The parade from the Canadian War Museum to Parliament Hill was arrayed like this: first the blare of brass, then the skirl of the pipes, and finally only the low thrum of 15 eight-wheeled, light-armoured vehicles, one after another, with two soldiers in helmets perched atop each.
For the civilians lining the route for the National Day of Honour ceremonies in Ottawa, the shift from the sound of military bands to the show of military machinery had its effect. Every so often the murmur of the big LAV tires on the pavement was interrupted by a spontaneous round of respectful applause.
All that green-painted armour served as a blunt reminder that this day to commemorate the 12-year Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan wasn’t about abstract ideas about how the military fits with anyone’s conception of Canada’s history or identity. It was about the end of an all-too-real conflict, where the LAVs got dusty, and in which 40,000 Canadian troops served and 158 died.
And yet, of course, it couldn’t be a simple matter of showing respect for that effort and sacrifice. In the final days before the event, Gordon Moore, the president of the Royal Canadian Legion, which advocates for veterans, told Maclean’s about his frustration over what he viewed as the government’s rushed and secretive planning for this event.
Apparently as a result partly of Moore’s remarks, a plan to present the last Canadian flag flown over the Afghanistan mission to Prime Minister Stephen Harper was adjusted. After the parade, during this afternoon’s ceremony on Parliament Hill, Harper indeed accepted the flag, but then he passed it to Governor General David Johnston, who holds the title of commander-in-chief of the armed forces—a point of protocol that Moore and other veterans take very seriously.
Fears that the day might somehow be tainted by political grandstanding were far from irrational. From its creation, Harper’s reconfigured Conservative party has made associating its partisan brand with military heritage a strategic priority. After winning power in 2006, they tirelessly touted their commitment to spending heavily on military equipment. A backgrounder on the Day of Honour plans, issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, didn’t fail to mention that turning-point year in noting there would be a display on the Hill of tanks and helicopters and other “key equipment acquired from 2006.”
In the end, though, political preening didn’t come close to ruining the day. The Prime Minister shared the podium with not only the Governor General, but also with Gen. Tom Lawson, the Chief of Defence Staff. In any case, none of the dignitaries, with their predictable speeches, could compete, as least as far I’m concerned, with the understated impact of Sgt. Dale Kurdziel.
Kurdziel spoke on behalf of troops who served in Afghanistan. He didn’t have to say much to make an impression after he was introduced as a Medal of Bravery recipient, who joined in 2005 and served for seven months in 2009 and 2010 in Afghanistan, assigned to a counter-improvised explosive device squadron. “You may have heard them called IEDs,” he said.
Yes, we have. The term entered all our vocabularies during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, shorthand for a new and disturbing sort of asymmetrical combat. And there stood this young man in front of the Peace Tower who had made it his business to disarm them.
“The work was far from easy,” Kurdziel said, “the hours long and the danger always present. But one of the most important things that kept us going was the knowledge that we were never far from the thoughts of folks back home.”
It would be good to believe that was so. But most of us thought about them only occasionally, perhaps after a soldier was killed and the TV cameras in Kandahar showed us the ramp ceremony (another new term we had to learn). Afghanistan is far away, and mostly Canadians got on with their lives.
But today’s ceremony, and all the concern beforehand that it be properly respectful, represented an acknowledgement that what the troops who went to Afghanistan experienced firsthand was extraordinary. What lasting effect their mission will have on Canada’s politics and policy, on our sense of what our country can and should do in the world, are questions for another day.