou

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