Here in Canada, as well as in the U.S., our November 11 show of remembrance for those who died in war is quite militarized. On McGill’s campus, soldiers march dressed in their military uniforms and with guns in hand. Up until last year, McGill even fired cannons, the sounds of which were triggering for some students who had lived through war and violence. Several arguments have already been made in this paper about the absurd militarization of a day meant to honour veterans, focusing on the continued use of force by the U.S. and Canada in other countries to ensure economic and political domination. This is the primary reason for condemning the military on Remembrance Day, but there is also another perverse aspect hidden from the celebrations: the disgraceful treatment of soldiers and veterans by the state.
Five years ago, I met a group of veterans at an Armistice Day peace ceremony, hosted by the U.S.-based non-profit Veterans for Peace (VFP). One of the veterans I met was Dave Logson, who fought in the Vietnam War and has since become the president of our local chapter of VFP in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When I saw Dave over the summer, he told me why he and his fellows at VFP oppose the militarization of Veterans Day (the American equivalent to Remembrance Day). “I think [the military focus] is disrespectful, because what you are saying is, ‘oh, this is really noble and just,’ and it’s awful,” he said. “It was a terrible thing that we did to these people who died in war.”
The disrespect stems from the fact that honouring the military is simply not the same as honouring veterans. The grandiose ceremonies that honour the military assume that soldiers are off fighting wars that are necessary for the U.S. or Canada to survive, that without their sacrifices we would succumb to attacks from terrorist organizations and the like. Many of us know that this is not true: the Canadian and U.S. militaries’ primary role these days is using brute force to ensure economic and political control by the Western world. Both countries’ prolonged involvement in Afghanistan, for instance – over 12 years in both cases – was not only very far removed from the security of people in Canada and the U.S., but has also led to increased turmoil in Afghanistan, the country that the militaries were supposedly trying to rebuild.
While 158 Canadian soldiers died during the mission in Afghanistan, a recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that 54 veterans have committed suicide after returning to Canada.
The conflation of veterans with military institutions is also questionable because the state, on whose behalf the military acts, is one of the biggest perpetrators of injustices against veterans. Take the case of veteran deportations: the U.S. promises an expedited road to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military. However, there have been several cases of immigrant veterans being deported because they were convicted of a crime after their term of service had ended; in some cases, the crimes were only committed due to unaddressed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Indigenous veterans and veterans of colour have also widely accused the Canadian state of being systemically racist. Esther Wolki, an Inuk woman who served with the Canadian Armed Forces for ten years, told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) that the racism and sexual harassment she experienced during her time in the military made her want to kill herself. Many Black veterans have also spoken out against racism in the Canadian forces, saying that their service was marred by racist slurs and hateful actions.
The mistreatment of veterans does not end with their service. Both the U.S. and Canada have shown time and time again that they are unwilling to provide veterans with the care they deserve once they’ve come home. While 158 Canadian soldiers died during the mission in Afghanistan, a recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that 54 veterans have committed suicide after returning to Canada. Yet, the previous Conservative government failed to spend $1.13 billion of the Veterans Affairs budget last year, despite a clear need for services and support. It is shocking that Canada spends billions of dollars every year on military operations, yet cannot see the value in spending on needed care for people who return home scarred by their experiences in war.
In the U.S., veterans wrestle every day with the compensation and benefits programs in place. Vietnam veteran Doug Drews, for example, has struggled to get compensation for numerous medical problems, including peripheral neuropathy in his arms and legs caused by his handling of large barrels of Agent Orange. This is largely due to the complex legal pathways one must follow in order to receive compensation, a system Drews said intentionally keeps veterans from receiving care. “Most people I talk to ask me what they can do about this issue. I tell them to get friends together and stop sending their sons and daughters into the military when the U.S. Department of Defense is involved in protecting private overseas business ventures instead of defending our country,” Drews told me.
The way we celebrate Remembrance Day every year ignores the military’s contribution to the suffering of veterans.
The inadequate treatment of veterans even extends to some charity organizations. Naomi, who served in the U.S. military police from 2002 to 2011 and now works for the charity Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), told me that PVA was the only veteran support organization that helped her husband when he came back severely injured from Afghanistan. Someone from the Wounded Warrior Project did come by his hospital room, but merely offered a t-shirt and shorts, a handshake, and the phrase “Thank you for your service,” before turning around and leaving.
The celebration of the military that takes place on Remembrance Day or Veterans Day is a perfect example of the distorted view we hold of military veterans and the realities of their lives and service. This perception can be seen elsewhere, from the movies and TV shows glorifying soldiers and killing (American Sniper definitely comes to mind) to the impulsive regurgitation of the words “thank you for your service” whenever a politician speaks to a veteran. Whether we’re talking about Parliament Hill or Capitol Hill, the attitude is the same toward millions of veterans in Canada and the U.S.: go where we tell you, do what we tell you, and afterward – don’t expect help, and don’t expect us to reflect on your struggle when deciding whether to send troops elsewhere.
When I was in high school, my friend and I were given a scholarship by VFP to film a protest against the organization formerly known as the School of the Americas, a facility in Fort Benning, Georgia. The school trains “security agents” for the purposes of sending them to other countries, mostly in Latin and South America, these agents have committed many human rights offences for governments supported by American imperialism. Marching up with a group of almost a hundred veterans – who had fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and pretty much every war in between – their families, and their friends, we were stopped from entering the protest site by the police because one veteran was holding the U.S. flag. Though other demonstrators had stilts, clothes racks, and large wooden crosses and were allowed to enter, this veteran could not go in because the stick on their flag was a “potential weapon.” Watching as the police told these people that they could not fly the flag they had been sent to war for, the flag their friends had died for, the flag that had ruined their lives, is a moment I will never forget.
The way we celebrate Remembrance Day every year ignores the military’s contribution to the suffering of veterans. This annual show of militaristic solidarity, with people telling each other to ‘remember those who died honourably’ does nothing to call out the state for sending its young people to fight unnecessary wars, and then neglecting their needs when they come home. Instead, we should be arguing against the military and condemning its carelessness and violence – this is the most respectful thing we can do in memory of people who lost their lives in war.
Jill Bachelder is a U2 student and a former Daily Sci+Tech editor. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.