Michael Petrou is historian, Veterans’ Experience, at the Canadian War Museum.
When I was a boy growing up in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the Second World War. Model Spitfires and Mustangs hung from my bedroom ceiling. I transformed the backyard sandbox into the Egyptian desert of 1942, where Montgomery’s British Eighth Army faced off against German Field Marshall Rommel, the Desert Fox.
Years later, when the sandbox had been turned into a vegetable garden, my father would unearth tiny painted plastic soldiers while digging up weeds around his tomato plants.
I had connections to the war that were more direct than those my imagination could conjure through model planes and sandbox battlefields. My grandfather, an officer and tank commander in the Canadian Army, fought through Sicily and mainland Italy and helped liberate the Netherlands.
There were signs around his house indicating he had been a soldier. A musty regimental banner hung beside the pool table on the rec-room wall. In another room was a painting my grandfather’s work colleagues had given him when a brain aneurysm forced him to retire early. It was a caricature of my grandfather, with an oversized head and body crammed into a tiny Sherman tank, surrounded by humorous depictions of his wartime experiences. A large-busted dark-haired beauty sat on the tank dangling a bunch of grapes from her fingers – in Italy, presumably. A dog urinated on tomatoes drying in the sun. Even tragic events were made comic: The plane overhead was a British one that had bombed my grandfather and his comrades in a friendly-fire incident.
When I would occasionally ask my grandfather about the war, however, he said little. It seemed to me then that the war had made only a shallow impression on him, or at least one that didn’t last long.
But there were other echoes of war in his life that I didn’t understand as a boy or only learned of later. At family dinners we listened to Vera Lynn, the British singer who had serenaded and inspired Allied troops during the war. On walks to a city park, my grandfather would caution me not to hurt the frogs I pounced on and captured in cupped hands. My mother told me that when, as a child, she and her siblings caught fish at a nearby pond, they would carry them home in a bucket to show their mother, and then my grandfather would take the fish back to the pond and let them go. He caught spiders in the house alive and let them go outside. He hated camping. He didn’t like eating lamb. He carried a 1939 Canadian silver dollar in his wallet. His high-school teacher gave it to him when he enlisted. It was in his wallet the day he died.
Eventually, it became clear that rather than being simply one phase in a long life, the war was deeply imprinted on the most intimate aspects of who my grandfather was – from his dietary habits (he had consumed enough mutton during the war to last a lifetime) to his extreme gentleness and aversion to violence. The same can be said, to varying degrees, of all veterans and, in many cases, their families. The same is certainly true of Canada itself.
When we think of war, however, we often don’t consider what lingers when it ends. Service personnel come home and become civilians again. What is that transition like? How has war, and/or peacetime military service, changed them? What do they miss? What do they remember? What do they share with loved ones and what do they keep hidden, except when their nightmares wake the house? And if veterans are changed by war, how do they then change the country in which they live?
Exploring these questions to better understand the veterans’ experience in Canada is the goal of In Their Own Voices: Stories from Canadian Veterans and their Families, an oral history project launched this year at the Canadian War Museum. We’re interviewing hundreds of veterans, from the Second World War to the present day, and their family members, too. We hope to trace the ripples that conflict and military service can set in motion – throughout veterans’ lives and even across generations.
In recent years, the general public has become far more aware of the lasting emotional trauma that combat and military service can inflict. But it’s also true that for many veterans, their military service is a happy memory, or a time that had a positive impact on the rest of their lives. Peter Godwin Chance, a 101-year-old Royal Canadian Navy veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic and the D-Day invasion, whom I interviewed recently, said those who didn’t fight in the Second World War missed out on the “birth of a nation.”
George MacDonell, who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and survived more than three years in Japanese prison camps, came back to Canada at the age of 23 with a Grade 10 education. Like thousands of other veterans of the Second World War, he received funding from the Veterans’ Educational Rehabilitation Program to return to school. Mr. MacDonell finished high school in a little more than a year and then enrolled in university, where a close relationship with a professor helped him confront persistent trauma from the war. He excelled at university, and later in business and government.
Despite being assigned the nearly impossible task of defending Hong Kong, and despite the many miseries of Japanese imprisonment, Mr. MacDonell refused to see himself and his comrades as victims.
“Soldiers go where they’re sent and obey orders,” he said. “And the good news is we won the war and preserved our freedom, so there’s nothing to bitch about. Let’s get on with our lives.”
His perspective on a war that, for him, involved so many horrors is remarkable, but so, too, is his postwar transition. How does a 23-year-old combat veteran return to high school and then rebuild a life that has been so dramatically interrupted?
Mr. MacDonell said he received “wonderful support” from the government, from his physical rehabilitation to funding for his continued education. Other Hong Kong vets felt abandoned by a government that first sent them to Hong Kong and then, after the war, was stingy with pensions and did little to bring Japanese war criminals to justice. No two veterans’ experiences are the same, which is why gathering multiple perspectives is so important.
Some veterans faced unique challenges because of their ethnicity or faith. Max Dankner, a Canadian army veteran of Italy and Northwest Europe, returned home to Montreal troubled by what he had seen and done during the war. Some mornings his mother would enter his room to find him crying under his bed. Mr. Dankner wanted to join the police force. He had delivered dispatches by motorcycle during the war and figured this experience would serve him well as a cop. He went to a recruiting office in Montreal and, despite being a wounded combat veteran, was informed: “We don’t take Jews.”
Vancouver native Frank Moritsugu enlisted even though he and his family were interned along with other Japanese Canadians after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and were later forced to move to Ontario, where they worked on a farm. He recalled explaining his decision to his parents: “I said, ‘Dad, if I join the army, that’ll show the people around here that we are true Canadians, and they’ll relax.’”
Joining up might have convinced Mr. Moritsugu’s neighbours of his family’s loyalty, but he returned from overseas service to a Canada that still refused him the right to vote because of his ethnicity. Soon after, an RCMP officer knocked on his door and reminded him that because he was Japanese Canadian, he needed to carry a registration card and get permission if he wanted to travel. “I was right back to where I was before I enlisted,” Mr. Moritsugu said. But, he added, because he and other Japanese-Canadian vets had put themselves in harm’s way to serve their country, they were effective advocates for their political rights and, decades later, while campaigning for compensation for their wartime internment.
Returning veterans changed Canada in myriad other ways – from demanding increased government support for people with disabilities, to the type of housing erected in Canada’s postwar suburbs. Female veterans of the Second World War, of which 50,000 served in the three service arms and in the medical services, also broke trails for other women to enter previously inaccessible fields of employment.
“When we joined, I think we did it to prove that, yeah, we could do something,” recalled Blanche Bennett (née Landry), who enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Several years ago, she flew from Prince Edward Island to Ottawa for a commemorative event. She wore her medals. The pilot, a woman, saw them and stopped Ms. Bennett on her way off the plane.
“She said, ‘My dear’ – and she gave me such a hug – ‘if it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be doing this job today,’” Ms. Bennett said. “And I thought, oh, my gosh, did she really say that? And the more I thought about it, I thought, yeah, she did. So, I guess we did something that we should be proud of.”
Of the almost 1.1 million Canadians who served in uniform during the Second World War, only about 20,000 are still living. Recording their insights while we still can is a priority for the Canadian War Museum. But we’re speaking with veterans from all eras – to gather their unique insights but also to understand what experience may be common among them. Some themes are timeless, braiding together wars, conflicts and Canadians over decades.
Nearly 200 years ago, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, imagined Odysseus, Greek hero of the mythical Trojan War, finally home on the island of Ithaca after 10 years of war and 10 more trying to get back to his family. In Tennyson’s rendering, Odysseus, or Ulysses as the Romans called him, is restless and unhappy. He rules his kingdom and its people who “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” Those living on Ithaca had not fought with Ulysses “on the ringing plains of windy Troy” and so can never really understand him.
This feeling of dislocation when a soldier joins the civilian world is a topic that comes up frequently in interviews with veterans. They miss comrades, working together toward a common goal and the fellowship of shared danger. Civilian life also only rarely offers the same satisfaction that comes from doing unambiguously meaningful work. “I never felt the same sense of purpose in my life as I did in Afghanistan,” said Phil Hunter, who served as a medical technician and armoured ambulance driver in Afghanistan. When we spoke for the interview, it had been more than a dozen years since Mr. Hunter had returned from Afghanistan. He had built a family and started a new job but still felt pangs of nostalgia about his time there.
Perhaps because military service may not be something to which civilians can easily relate, those who have that experience can connect with one another in a way others can’t. This is why reunions, pilgrimages and even nights at the Legion can be so important for many veterans.
Blanche Bennett organized a reunion in 1981 for all the women who had served in Halifax during the war. About 150 veterans came, including some from England and the U.S. They were “very anxious to get back again,” she said. “It had been a long time.” Two decades later, when Ms. Bennett turned 80, eight of the women she served with during the war came to her party. “Oh, yes,” she remembered. “We stuck together like flies.”
Not all veterans want to return to the places they had once served. Russell Kaye’s family had to convince him, in 2019, to visit Juno Beach, where he had landed on D-Day 75 years earlier. “So many years I tried to forget about the whole thing, and then all of a sudden they want me to remember,” Mr. Kaye said. “It’s just something that I didn’t think about too often, or I’d sort of buried it, I guess.” He eventually agreed to go and later described the visit as one of the highlights of his life. He met French citizens, now elderly, who had their own stories of being children during the liberation, and he was able to visit fallen comrades. “I had no idea the cemeteries were the most beautiful places. And there’s so many. I seen so many graves of people from my regiment and people I knew from my gun detachment.”
These bonds can connect people who fought in different wars, for different countries. Benjamin Hertwig, a veteran of Afghanistan whose first book of poetry, Slow War, was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Awards, once broke down at a family dinner after someone mentioned a soldier who had been killed on Mr. Hertwig’s rotation. His grandfather, who fought in the German army during the Second World War and was normally an expressive and exuberant man, became quiet. Mr. Hertwig left the table. “He met me in the hallway and put his arm on me. He didn’t try to talk. He didn’t try and ask questions. He just said, ‘I understand,’ and then he walked back to the living room and that was it,” Mr. Hertwig said.
If there are universal veterans’ experiences, however, there are also those that are tied to a certain conflict or period of service. Being a “peacekeeper” is a monolithic title, with no direct correlation to a rank or unit or even a single war, clash or rotation. There are profound differences between how Korean War veterans saw their service and had it recognized by the state, and that of veterans from the two World Wars. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War were not part of a Canadian military force in their fight against fascism and were even monitored by the state upon their return (although many would go on to serve in the Second World War).
Veterans of the 1885 Northwest Campaign, to further problematize the status of veterans, included British professional soldiers, Canadian militia, and Métis and Indigenous warriors, all fighting against one another, with different means of remembrance, memorials and commemorations.
To take a more recent example, last summer, thousands of Canadian veterans of Afghanistan watched as the Taliban they had fought for years took over the country, barring girls from schools and forcing into hiding the Afghans Canadians had fought and bled beside. For some, this was expected. For most, it provoked gut-wrenching feelings and appraisal of Canada’s long war.
“I don’t have a ton of answers yet,” said Alex Duncan, a special forces veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, when asked how he makes peace today with his service and sacrifice in Afghanistan. “And I think about it all the time now that I have this young infant son. I want to have an answer for him some day when he looks at all the pictures and the memorabilia and he hears about my friends that died. I want to be able to give him a ‘So what?’ – you know, so why did all this happen? What was the result?
“Some days it’s hard for me to convince myself, but I know there were certain little pockets of Kandahar province that we made safer, where kids could go to school for a number of years while we were there. I saw little moments of good. War is messy, and wars don’t often turn out the way we want them to. So, I think I’m going to try to just remember that we did good on a very small scale and in small pockets and small periods of time. And if I remember those moments, then I can probably sleep at night.”
An early lesson from Afghanistan may be that how wars end matter to how those who fought them reflect on their service. The First World War birthed many of the commemorative rituals and objects with which Canadians are most familiar – from Remembrance Day to lapel poppies to the cenotaphs in nearly every sizable town or city across the country. Yet many Canadians today look back on that conflict and question whether the reasons Canada went to war – “for King and Empire” – justified the sacrifice. The Second World War produced a clear victory against an unspeakably evil enemy. The effort and the price paid to achieve that victory were widely shared among all Canadians, which surely affected how veterans of that war handled returning to civilian life. The Korean War involved far fewer Canadians and ended messily. The war was all but forgotten and those who fought it too often overlooked.
It is too early to know how we, as Canadians, will look back on the war in Afghanistan years from now, although the veterans who fought it can offer unique perspectives. For Tyler Wentzell, who led an Operational Mentor Liaison Team in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2008, military service itself is important regardless of outcomes.
“I find solace in the fact that the sacrifice matters because we need people who are willing to sacrifice for Canada. And the way the world works and the instruments of statecraft and whatnot, that’s just beyond your sphere of influence. So, you take solace in the service and the sacrifice, because we need that to keep what we have.”
In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses resolves his unease with a civilian life of hearth and home by deciding to board his ship and cast off once more: “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail.” He brings with him “My mariners, Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and fought with me.”
Some veterans do indeed feel pulled back into military service, drawn by comradeship and work that feels like it matters. Javin Lau is a veteran of Canada’s mission in Iraq, where Canadian soldiers are training Iraqi soldiers, including the Iraqi Kurdish militia known as Peshmerga, to fight ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. When Mr. Lau finished his deployment in Iraq, he was keen to throw himself into the civilian work world. Three years later, he quit his job in commercial real estate to take a full-time contract with the reserves. The tools and resources he had at his disposal in his private-sector job were impressive, he said, but “I think I want purpose more.”
Other veterans find ways to experience as civilians an approximation of what they did as soldiers. Phil Hunter was a computer programmer before joining the reserves and becoming a medic. He’s now a flight paramedic, transporting patients in need of critical care by helicopter. The high stakes of helping people in distress provides him with a needed adrenalin hit, feeding an “addiction” he’s felt since returning from his deployment. Mr. Hunter recently brought a woman in premature labour to a hospital only five minutes before she delivered. He says there is a similar intimacy in being with someone who is giving birth as being with someone when their life is ending because of, for example, grievous trauma suffered in an Afghanistan firefight.
Still other veterans miss little about their service and want mostly to put it behind them as they start families and new lives. They don’t attend reunions, keep few mementos and say so little that their own children have next to no idea what they did in the war.
Some can never forget even if they wanted to. There were 158 Canadian soldiers killed during the Afghanistan mission and more than 2,000 wounded in body. Many carry scars, suffered amputation and survived wounds, rather than succumbed, because of excellent medical care. For them, the war is imprinted on their bodies. For others, there are invisible wounds. The clinical term most common these days is PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Gregory Bailey, who in 2007 served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan, calls it “spiritual shrapnel.” It’s a wound as real as one from a bullet.
Almost everyone who experiences war, however, or who serves in uniform for even a short time, is changed by it. And because veterans are changed by war and service, the societies in which they live are changed as well.
The veterans’ experience is an integral part of Canada’s story. To better understand ourselves as a country and members of its many communities, we need to uncover that experience, record it for future generations and do our best to make sense of it. A good place to start is by asking veterans what happened when they took their uniforms off and by listening to what they have to say.
Veterans or their family members who are interested in participating in In Their Own Voices can contact Michael Petrou at email@example.com.
War and peace: More from The Globe and Mail
Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail released a documentary, Shooting War, about the psychological toll on photojournalists who work in conflict zones. One of those journalists, Santiago Lyon, spoke with The Decibel about his experiences. Subscribe for more episodes.
More from Globe Opinion
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.