Black and White and Grey and Red All Over

 

April 21, 2002

Yesterday, I ended my usual Saturday afternoon running around with my quasi-regular stop at the Court Jester on the Danforth (their jerk chicken burger rocks), and I sat at my usual table which affords a view of the TV. I scooped up a copy of NOW to peruse while I sipped my Kilkenny and waited for my burger. The Maple Leafs’ matinee playoff game had just ended, and the sound on the TV had been turned up so people could hear the game. The sound was still on, even after the bar stereo came back to life, when the CBC news appeared with their lead story. People chatted noisily around me, paying no attention to the TV. I was immersed in an article about Wilco.

When I heard the bagpipes, I looked up to see the silver casket, draped in the red and white of our flag, being lifted off the plane by a huge fork lift. And then another casket. And another. And another. Each ferried into a waiting hearse by the white gloves and stoically solemn faces of military pall bearers.

This had happened earlier in the day, but it was the first time I’d seen this footage. Maybe the other people in the Jester had seen it already, because no one else appeared to be watching it. I found it jarring. Chilling. Watching the flag-draped caskets of Canadian soldiers killed overseas in the “war against terrorism”. Killed while on a training exercise, when an American pilot apparently mistook their live rounds for enemy fire, and dropped a bomb on them. But no matter, friendly fire or enemy fire. Killed by war.

Hard to describe the feeling of ambivalence about this. My heart goes out to the families, loved ones, friends and comrades of those soldiers. As a Canadian, seeing those coffins, I feel wounded. While I don’t always have a great deal of respect for the military as an institution, at the personal level, these were four people who served our country in war, and paid the price.

My feelings echo those from Michele Mandel’s very moving elegy for these soldiers in today’s Toronto Sun. This is something we’re more likely to see happening to Americans; images of caskets coming home from Viet Nam, the Iranian desert, Beruit, Panama, Iraq… and I feel a resentment. Angry that we get entangled with the grey morality of American foreign policy. And yet, despite the always-shady nature of superpower geo-political agendas, there’s also something so black-and-white about this campaign, coming as a response to thousands of people, of many nationalities, killed in the attack on New York City (to say that still sounds like something out of a Marvel comic book—“New York City is under attack! Where’s Superman?”). We may squabble with our neighbour from time to time, and we may get pissed off when they play their culture too loud, but when their house is attacked, we help them out, as good neighbours should. Canadians are good neighbours.

Still, it’s hard to accept, having to see those caskets.

Flashback to a night a few weeks ago, when my friend Katherine and I were stopped on Borden street by a young Francophone soldier in a cab. He was lost. Apparently from Quebec, he had been ordered to report to the Canadian Forces Base at Borden, Ontario, an hour or more outside of Toronto. He had been told to get off the train at Union Station and take a cab to Borden. Not knowing much English, he had the misfortune of getting a cab driver whose English wasn’t much better, and whose French was non-existent. And so they ended up on quaint, tree-lined Borden Street, looking for a huge military installation. (Aside from the language divide, it’s also quite possible that neither of them was terribly bright.) Katherine was eventually able to figure out where he was trying to go, and they hopped back in the cab—the lost, young soldier and the obliging taxi driver—and sped off into the night.

He was just a young guy—early twenties perhaps, a bit slacker-ish in appearance, kerchief tied around his head. He wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Grateful Dead concert. At the time I imagined that maybe he was a sniper. A new recruit, a crack shot whose skills had been noted by his commanding officer, and who was being called up specially, to be sent over to Afghanistan.

Now I think, it could have been him. It could have been him in one of those shiny metal caskets. We sent him off in a red and black Beck’s taxi, only to see him return in a red-and-white draped metal box.

Back at the Jester, the barmaid stands at the gateway to the bar, awash in the steady din of jovial barroom conversations. She aims the remote at the TV. And the bagpipes fall silent, the funeral dirge is history, the solemnity swept away with the push of a button, the changing of the channel, replaced by an advertisement for the newest Ford.

And here, I can only paraphrase Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy:

I would like to salute
The ashes of Canadian flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags

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