Monday, August 15, 2005

For Valour

Last week, Canada said goodbye to Ernest “Smoky” Smith, our last surviving Victoria Cross winner. It was a week of fitting tribute to a true Canadian hero and so appropriate in the Year of the Veteran. What made his heroism typical of those like him is that he eschewed that label himself and preferred to bestow it on those who never left the battlefield. His job, as he saw it was to make the enemy into heroes by dying for their country, instead of him dying for his own.

He was a hero, though, in every sense of the word and he represents the pinnacle of readiness to sacrifice his own life for others. That he didn’t have to make that ultimate sacrifice is probably due to a little luck and the fact that his visible courage was enough to strike fear into the hearts of any enemy.

Will we ever see the likes of Smoky Smith again? My answer is “yes, if we have to”, while hoping that we never do. Over the past few decades, Canada has gone from being a peace keeper to being a peace restorer. We have systematically frittered away our capacity to be a peace restorer, but that is indeed what we are being called upon to do, even in a limited way.

More of our history has been spent in the role of peace restorer than what the average Canadian mistakenly views as the primary role of our men and women uniform. It would be nice to able to get back to the peacekeeping task, but there is just not enough peace to keep, and a lot of peace that has to be made. No matter which role we see ourselves engaged in, if we are not continuously ready and equipped to restore peace, we will never be able to keep it.

General Hillier has engaged in some conditioning of the Canadian public and our political leaders to the fact that, as peace restorers, we will be facing an enemy that will not accept our mandate to do that without a fight. In a fight, people get hurt and, in the kind of fights that we will be undertaking, some people will die. That’s where the new generation of Smoky Smiths may be forced to come from.

Preservation of the lives of one’s own troops is the primary aim of any commander, while accomplishing the role of defeating the enemy. With a ruthless and determined enemy such as we and our allies now face, this won’t be easy and it may not be possible. From my own albeit limited direct exposure to the teeth of the Canadian Army, and the much deeper appreciation of many of my colleagues, there is no doubt in my mind that the heart and courage of Smoky Smith is alive and well. I would not want to be the al Queda or other scumbag, to quote General Hillier, who stands between the Patricias, the RCR, or the Vandoos and their objective, or who threatens the life of one of their brothers or sisters.

Canada’s necessity to expand our role as a peace restorer is becoming more evident and compelling. We simply can’t leave that task to our allies and look them in the eye or ourselves in the mirror. Our men and women in uniform, and especially those in the Army, know this better than anyone. We owe it to them and ourselves to not fail, and that means not letting our politicians fail, in manning, training and equipping our forces to the best possible level to do the jobs that we have given them.

Smoky Smith is gone but, thanks to some determined work by others in recent years, the Victoria Cross remains as Canada’s highest honour for valour in the face of the enemy. If another Victoria Cross is won by a Canadian on the field of battle, may he or she also live to be 91 years old and enjoy the finer things in life, like well-aged single malt whiskey and fine cigars, as Smoky did. Slainte.

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