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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Scenes from the Great Republic

I was off in southern California last week. Ah, the hardships your gentle correspondent endures to bring you a fresh - and facetious - perspective on the imminent collapse of Western civilization. And to think, the Romans only had Augustine to comfort them in those final decades before the aqueducts were cut. Lights going out in Rome, tribe on the ice field and all that.

I bring you amazing news from my travels! Most Americans are not fat. Most Americans are not stupid. Most Americans do not carry shotguns in their cars. Most Americans are not rude, arrogant cowboys. Yes, things are bigger and louder in America. Americans don't always realize this, but it has struck me every time I have visited, they are loud.

Not loud in the sense of being rude or thoughtless, just loud. Everything is seemingly injected with steroids. The lights are brighter. The hookers bustier. The SOBs just that much more SOBier. To those who catch America in glimpses, it can be rather off-putting. Cromwell told the painter to show warts and all. Many visitors to the Great Republic see only the warts, they don't bother looking for the all. What an all.

The scenery had wow! Especially Southern California wow! One of my interlocutors was a refugee from Ohio. He had the bearings of a man who has escaped winter, and offered nightly prayers to his God for the succour. The natives, however, took the splendours as divine right. A race of Sun Kings. I hate each one, like I hated the rich brat in junior high. 

While driving up Interstate 5, I was treated to a cliched California ocean sunset. All cliches should be so beautiful. I-5 goes through Camp Pendleton, the main west coast base for the Marine Corps. I saw Marine helicopters! And frigates! Americans love their military. Sadly, we don't love ours. Yes, the world could use more Canada but - perish the thought - Canada could use a bit more America. Not in everything, mind you. Just in some big things that count.

A country that fails to take its armed forces seriously is not a serious country. Until the Afghanistan campaign, I regularly heard jokes about the inadequacy of the Canadian Forces. You will never, ever hear an American openly mock the military. He may denounce it, he may praise it, he may offer constructive criticism, but the tone is always serious, even solemn. On many office desks I saw small picture frames, inset with the intense young faces of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. The enormous pride of parents, spouses and siblings everywhere.

This is an alien experience to Canadian visitors. Pride comes only with seriousness. We do not take ourselves seriously and so cannot understand when others display genuine pride. The best we can approximate is a kind of exaggerated civic chauvinism. Pride comes from seriousness and seriousness from the pursuit of profound values.

Americans so admire their military because it is the living embodiment of their freedom. Unlike most of the military forces in human history, the American military is an instrument of a free people and so subordinate to civilian control. However unworthy Barack Obama is to hold the honourable title of Commander-in-Chief, no military man would openly defy his legal authority.

Canadians have no similar respect for the solider in uniform, instead we project a kind of conscientious respect, a mixture of awe and awkwardness. We do this because we are unsure why we have a military. It serves no immediate existential purpose. The only nation that borders us could overwhelm us militarily in hours. Though it would never do so, the paranoia of anti-Americans notwithstanding.

Our military is an expeditionary force deployed, usually haphazardly, by our political masters to project national values. Since those values are so contested at home, our deployments are similarly confused. Are we the honest arbiters of peacekeeping lore? Or the warriors of Kandahar? 

Much has been made of our English and French divide, and how it prevented the formation of a strong sense of national identity. To modern multiculturalists this is, perversely, a strength. Since we don't know who we are, we are open to everyone. Such agnosticism works only so long as the everyone who shows up is congenial. There is an old saying in politics, about the elected official who displayed the imprints of the last person who sat on him. 

In the years between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, Canadian soldiers became as alien to their civilians counterparts as at anytime in our nation's history. Those who joined the forces in those years were seen as eccentrics. A strange few looking for steady employment - as some no doubt were - or having some dark obsession with violence and death. It just did not make sense why anyone would do that for a living. It was not contempt, or anger, just plain confusion.

In years since 9/11 a sort of understanding has developed by the civilian for the solider. The dim realization that those who wear the uniform are indeed eccentrics, they are practitioners of the secret cult of Canadian patriotism. Serious men defending an often unserious country.

Posted by Richard Anderson on November 17, 2010 | Permalink


As a kid growing up near Currie Barracks in Calgary during the fifties, I saw some of the old prouder days, post WW2 and Korea. The change really seemed to get started under Pearson and particularly the disaster of Paul Hellyer and Trudeau. I sense a bit of a return to the traditional relationship since.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-11-18 10:39:02 AM

"Unlike most of the military forces in human history, the American military is an instrument of a free people and so subordinate to civilian control"

I would argue that this is no longer true. Many of the Pentagon's operations are no longer sufficiently transparent to be considered any kind of instrument of the people. It has become so shrouded in 'experts' whose judgement is beyond question, that even the direct representatives of the people cannot control its ridiculously bloated budget. Eisenhower nailed it: the military-industrial complex is bleeding the American taxpayer dry and has been for years.

In Canada, we should be dually wary of this. Firstly, that military spending should ever spiral out of control in our own country. Secondly, that the American Empire we exploit for protection should wake up to find that it has become financially unsustainable, with the end result of Canada no longer having that pillar of support.

Posted by: Patrick X. | 2010-11-22 2:34:50 AM

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