Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembering Veterans …

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada - what America calls Veterans Day - and everything except retailing and restaurants shuts down tight across the country, even in Québec.

Canada treats Remembrance Day observations much more somberly than do US celebrations. This may well be the result of how the British mercilessly used the colonial Canadian army as fodder in both World Wars and the US seems to view Veterans Day mostly as time for a one-day-only sale.

Also, I suspect Remembrance Day is such a somber commemoration in Canada not just because the country has had peacekeepers on constant active duty in various places around the world for as long as any Canadian alive can remember, but because one in 275 Canadians died in World War II, one in 100 in The Great War. Since half the population was female and a significant share of the men were either too old or young, two entire generations of men in this country were wiped out. Twice.

In World War I, British commanders like Gen. Kitchener sent Canadian troops over the top first and units were usually assigned impossible tasks such as taking and holding Vimy Ridge. Tens of thousands of Canadians died in a few days of fighting while the Brits stayed the flanks and took very little German fire. But Canadians held the ridge.

It was much the same thing in World War II.

When Winston Churchill decided to try a poorly planned mini-invasion of France way before D-Day, Lord Louis Mountbatten send a nearly all-Canadian force to Dieppe. Ill-considered, ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-led by the British, almost everyone was either killed or captured, and those who returned to England suffered hideous wounds and injuries.

During the Italian campaign, Field Marshall Montgomery used Canadian troops to take the brunt of German resistance in the middle of the country as the British army fought its way up the relatively soft east coast of Italy.

Likewise, during and after D-Day: Canadians were first assigned to fight their way through the hardest of German reinforcements at Normandy and, later, sent alone to rout Germans during the Battle of the Veldt in the Low Countries.

On the other hand, the Dutch have been forever grateful to Canada for liberating their country.

It is Canada - not Britain or America - that holds a special place in Dutch hearts. The tulip gardens in front of Parliament in Ottawa are a thank you from the Netherlands for liberating the nation. Holland may be the only place on earth where Canadians hide the flag most of them have on their luggage. While elsewhere in the world the flag will bring a smile, a welcome or an open door, in Amsterdam a Canadian can hardly negotiate the handshakes and hugs from strangers when they walk down the street.

On a number of occasions over the years, I've been in bars in Holland where a friendly local happened to ask where I was from. When I answered Toronto, patrons wouldn't let me pay for a drink the rest of the evening.

My dad served in the US Navy in the Pacific during World War II. Other than a few anecdotes like how he found a way to scrounge more than his ship’s meager allotment of beef when a supply party went ashore, he barely spoke of his wartime experiences. Now that he is long dead, all I have from that period of his life are his officer’s dress uniform, a pair of shoulder bars showing his rank, a tiny handful of photos and an ash tray some Chief Petty Officer carved out of a shell casing after Guadalcanal.

Phil survived the war, went to law school on the GI Bill, and when he aged and needed medical help, the Veterans Administration hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota turned him away. Despite Congress’ promise to veterans in the Forties that “if you fight for your country, we’ll take care of your medical needs for life,” Ronald Reagan changed VA regulations and broke the promise. Phil would relate easily to the problems veterans of Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan face nearly every day with the VA.

So, to Phil and the millions of others who served in war time, it is truly a day to remember all of you. Thanks.

1 comment:

Old Bogus said...

Thank you for this touching post. I plan to forward it as a Veterans Day message. I am a VN vet and my Dad is a 95yo veteran of WWII who almost died over the English Channel.

Of all the hundreds of blogs and RSSs I read daily, the Canadians have stood out as those most respectful of our veterans.

Risking and losing our lives and health for combat in foreign lands is never pleasant. When we find it is for political reasons, it is abhorrent.

Thanks again for a personal touch.