Monday, June 06, 2005

Remembering the Normandy landings

Babble on.

June 6th, 1944: a proud and sad day in Canadian history. Sad because of the price we had to pay. Proud because Canadians paid it.

As the troops waded ashore, there was little fire at first—mainly because the German gun positions did not aim out to sea but were set to enfilade the coastline. As the Canadian soldiers worked their way through the obstacles and came into the enfilading killing zones, the first wave took dreadful casualties. Company B of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles was cut down to one officer and 25 men as it moved to reach the seawall. In the assault teams, the chance of becoming a casualty in that first hour was almost 1 in 2.

For me, this is a humbling day as well. For I know very well that I did not pay the price. I'm only a grateful beneficiary of the valour of those who did.

The one thing I can offer them is my remembrance. A year ago, the Globe & Mail was kind enough to put my own small tribute up on their website for the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

People who have never been in the military often think of it as a frighteningly efficient machine. As with most stereotypes, this is partly true. Equally true is that the military is a frighteningly impenetrable bureaucracy, which is why just this week I received in the mail a copy of my 1992 yearbook from the Royal Military College in Kingston. It had mistakenly been left in frighteningly efficient military storage until recently. I suspect that the hapless officer cadet who stumbled upon and reported the cache was promptly tasked with distributing the books to their long-lost owners, which proves the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

I thumbed through the pages of my yearbook in front of the television last night, keeping one ear tuned to the news as I studied grainy pictures of faces grown fuzzy in my memory over the past 12 years. When the anchor's voice diverted my attention from the book in my lap to a profile of veterans returning to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of the allied landings, I couldn't help noticing the similarities between the young men in my yearbook and those who invaded Europe in 1944.

Of course, the differences are equally significant.

Military college is a self-contained world of extremes, and my time there was the most intense period of my life. RMC's mandate is to take kids right out of high school and in four brutally short years, turn them into professional military leaders. Recruiting literature states that cadets are required to simultaneously earn a university degree, achieve proficiency in both official languages, excel militarily, and maintain a high standard of physical fitness.

As I recall, the unofficial requirements - drink like a fish, swear like a biker, and always back up your buddies - were a lot more fun than the official ones.

We would pack our waking hours with stress, and then rouse ourselves in the middle of the night to pull ridiculous pranks on each other in order to relieve that stress. Seniors returning from a birthday celebration in town could find their entire room dismantled and reassembled by recruits in the middle of the parade square. They would count themselves lucky that they hadn't been suspended by duct-tape eight feet up a flag-pole for the evening.

When you sign away nine years of your life - four to get your degree, and five more of compulsory service following that - you develop an obsidian sense of humour: sharp and dark. We counted the days to graduation on a board in the mess hall, and had blow-out parties on milestone dates starting with "500 Days To Grad" in third year. When I was a cadet, calling someone "bitter and twisted" was a compliment. Our class T-shirts were emblazoned with a black thundercloud subscribed by the acronym BOHICA (Bend Over, Here It Comes Again).

My military career was short-lived and undistinguished - I battled depression and eventually washed out academically a year before graduation. But my life was immeasurably changed by my experience at RMC. It shaped my concepts of leadership and fairness, ethics, friendship, and accountability. I unearthed competencies I didn't know I had, and for the first time in my life I realized what a complete idiot and jerk I could be. The military brought out some of the best and the worst in me.

These formative experiences have helped determine what sort of husband and father I am, what sort of employee I strive to be, what sort of man. Of course, you don't have to join the military to become self-aware or to push your limits. But it is an exceptionally hot furnace in which to forge oneself, and the imprint it leaves on an individual is indelible and unique.

It is from this perspective that, on the eve of the D-Day anniversary, I can't help wondering how profoundly our Juno Beach veterans' lives were changed by their own indelible and unique military experiences.

I went to school and came away different, but they went to war. I lost classmates to training accidents, to car accidents, to suicide. They lost comrades to bullets, bombs, and shrapnel, in terrible numbers, day in and day out, for months on end. The stresses my classmates and I endured engendered a lasting camaraderie. How much greater the stresses placed on our veterans, and how much deeper the currents of uncommon experience that draw them together, even now.

After 13 weeks of recruit training, I cried when I saw my family again. Our Normandy veterans left family, country, and safety behind for years; they crossed an ocean; they killed and faced death. They liberated a continent, and in so doing, they changed the course of history. One wonders how they adjusted to some of the inescapably mundane elements of civilian life so shortly after engaging in such a momentous military undertaking.

When you've been forced to decide what is worth dying for at age 21, how does that affect what you believe is worth living for at age 22, or 42, or 82? We are rapidly losing the ability to ask that question of our Normandy veterans, as the natural ends of their lives loom closer with each passing day. Very shortly now, all we will have left is their legacy, an unmatched record of public service in both war and peace. But we will not have their stories of conflict and what came after. We will lose the priorities their experiences set for them, the impact that war had on their political decisions, their business practices, and their social lives. While history will record the events of the Second World War, we will soon lose the personal lessons of that war, learned differently by each individual veteran.

How much paler would their lives have been had they not united to defeat the defining threat of their century? Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has called those who fought in the Second World War "the long civic generation." Would my classmates and I have risen to the challenges of fighting that war and fortifying the subsequent peace as admirably? I page through my yearbook, I look at the young faces with their invincible smiles, and I wonder who we would have lost. And then I wonder what we would have gained.

Unless the effort to remember is made, sacrifices made by others on our behalf will fade, and eventually wink out except in the most dusty of archives.

Never forget.

Babble off.


At 11:31 p.m., Blogger John the Mad said...

Bravo Zulu Damian. I will link to this post right now.


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