We used to know our men and women in uniforms were "the good guys". It was an accepted fact of life that those in the Canadian Forces were there to help, both at home and abroad. They were people of the highest character, doing what few of us dared, and continuing a long tradition of service to Sovereign and Country. We even had something of a reputation for going out of our way to thank them, especially those who chose to identify themselves as Veterans as November the 11th neared each year.
In the past few years, that image has changed. Now, soldiers are viewed with a sense of foreboding, or mistrust. Politicians all say the right things: "We support our men and women in uniform, and trust that they live up to the high standards of conduct set by their forebears..." but, in the end, much of that support is of the verbal sort only. As a society, we have changed the way we view the Soldier. Some of this is perhaps leftover disgust at the Airborne fiasco... some of it, from the stories that hit the newswire every so often of atrocities committed by Canadian troops in faraway lands like Somalia, Rwanda of the Balkans. Some of it - in fact, perhaps a large part of it - is our general dislike of the need for a martial element to society, and the things we see, hear and read about troops from the U.S. and their alleged indiscretions. But somewhere along the line, we as a society decided that the last group of Veterans who served for a higher purpose were those in Korea and, before them, WW2. The lack of a Hitler-esque threat has also contributed to this general shift in attitude towards the military - we don't have a foreign army, led by an evil madman and all wearing matching uniforms, threatening to destroy us or our Allies of Mother Britain, so why do we need a full military? We did fine recruiting and outfitting troops after Hitler invaded Belgium.
Now, the disrespect for the military has been creeping to the forefront as late (see the aborted "Troops in Our Streets" ad for proof), but is this a purely Canadian phenomenon? Hardly. Americans, much as they did in Vietnam, have begun to view their own troops not as liberators or heros, but as (at best) puppets of a corrupt, incompetant government or (at worst) little more than government-sanctioned thugs. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, "Pardon me, but aren't you all just a bunch of hired killers?".
As a nation, we have to decide what we're going to do about our soldiers... the current missions to Afghanistan have put the military life, once considered a viable option for graduating high schoolers unsure of their next step, in stark opposition to its former perception. No longer are the Forces viewed as "getting to wear that messed up hat and turn the ship 135 degrees on a dime, like in the commercials". Heck, even the COMMERCIALS for Armed Forces recruitment have changed to reflect a more operational status.
As I mentioned above, all politicians say the right things about our troops. The Harper Government is taking steps to modernize our equipment and increase our recruiting numbers, and the mumblings of "warmongers" aren't all that hard to pick out, if you just listen hard enough. They're accused of wanting to cuddle up to George W. Bush, who'll be gone in less than 2 years anyway. Some people actually suggest that these new soldiers, with their new guns, will be used to launch OFFENSIVE missions against other countries. In short, they're suggesting that Stephen Harper is going to wait for a majority government, and then try to INVADE somebody. The only thing more laughable and simultaneously sad than the assertion that the government, and PEOPLE, of Canada would support such an action, is the suggestion that, if told to invade, say, Chile, that Canadian troops would simply say "okay", and grab their rifles. Kevin Bacon following Col. Jessop's orders in Gitmo notwithstanding, few soldiers will do something they know to be illegal simply because they're ordered to. One would think this would be the case even LESS often in Canada, where rule of law and order rather than fear or hope for domination have been the driving force for generations.
What we need is to decide as a nation whether or not we're going to support our troops. We can choose to support or withhold our support from their leaders, the ones we elect. But when those men and women put on the uniform, whether to help set up sandbags in Manitoba or to flush out Taliban in Kabul, we have to decide whether we support them or not, without condition. They can't be heros on one mission and thugs on the next, simply because of our politics. They put their lives on the line for poor pay and minimal respect, and have to endure dangerous working conditions even when NOT in combat. Either we as a society believe that this is because they are good people drawn to public service, or we believe that they're really frustrated bullies who want the government to give them a gun so they can kill other human beings without fear of legal reprisal. We need to decide which case we believe, and we need to commit to that belief. Then we can at least know what to tell our children when we see that uniformed man shopping at Safeway.
Either's he's an example of the best we have to offer, or he's a thug with no good job prospects who enjoys hurting people.
It's time we decided, and reacted accordingly.
I vote "Hero". Just as my grandfathers and uncles did when they signed up for fly planes, jump out of them, build bridges across France and stomp through the mud to stop Hitler's war machine. These men who, because of their surnames had their farming equipment confiscated by the Canadian government as possible security risks, yet still volunteered to serve that same government and, in some of their cases, bled and died on the same ground in Europe that their parents had left behind for a better life not 30 years earlier. They didn't have to go... but they went. And not because they were thugs, or bullies, or murderers. They went to save people like their parents, and their cousins. They went because it was RIGHT, knowing full well they could die. I owe no less respect to the men and women who wear that uniform in a time of peace as I do to my dead ancestors buried in the cold, dark soil of Western Europe. To me, they represent the best that our nation has to offer, and what little money and respect we pay them for their efforts doesn't even BEGIN to account for one sweat-soaked night of terror that these brave people have to endure not in battle, but when they come home to their loving wife or husband, lay down to sleep, close their eyes, and see the face of the man they killed who was trying his best to kill them first. Many have those same nightmares every night, for years. Or forever.
Thug? I think not. Hero? Only because there's no better word.