In a free society, citizens share a common history. Though this history may be told from many points of view, every action has objective reality and the sum total of all events is the birthright of every citizen. History belongs to everyone equally and as such is—or should be—open to unfettered enquiry and defended against deliberate distortion. To borrow a medical metaphor, history constitutes the genes that make up a citizen’s “cultural DNA.”
Unfortunately, cultural DNA is vulnerable to “genetic engineering.” In the hands of an ignoble government, historical images and events can be manipulated to serve political objectives. George Orwell said it best in 1984: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” This is how we should understand the federal government’s decision to reapply the “Royal” adjective to the Canadian navy and air force.
According to its advocates, this nomenclature reversal is designed to overturn the pernicious effects of the 1968 Trudeau government’s amalgamation of the military. Logistically and politically, the decision made sense at the time because all three branches competed with each other for money and resources. Yet, it had the unnecessary, demoralizing effect of stripping the military of their uniforms and culture. All military personnel were forced to adopt a hideous green uniform, derisively called “Glad Bags” when I was in the Naval Reserve, and the branches were given soulless, generic titles: Royal Canadian Navy became Maritime Command, Royal Canadian Air Force became Air Command, and the Canadian Army became Mobile Command.
Part of the reason for the royal reversal undoubtedly came from lobbying by veterans like Michael Smith of Toronto, who said it was important that the military remain in touch with its history:
The Royal Canadian Navy… is the navy that fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. If there had been no victory at sea, there would have been no victory in Europe. The Royal Canadian Air Force is the air force that fought in the Battle of Britain. Those historical titles are now reality, and those who are currently serving can be connected to that pride, to that history, that tradition. The distinctiveness has come back, and there’s a lot of meaning in those titles.
Stephen Harper’s Defence Minion Peter MacKay said essentially the same thing when he made the official announcement in August: “I believe that this is about continuity. It’s about respect for our past. And I believe that this is something that the majority of Canadians will embrace.”
If we look a little deeper, we realize that the Royal reversion has precious little to do with respecting the past or rediscovering a distant military pride, as MacKay, Smith and others would have us believe. It has everything to do with bastardizing the past. The Canadian military Smith admires so much died on the battlefield long ago.
These Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, hit the beaches on D-Day, liberated The Netherlands, and sailed in the WWII convoys, and did so proudly in the name of fighting aggression. How does the legacy of this virtuous “Royal” Canadian military of yesteryear find any connection with the modern Canadian military, which bombs Libyan hospitals, blockades Palestinian relief convoys, and mistreats Afghan detainees?
The Dutch still love Canadians for liberating them from occupation. Now Arabs in Palestine, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon need someone to liberate them from Canada and the rest of the NATO Imperial Assault Force. Smith hasn’t noticed that the “Royal” Canadian Navy and Air Force he remembers fought fascism; now they abet it.
After World War II, Canadians helped found NATO and were among the earliest supporters of the UN, the rule of law and liberal internationalism. Now, Canada is a leader in rationalizing genocide, subverting the UN and serving as Israel’s most enthusiastic cat’s paw.
The images and legacy of Canada’s honourable military past dwells within each Canadian, but now these will be debased and mutated and their meaning will be sullied. There is no “continuity,” as MacKay claims. There is rupture.
Behind the propaganda curtain of “restoring” Canada’s military pride and tradition is the appropriation of military history to justify the sort of aggression honourable Canadians gave their lives to defeat.