Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Notes on Veterans Day/Remembrance Day

BOULDER, Colorado -- To commemorate Veterans Day, I had just a few thoughts about this important, though often neglected, holiday. The first was about our neighbors to the north, people who have fought alongside the United States in many wars, including the current conflict in Afghanistan.

On the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry, the co-host of the "Coach's Corner" segment, often does an honor roll for the Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. This past weekend to commemorate the holiday, he dedicated the whole segment to reading off the names of the soldiers killed in the past year. I noticed something interesting about these names - there appeared to be a disproportionate number with French surnames. Since November 11, 2007, 26 Canadian soldiers have been killed, and nine of those men and women hailed from the province of Quebec. Quebec only makes up 23% of the population, so I decided to look a little deeper into the Canadian casualties to see if, in fact, there was a disproportionate number of Quebecois casualties.

A total of 98 Canadian servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. 15 of these come from Quebec, which is, in fact, a smaller proportion than would be expected based on the province's population. The largest number comes from the largest province, Ontario - 26 - but this is again smaller than the province's share of the total population, 38%. The area that has borne the biggest casualties is the Atlantic provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Labrador and Newfoundland have suffered 22 casualties while making up only 6.6% of the Canadian population. Tiny Nunavut, with only 31,000 people, has even experienced one combat death, which would be expected statistically with 10 times the population.

I do not know how really to account for these discrepancies - it is largely a product of a small sample size of casualties - but we have similar patterns in the United States as well. According to the Department of Defense, the US has suffered 4,193 confirmed combat deaths in Iraq, but these are not equally distributed across all states. Big states, like Texas (388 combat deaths) and California (449) - which, incidentally, do have high rates of enlistment - have casualty rates that are quite close to their population. Meanwhile small states, like Vermont (20) and Nebraska (43), have suffered double the expected casualty rate.

You can find a complete list of the Canadians killed in action on the CBC website here, and watch Don Cherry's touching tribute to his fallen countrymen here. The New York Times also has an excellent set of visualizations of American casualty data in Iraq here, as does the Washington Post, here.

[Pictured: Pfc. Cody J. Eggleston, 21, of Eugene, Oregon, died October 24, 2008 in Bethesda, Maryland of wounds sustained October 16 in Baqubah, Iraq; Sgt. Prescott Shipway, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, killed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, September 7, 2008. These are the most recent American and Canadian combat deaths of whom pictures are available.]

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It is often forgotten in this country that November 11 is meant to commemorate the fallen from World War I. The armistice in that war was signed exactly 90 years ago, and though it seems the horrors of that war have been vastly overshadowed by subsequent global conflagrations, it remains an enduring memory elsewhere in the world. In the New York Times today, Alexander Watson penned a fascinating opinion article contrasting the ways in which this day is marked in the United States and Europe. Here, this day is used to celebrate veterans - those who survived this country's wars - whereas in Britain and France, November 11 is a day to remember those who died. Watson argues that this arrangement came about because America had already passed through a crucible just 50 years previous - the Civil War - that brought the death and destruction of modern warfare on a scale unseen in Europe until 1914. We already had a day for those dead, Memorial Day, so the day of the armistice became our Veterans Day, a day for the living.

So, while the French pay tribute to their dead from 1914-1918 by reading their names aloud in public squares, the people of the Commonwealth wear poppies on their lapels, and Americans shake hands with aged veterans, let us not forget our common history in the mud and the wire of Flanders.

Break of Day in the Trenches
by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand

A queer sardonic rat
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

[June 1916]

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