Mark Collins – Not Remembering Canada’s Real Post-WW II Military History

It was not that peacekeeping myth so fondly mis-remembered by so many so ignorant of our past:

Canada’s forgotten Cold Warriors

references in two recent and otherwise thoughtful articles [in the Globe and Mail] follow a disturbing pattern. One article, which included tallies from Veterans Affairs Canada, referred to “685,300 Canadian veterans: 75,900 from the Second World War, 9,100 from the Korean War and 600,300 from subsequent peacekeeping missions and conflicts, including at least 40,000 younger Afghanistan war vets.” Another opinion article took up the same theme, referring to Canadian casualties in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Afghanistan and “numerous United Nations peacekeeping assignments.”

Stunningly absent from both accounts is even the slightest mention of what was by far Canada’s most important military activity since 1945: Our contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) in the Cold War, from 1950 to 1990. It was a massive commitment. Several hundred thousand Canadian military members served in the vital cause of deterring Soviet aggression…

Canada and Canadians paid a heavy price for all this. To put it concisely, our Cold War operations resulted in more fatalities due to military service than in the Korean War, the Balkan conflicts, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and peacekeeping – combined. For aircrew deaths alone, the number was 926.

Why has this been forgotten, to the extent that Cold War veterans apparently don’t seem to deserve even a passing mention these days?

Some possible reasons come to mind. Much of this happened a relatively long time ago, much of it far from home – in the north, at sea, in Europe. And news media coverage was much less intensive in the days before real-time TV reporting and embedded journalists. For example, whenever a Canadian airman was killed in Europe (as more than 100 were), he was invariably buried in a small military cemetery in Choloy-Ménillot, France; no ramp ceremony, no funerary procession along the Highway of Heroes, no headlines.

Then there is the mythology that has arisen to the effect that peacekeeping has been the principal occupation of Canada’s military since the Second World War…

It’s a shame that the story has been largely forgotten. On this Remembrance Day, my earnest hope is that Canadians, when they pause to commemorate the many sacrifices that our veterans have made through the years, will give a moment to those whose service as Cold Warriors, although unheralded, really made a difference. Lest we forget.

Retired general Paul Manson was chief of the defence staff during the final years of the Cold War.  He is patron of the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada [more here, this identifier in the print version only].

Also almost forgotten: our supposed peacekeeping nation was nuclear-armed (with US weapons under dual-key control) for some two decades from the mid-1960s, with the Liberal Pearson government havind decided to acquire them.  That’s the same Lester Pearson so central to the this country as peacekeepers story.

Now read these excerpts from a poppycock paean to that mythology on the next page of the Globe and Mail this Remembrance Day:

…Because of what they [“our fathers and grandfathers”] achieved on the battlefield, Canada acquired a reputation that in the wake of the wars allowed our leaders with dignity to embrace the path of peace, which they did, earning the respect of all countries.

Canadian troops became the core of United Nations peacekeeping operations in countless lands, highly trained professional soldiers who monitored truces, mediated between violent foes, and maintained the flow of humanitarian aid to innocent victims of conflict in all the war-torn reaches of the world.

Our sterling military reputation, first established in the agony of Flanders, Belgium, gave us the credibility to forge the vanguard of a new kind of army, one whose mission was to stanch the flow of blood, and whose military honours would be measured not in battles won, but in conflicts averted [as with NATO in Europe?]…

Only by embracing the power of peace will we honour today what our fathers, grandfathers and their fathers before them did for us, for Canada, so many years ago in their time of sacrifice and desperate trials.

Wade Davis is the author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest [more here].

Sadly, the future for knowledge of our history is ever bleaker–a letter printed this November 11 in the Ottawa Citizen:

Canadian military history lessons leaving key gaps

Re: Canadians split on whether youth appreciate veterans, Nov. 10 [CP wire story].

On Monday [Nov. 9] I responded to the OC Transpo [Ottawa public transit] Remembrance Week offer of free rides for veterans wearing their medals and found myself sitting next to a University of Ottawa student.

In replying to her question related to my medals, I told her I was fortunate to have been only a Cold War warrior. Puzzled, she indicated that “Cold War” meant nothing to her. On explaining the over 40-year standoff (i.e. almost third of the time Canada has been a nation) between NATO democratic countries and the communist Warsaw Pact dictatorships, it transpired that she had heard of neither NATO or the Soviet Union.

This student was, of course, was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union; but, it likely reflects on the education system that she knew nothing of Canadian political and military history during this crucial era. Canada was an important founding member of NATO. I suspect that, instead, she was told of the glory days of peacekeeping, which had nothing to do with the Cold War.

Perhaps this seeming gap in the Canadian history syllabus should be examined.

Robin Rousham, Ottawa, Retired colonel, Canadian Forces

No memory even of Canadians recently fighting in Afghanistan and over Libya as a NATO member.  Help.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


3 thoughts on “Mark Collins – Not Remembering Canada’s Real Post-WW II Military History”

  1. Does any one remember the standard civilian response to being told you were in the Canadian military, Eh what too lazy to work too nervous to steal are you? Ah yes we were Cold Warriors, love my country.

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