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For those who put their lives on the line

Field Marshall Lord Douglas Haig, “Butcher of the Somme,” saw two million British casualties during his command in the First World War.

He was made an earl for his efforts and died at 66 of a heart attack, far from the field of battle.

U.S. General of the Armies John Joseph (Black Jack) Pershing was the commander of the American expeditionary force on the Western Front, also in the First World War. He has been criticized for sticking to frontal attacks after other Allied Forces gave up on the practice, causing high casualty rates among American soldiers.

Pershing died at Walter Reid Hospital in Washington of coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure in 1948 at the ripe old age of 87.

Sir Sam Hughes was Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence during the First World War. An ardent supporter of raising a Canadian force for battle, he oversaw the slipshod training of the first 33,000 recruits, and the arming of them with Canadian weaponry — like the Ross rifle — that was inadequate for battle conditions.

Ross died of anemia in 1921 in his hometown of Lindsay, Ont., having reached the age of 68.

I could go on, but I won’t.

My point?

Those who launch wars, and those who direct them, often get to live full and complete lives.

Those on the front lines often don’t.

In the First World War, the average age of Canadian soldiers was 26, though the average age was lower for those serving on front lines. Twenty-thousand Canadian soldiers lied about their ages, enlisting even though they were younger than 18. Two thousand of those underage troops died in battle.

Imagine if you had never gotten to experience any of the life you had after the age of 18; heck, imagine if you didn’t get to enjoy any of the things that came your way after you reached the age of 26.

As Remembrance Day rolls around, I quietly remember, as I always do, the individuals who gave their lives or their health on the battlefield to protect our nation and our democratic freedoms.

But every year, I also remember those who moved people like pawns from a great distance away, safe in the knowledge that they would not bear the results of their own decisions.

I’m not alone in my disdain: Canadian author Charles Yale Harrison, a soldier in the First World War himself, made the point clearly in 1930 in his international bestselling novella “Generals Die in Bed.” It’s a first-person account of a young soldier from Montreal learning that slogans and glory have nothing to do with the realities of war. His message is clear: young, naive Canadians were told they were fighting for great ideals, “For King and Country,” but found themselves thrown into unnecessary and terrifying carnage instead.

I don’t believe there’s glory in war.

I believe there are people who paid a price for us, and that, as a result, now are owed an unstinting duty of care. Whether it’s care for their physical injuries or their mental ones, we should step up with the financial and material resources needed to ensure they never feel abandoned or even short-changed.

It is, I know, the kind of message that politicians love to deliver endlessly. The question is whether they ever actually deliver on it in a material sense. If you’re in office, don’t tell me how much you value those who serve, and their families: show me.

And don’t leap forward to put Canadians who serve into dangerous situations unless you’ve exhausted all other alternatives.

Especially if you plan on living a long life, expiring peacefully in your own bed.


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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