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Opinion

Harry Smith to Harper: Veterans Deserve Better

Like Britain after the Great War, Canada has failed to properly care for its wounded heroes.

By Harry Leslie Smith 31 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has written several books about Britain during the Depression, the war and postwar austerity. Join him on Twitter @Harryslaststand.

I was born in 1923 in England, five years after the first Great War ended in a pool of blood, despair and death that spread across Europe like a tattered burial shroud. That war consumed over 20 million lives, including my uncle's as well as many from my parents' circle of friends, so it cast a long mournful shadow over my childhood. The conflict traumatized a generation and left me with some of my most poignant memories.

I will never forget my first Remembrance in 1928, when I stood beside my granddad at our local cenotaph to pay homage to our fallen soldiers; the carnage of that war was as fresh to the participants as newly cut grass. A local politician said to those in attendance that we would never forget the sacrifices of our soldiers from that war. But we did, because governments always seem more willing to pay for battles rather than the butcher's bill that war leaves in its wake.

To this day, I still remember how my country reneged on its promise during the Great Depression to make Britain a land fit for heroes, for those who had fought in the trenches. In fact, I am still haunted by the images of the soldiers I met in the 1930s when my family lived in numerous ramshackle rooming houses across the north of England, always located on the wrong side of town.

The veterans I met then were both physically and mentally broken by the inhumane war that the government of the day had asked them to fight with dubious arguments about patriotism and national survival. Yet despite their wounds and mental injuries, all of those former soldiers showed much kindness to me during my bleak childhood.

After my own stint in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, I thought the cruelty of combat for the generations that followed mine would not be experienced by anyone in western democracies, but for Canada that changed when Stephen Harper became prime minister. Since 2006, Canada has been fighting an ever-widening war on terrorism, which has seen the prime minister deploy a military force to Afghanistan that has had no geopolitical effect on the region, but cost the taxpayers $18 billion.

In 2011 Stephen Harper, emboldened by his own rhetoric as a political warrior against Islamic terrorism, allowed Canada to join an American-led NATO coalition to oust Moammar Gadhafi through aerial bombardment and military support of ground forces opposed to the dictator. Today, Libya is a failed state where ordinary people are subjected to endless brutality by war lords, mercenaries and terrorists. Harper's folly in his war on terrorism continues to this day, because now the Canadian Air Force is flying sorties over Syria against ISIS. Neither Canada's participation in Libya or in Syria appears to have reduced terrorism or made those regions safe and secure for ordinary citizens. All Canada's bombing has done to those countries is contribute to a refugee crisis that hasn't been seen since the dying days of the Second World War.

Hurt at home

However, probably the most troubling result of Harper's jingoism is not the misery he has helped sow in foreign countries, but the hurt and turmoil he has caused Canadian veterans who have served their country faithfully in these conflicts.

During this election campaign the Conservatives will try to convince citizens through their advertisements that their government respects this country's armed forces and its role in their war on terrorism. Unfortunately it's all cynical spin, because while Harper does like to drum into the electorate words about duty and honour, his commitment to veterans' affairs is shameful.

His government has shut down nine regional Veterans Affairs offices that provided needed front-line services for veterans in need, especially for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. For many veterans who have suffered injuries in recent or past conflicts, their local Veterans Affairs office is a lifeline, a place to access services, advice, or just a chat in person with a sympathetic staffer. Moreover, the Harper government reports from the veterans' ombudsman over the years have also revealed that despite the government's claims that it is taking care of veterans, many are living in poverty after retirement because of changes to the Veterans Charter.

Over the course of this election, many will hear Stephen Harper talk about patriotism, the heroes of the Canadian military, and how terrorism threatens the freedoms of ordinary citizens. I won't listen, because I will be thinking about how the Canadian veterans of his wars are now ignored by his government, very much like those soldiers from the First World War who lived in desperate circumstances with my family were forgotten by their government.  [Tyee]

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