The return of Private Todd

Other wars saw tributes to the Unknown Soldier. In this war, the crowd along the Highway of Heroes knows each name.

Every soldier who dies in the war in Afghanistan becomes a symbol and Pte. Tyler William Todd was, in this regard, unexceptional. On April 14, three days after being killed by a roadside bomb during a routine foot patrol outside of Kandahar, Pte. Todd of the First Battalion Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry was recognized along the Highway of Heroes, the 200-km stretch of road between CFB Trenton and the Toronto coroner’s office that has become the site of a spontaneous outpouring of public grief every time a Canadian soldier dies overseas. Over the course of the long and unsatisfying war in Afghanistan, the Highway of Heroes has become the primary ritual in Canadian life for comprehending the cost of the conflict. It has also grown into something more, a statement of our collective hopes and fears, an essential demonstration of Canadianness.

It seems, at first, like such an atypical phenomenon for Canada, which is why it’s symptomatic of a larger shift in the outlook of the country. Traditionally, we have been prouder of the wars we didn’t fight than the ones we did—since at least Pearson we have worked to present ourselves as peacekeepers and not warriors. Look at the $10 bill. The soldiers seem more like birdwatchers than anything else, staring through their binoculars at doves fluttering up into calm sky.

Whenever I return to Canada from abroad, I know I’m home by the lack of flags. Canadians are not given to public displays of national affection, and much less to mass movements. My favourite Canadian joke goes like this: “How do you get 10 Canadians out of a swimming pool?” “Say, hey guys, can you get out of the pool?” And yet the crowds that show up outside CFB Trenton and along the bridges of the Highway of Heroes arrive without being told. And they are very, very Canadian.

The demonstrations along the Highway of Heroes are as unplanned and unpredictable as the repatriation ceremony itself is formal and scripted. Unlike in the United States, where during the Bush years no media were allowed to see the homecoming of fallen soldiers, the Canadian military has always allowed press into the repatriations, as long as the family agrees. So I saw the return of Pte. Todd to CFB Trenton. The ceremony began exactly on schedule. At two o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 14, the C-17 carrying   the private landed at CFB Trenton where a lonely black hearse waited. As many times as I had seen images of such ceremonies on television, in person it was overwhelmingly moving. An honour guard filed out, followed by a uniformed audience of members from the Forces. And finally, the family appeared, accompanied by dignitaries, including Peter MacKay, the minister of defence, and Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff. We all stood until the casket draped in the Canadian flag was lifted down from the plane.

Later I made the mistake of referring to Pte. Todd’s remains as his body, and Capt. Wayne Johnston, the casualty administration officer at CFB Trenton, would correct my use of this word. “Don’t call him a body,” he told me. “Call him by his name or as ‘the fallen.’ ” The soldiers saluted Pte. Todd as the back of the hearse closed, then his family congregated behind the car. The moment was confused, a greeting and a leave-taking at the same time. The honour guard, the dignitaries, the friends from Afghanistan, the soldiers at the base fell silent while the family wept. All the formalities of the repatriation ceremony seemed to have been engineered to create a silence in which the sound of their mourning could be heard.

After a final salute from every soldier on the tarmac, the family stumbled back, holding each other for support. The hearse pulled away, followed by the limousines of the various parties. Immediately outside the wire, the outpouring of public grief began, contrasting sharply with the calm of the military ritual. The crowd could easily be mistaken for the cheering section at an Olympic hockey game. They don’t wear black. They wear red. A group of veterans have arrived in a motorcycle convoy. Other mourners have painted their cars in honour of the fallen. Mark Allen drove 2½ hours from Prescott to Trenton, as he does for every repatriation. His car has a picture of a girl holding her mother’s hand beside a Maple Leaf-flag-draped casket on the rear window and a quote on the side that reads, “Dedicated to those Canadians who gave their lives in the service of peace while serving in Afghanistan.” Veterans showed up in full military dress to salute. Several of them could count the number of repatriations they’ve missed on one hand.

And this tribute continued all along the route. Every single overpass had somebody on it with a Canadian flag.

Sometimes only a dozen or so were waving. In Oshawa, several hundred people filled one crowded bridge, spilling onto the slopes below. School groups were out. Firemen showed up in full dress uniform. The OPP guided the procession through each town. The memorial placards that the crowds waved tended to be surprisingly personal and specific: “We will remember” with a picture of Tyler Todd underneath, or “Thank you, Tyler” in tinfoil letters. The memorials took all different shapes and sizes. In the corner of a dirt field, a farmer on an ATV held up his young son to wave a Canadian flag. Approaching Toronto, someone was raised in the basket of a crane to wave the flag as high as the machinery would let him.
What explains this sudden rush of pride? What has led Canadians away from their habitual reticence? One answer may be that Afghanistan is the first war in which every Canadian soldier has been brought back to Canadian soil. In the First and Second World War and Korea the bodies were buried abroad. Pte. Todd’s grandfather and his great-grandfather both served in the military but neither of them, if they had fallen, could have expected an event like their descendant’s repatriation. The personalization of every soldier’s death is unprecedented. The fallen in other wars have been memorialized in monuments—huge masses of stone recognizing a collective experience, not a personal one. The tribute in other wars has been to the Unknown Soldier. In this war, and in the wars to come, one imagines, we know who the soldiers are. We certainly know who Tyler Todd was. We know that he was born in Bright, Ont., and that he died in the village of Belanday, Dand district. We know who his friends were; they posted their mourning on Facebook before the papers knew he had been killed. We know that he grew up on a dairy farm. We know that he carried around a blanket from home everywhere he went in Afghanistan, no matter how much his fellow soldiers made fun of him for it. So even though fewer soldiers die today—the six hours of the Dieppe raid in the Second World War cost more than five times the number of Canadian lives lost during the entire nine years in Afghanistan—this time we know who is dying. It is very clear who is being sacrificed for this effort. In a way, one supposes, this humanization amounts to progress.

Chris Alexander, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, told me recently that he didn’t weep once during his six years in Kabul, despite losing friends and colleagues to the war. It was the Highway of Heroes that made him break down. “I never felt the full force of my emotions in Afghanistan. The tragedy is everyday. Everyone is stoic,” he explained. Only back in Canada, when he happened to be driving from Ajax to Toronto on the Highway of Heroes with his wife, were his emotions unleashed. “Suddenly we see the people on the bridges. In their numbers. It’s just astonishing how crowded these bridges are. I had never seen before how much ordinary Canadians care about this campaign.”

The people who show up on the bridges of the Highway of Heroes, however, are in no sense automatically in favour of the Afghan war. Political questions are irrelevant to them mostly. Without exception, when asked why they are waiting to mourn a person they have never met, they say, “to support the troops and their families.” That’s it. Among the group of veterans outside the wire at CFB Trenton, I was hard-pressed to find anyone who supported a continued Canadian presence in Afghanistan. Walt Gregory, a veteran of the Malayan campaign who was waiting to remember Pte. Todd, told me that he showed up to recognize the troops, but as for the war in Afghanistan? “It’s a waste of time. When the troops leave, it’ll go back to the way it was.” Gregory thinks more about the parents of the fallen than the mission. “We come so that the parents know that there are people who care. If the car pulled out and it was empty here, that mother would think, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what’s happened?’ ”

A long and unpopular war has made the military stronger and more important to the national consciousness than at any time since the Second World War. Answers to the questions, “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” and “What are we going to achieve?” and “How is it going to end?” are more distant than ever. None of them matters to Pte. Todd’s mourners in the slightest. Every time a soldier dies, Don Cherry describes him or her during a special segment on Hockey Night in Canada. Every time, Cherry can barely get out the words, his voice cracking from the moment the man or woman’s picture goes onscreen. This, too, is a part of the ritual, a great conflation of Canadianness—weeping in the middle of a hockey game. Pte. Todd died while trying to find out what villagers in Dand province needed, how Canada could help their lives. That is all his mourners care about.

Pte. Todd died at 26. He was 17 years old when the war began. Todd was only weeks away from completing his tour in Afghanistan, which makes his death not only more heartbreaking but also symbolic of our national situation. Stephen Harper has assured us that the Canadian mission will not continue beyond 2011. Journeys of the fallen will soon come to an end. But long after the ritual has passed away, the memories of its unprecedented sadness and the ferocity of its pride will keep resonating.