VOW and Vets find common Cause
Last fall, Canadian war veterans turned out in public squares across Canada in a national day of protest. They gathered to protest what the new group Canadian Veterans Advocacy describes as an ongoing deterioration in support and services from Veterans Affairs.
In downtown Halifax, vets who gathered in the Grand Parade were joined by the Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace. It may be surprising to see a peace group supporting the cause of former soldiers. Yet some Voice of Women (VOW) members, which include a small number of female veterans, have been quick to see our common cause as we struggle to expose the hidden consequences and costs of war.
First, we share an understanding of the horrific consequences of war, especially for the human victims. The recognition of vets and their families as victims of war is a very important addition to the already long list of the negative effects of war.
It is no surprise that the government would prefer to keep the extent and nature of vets’ problems hidden. This attitude was dramatized last year in the Veterans Affairs scandal concerning former vets Sean Bruyea and Louise Richard, who dared to publicly criticize the New Veterans Charter. (Changes have been tabled to this 2006 law, which introduced a lump-sum payment for injured vets, but took away their lifelong pension.) Veterans Affairs bureaucrats accessed their private medical records and circulated them in the hopes of ruining their credibility as spokespersons for the vets.
Efforts to cover up the veterans’ complaints have backfired, making vets so angry they are going public with their stories. The media have covered stories about fundraising for poverty-stricken vets in Calgary and homeless vets in Toronto. Other stories have exposed the extent of the “hidden” injuries of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury).
We hear of injured vets caught for years in the bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs as they fight to gain compensation for a range of diseases allegedly caused by exposure to experimental drugs, Agent Orange, and other chemicals used in warfare.
The vets have accused the government of being more interested in cost-cutting measures around their pensions than in recognizing the extent of their problems. Indeed, if it did accept the amount of help required, the government would have to divert very large amounts of funds from the military budget.
This introduces the second important area of concern that we share with vets: the military budget and the priorities for that budget.
There is no better example of mistaken priorities than the government proposal to purchase new F-35 military jets. The projected cost of $16 billion will be added to an already bloated military budget. Moreover, Canada has already contributed $160 million to the F-35 joint strike fighter program (with the U.S.) for development of the jet by Lockheed Martin, which will ultimately be awarded the sole-source contract for the jets. For corporations like Lockheed Martin that produce military equipment, war makes money.
The Harper government also puts a positive spin on war, as providing jobs and stimulating the economy, alongside the idea that the ability to undertake war (supposedly for the noblest of causes) gives a country power and prestige. The fighter jets, mainly designed for use in “shock and awe” attacks at the height of war, seem very impractical unless we assume that Stephen Harper is envisioning for Canada a greater role in partnering with the U.S. in future conflicts. Harper seems to be signalling that we need to be “war ready,” agreeing with the U.S. attitude that military actions will be required for homeland security.
This normalization of war represents a big change from an earlier perception of Canada as a peacemaking country, with our soldiers mainly participating in UN peacekeeping missions.
If a new war follows the Afghanistan war, the veteran ranks will swell with ever more injured and damaged vets and their families. In this new era, where war is an integral part of the economy, the dead and injured soldiers are “collateral damage,” and the “cost” of their deaths and injuries must be kept as low as possible. This attitude has been aptly described by veterans’ ombudsman Pat Stogran as an “insurance mentality.”
In sum, the Harper government and Veterans Affairs are in a state of denial about the true cost of war. This state of denial seems to be the only explanation behind why Harper would think it’s OK to be photographed at a Calgary food bank helping to fill food baskets for poverty-stricken war veterans. This “photo-op” caused a storm of bad press for Harper and a public outcry about the plight of vets.
If Harper and other world leaders understood and accepted the real costs of war — which, besides the damage to soldiers and their families, include the killing, injuring and raping of civilians; the use of child soldiers; genetic defects from use of chemicals; the destruction and pollution of environments; the social costs of a culture of violence; the diversion to war of a country’s valuable tax dollars; and the risk of destruction of human life on Earth in the event of the use of nuclear weapons — they would move beyond denial.
They would see that war, like slavery, colonialism and apartheid, must be consigned to the scrap heap of history by its de-legitimization, domestically and internationally.
Carolyn Green is writing on behalf of Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace.