In the fall of 1999, an impossibly innocent time only in retrospect, the TV show The West Wing had a storyline about a plane carrying Americans being shot down. Presidential advisors presented options nicely calculated to punish this attack without provoking another. But the commander-in-chief responsible for his nation’s security was also a man who had lost friends in the attack, and none of the carefully crafted options satisfied him. Frustrated, President Bartlet exploded at his chief of staff, demanding to be told the virtue of a ‘proportional response’.
In 2005, a disciplined queue — largely comprising serving members of the Canadian Forces — waited on Parliament Hill to pay their respects to Smokey Smith. On national television, the Prime Minister stood silently before the casket. Smokey was one of the few to receive the Victoria Cross non-posthumously, but lying in state is usually reserved for heads of state. Was this honour and the follow-on televised funeral a proportional response?
Although this treatment of one heroic veteran was without precedent at the time, there has been highly public coverage of Canadian military fatalities since then. The media and politicians have been there as bodies of Canadian soldiers arrived home from Afghanistan, casualties of friendly fire, suicide bombers and roadside bombs; and as the body of a Canadian submariner arrived home from Britain, casualty of a fire.
Maybe the attention given Smokey and his much younger counterparts is proportional to Canadians’ appreciation for their military — its contributions and traditions — or maybe it is proportional to the events’ television worthiness. How can we tell?
Historically, Canada has not always reacted to military deaths in this way: consider WWII. Of course, with fatalities averaging almost 20 every day for six years, the scale was overwhelming, and the media options were not as developed. Yet even given manageable scale and ubiquitous media, we have not always made a fuss. In 1950, Brigadier General Henry Angle, a Canadian reservist serving in India and Pakistan with the United Nations Military Observation Group, died in a plane crash. Since then, about 100 Canadian soldiers have died in the line of duty while on peacekeeping assignments. Like the Brigadier, none are household names.
It is hard to see our recent interest in overseas military fatalities as being free of political theatre. The ceremony surrounding these deaths can cast a wonderful limelight, tempting any politician. So maybe the current response is out of proportion, driven by factors other than respect for the military, or respect for the dead and injured and their sacrifices. Is it a problem? For the answer to this question, we, like President Bartlet, need to consider whether we should value proportional responses at all.
Proportion is about putting things into correct relation. We rightly condemn out-of-proportion negative responses: the owner who kicks the disobedient pet, instead of patiently correcting; the customer who screams at the waitress who has brought the wrong order, instead of calmly pointing out the error; the driver who rams into the car that cut him off, instead of shrugging it off.
The problems with out-of-proportion positive responses are less obvious. Yet, by definition, an overly appreciative response to some means that others are under-appreciated, at least comparatively — a final insult for those injured or killed in less media-worthy ways. Worse, participating in feel-good exercises that have no output can distract us from the work needed after the TV cameras move on to the next spectacle.
What is the work that is needed in this case? The Government’s work is to establish foreign and defence policies. Only they can ensure that the military has the resources to do the work we assign them. Our work is two-fold.
First, we must monitor our elected representatives to ensure that they do their work. Hoopla surrounding occasional casualties shows that politicians see political gain in associating themselves with the military occasionally. Only we can ensure that they see political gain in providing a long-term, coherent approach to directing and funding our military.
Second, we must listen as all veterans tell their stories, whether these are of the glory of the battle well fought, the comrades saved, the duty met; the horror of the death and destruction; or the steady pressure of careers served under the shadow of ‘unlimited liability’, as they refer to it. Only veterans of all kinds can help the rest of us understand what it is to serve in Canada’s military, both in times of shooting wars and in times of nominal peace, and the costs and consequences of our policies.
It was good to honour Smokey Smith back in 2005. On this coming Remembrance Day it will be good to honour the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have died or been injured in wars and on peacekeeping assignments. It would be even better to honour all those who have served their country and those who continue to serve, here and abroad, along with their loved ones who wait for them. By doing our part even when there is no TV coverage involved, maybe we can bring our response to the living into proportion with the honour we give to the dead.