“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”    Jose Narosky

 Introduction

As both a 33 year veteran and former Director of Defence Ethics   I certainly appreciate the challenges faced in the achievement of the requirements of the Veterans Affairs Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister. I appreciate the opportunity to be heard, and to also use this opportunity to reach out to veterans.

I submit that veterans serving in the armed forces in wars and peacekeeping over the decades deserve a very new and different relationship with the Government and the Canadian public. This is an opportunity to challenge tradition, challenge current practices, an opportunity for hard honesty, and to think critically on issues. This is an opportunity for courage and change.

We must rethink the view that Veterans just retire quietly, to a well earned rest or second career, to frequent the Legion associations; to show up each November to validate the past wars entered into by Canada, and that they consider closure in terms of government medical assistance, funding and pensions. I would suggest that most veterans feel this view is somewhat narrow.

Given what veterans have experienced, and in too many cases, suffered, I believe most veterans should and want to continue to contribute to Canadian military affairs, if only to ensure they did not serve in vain. Veterans have much to offer, and would be a significant and credible voice for the horrors of war, and the promotion of peace and peace operations. We need this balance.

The Veteran

Most veterans have had satisfying careers, a good education, world-wide travel, raised families, made lifelong friends, have good pensions and comfortable retirements, and never saw war. However, many were not so fortunate, and their release or retirement is pain and suffering. From the 1960s to 2000 many saw peace operations. Since 9/11, Canada changed its outlook on military intervention, and many saw war in the Middle East.  Veterans today are a diverse mix of peacekeepers, cold warriors and mid east combatants.

At its very heart, must be a shared understanding that all veterans do not want war; in particular those who suffered in war, do not want what they experienced to happen to others.   I believe there is more pride in military veterans for peace operations than war operations. No injured veteran wants others to suffer what they suffer. Injured veterans need to give voice to their suffering and be heard. Veterans are the voice that war must be the absolutely very last response to conflict.

So what might veterans want from Canada? Perhaps:

  1. The complete hard truth about “why”, the outcomes, the failures, the lessons we have to learn, and apologies if necessary.
  2. A life that has meaning and achievement and not to feel a burden on society and family.
  3. Respect and dignity, that enables self esteem and living well in the company of others.
  4. Wellness and wellbeing. To receive necessary medical care, in an enabling meta-environment of friends, family and community.
  5. To be a listened to. To be taken seriously. To have a role for voice and truth in foreign and defence affairs.

The Government

I note that the 2015 Prime Ministers Mandate letter to Veterans Affairs is very transactional in content. The letter focuses on the details of economic, educational, and medical care of veterans who have found themselves disabled or disadvantaged in retirement or release from the CAF. The mandate seems to solely address a certain duty of care owed to veterans for their service in wars entered into by Canada. I would say that this is extremely important, but misses something. I think we can do far better than that.

Perhaps the relational obligation was not sufficiently addressed before the transactional aspects. In the example of First Nations, we have learned that truth, respect, healing, apology, forgiveness and trust must precede financial restitution and material goods. More money may not equate to more wellness or a better relationship. We may well ask ourselves; what is the relational equivalent in terms of veterans?

In my view, there remains an uneasiness, and sometimes bitterness in the government-veteran relationship. It is almost as if wellbeing and freedom from suffering, fear and trauma can be bought with more money and services. Trauma cannot be erased nor can lost limbs be restored. That is the burden of injured veterans. What Canada has done sending these soldiers to war cannot be undone. The ethic of care begins with acknowledging the truth of this, apologizing sincerely, and making restitution. Why do countries never apologize after wars for the harm to their veterans in which they were directly complicit? Why do they rarely apologize for the harm caused to others, particularly non-combatant civilians? Does a “just cause” absolve governments for the harm and destruction they cause?

The government-veteran relationship is complex. At one level, we certainly have a transactional obligation, which currently involves a government duty to provide for pensions, benefits and allowances, care for injured veterans in terms of basic health care services and livelihood, and to address PTSD, trauma and suicide issues.

At another level, is a relational obligation, which is perhaps less well understood. From a veterans perspective, what is important is remembering the dead for certain, but also remembering the injured who continue to suffer. This has to include enabling purpose and meaning in their lives of the living, enabling dignity and respect; and ensuring veterans are listened to and taken seriously. We have to listen, or they will never heal. Many veterans have had terrible experiences and understand the true nature of war and suffering in ways that politicians do not. What they know transcends the ever changing technology and methods of modern warfare, and we need to be mindful of this.  Veterans bear witness to the fact that their suffering is not due to the weapons we have in the world, but in the violence in our hearts to use them. Otherwise the lessons we never learn just keep repeating themselves.

It is acknowledged that the government works hard at what they do for veterans, but within limits, and issues remain; as we see surface in the media from time to time. I am reminded of an old movie quote; “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Why do the problems and complaints and suffering and suicides continue?

Relationship

Certainly a healthy relationship can be defined as one of shared values, shared issues or risks, and open communication.

Our overarching shared value is a commitment to international peace and stability. When conflict arises, the question is usually about ways and means – peace operations or war operations? The debate on this is not to be taken lightly, and should never exclude the counsel of those having lived wars in the past.  More time must be spent of dialogue of just cause, just means and reasonable prospects of success. Shared values can therefore be defined in terms of the government having a duty of consultation, a duty of last resort and just cause when considering placing soldiers in harm’s way, and a duty of absolute protection of non-combatants.

Our shared risks involve the conduct of military operations and the possible killing of enemy combatants and collateral damage involving the deaths of civilians. War involves risks of moral injury or trauma resiliency. Risks must be addressed and mitigated.   In war, horrible mistakes are made and soldiers and civilians are killed or badly injured. This may be unintended, but is 100% foreseeable, and as such we are complicit and accountable. Canada must stand accountable for everything we do, and for what our soldiers do in the name of Canada.

Regarding open communication, war is a serious undertaking and it should be a duty of all parties (government-soldiers-veterans-public), to have voice, to be in agreement, to have prior, free and informed consent, before such ventures are undertaken. This is what it means to be in a free and democratic society. Soldiers do not surrender their constitutional or human rights in war.

We should therefore solicit and value the wisdom of our veterans as “elders of military affairs”. Veterans can be the voice of sober second thought when war or military interventions are contemplated.  Veterans can play a role in federal institutions for peacekeeping, and in military training. Veterans can provide a healthy balance to the warrior ethos, by being a voice for the ethic of peace operations and “finding other ways”.

Remembrance

“War is wretched beyond description,  and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.”  John McCain

After 33 years service, one thing I am absolutely certain is that there is no glory in war, nothing honorable in killing for whatever reason. I am not the first military person to say this. Because of this, I do not enjoy attending Remembrance Day ceremonies, and have not attended for some years now.   I do not need to hear being told “thank you” for the suffering, dying and the lives forever shattered. I would rather have a heartfelt apology and resolve to never inflict this on others ever again. I do not want to talk of wars in terms of glory, but in terms of the horrific failures of humankind, and of which we continue to choose to be complicit. I want to face directly the sacrifice we have made, the good we have done (if any), and the harm we have done. I want to apologize deeply to the civilians we have killed and the lives we have destroyed. This is a time for healing and not celebration of any imagined glory and empty words. Too many words are said amid the war drums and preparations for the next war. What changes?

Many soldiers need to heal, not celebrate. Military personnel serving in war were confronted with ethical and moral challenges and traumatic events, all which may involve life and death situations, and all of which have risks for trauma, suicide and PTSD and even moral injuries.

There may be something to “over-valorizing”, that in some cases may undercut incentive to make new lives, to seek jobs, and look to a new and positive future, rather than living in the suffering of the past. Valorizing is healthy only to the extent that is facilitates the full reintegration of veterans back into society. There is a fine balance and sensitivity to be aware of here.

The importance of remembering is not to be understated. Remembering has many levels. It should first involve remembering the good we have done, the sacrifices we made, and the harm we have done.   It should involve remembering the great and small contributions to the cause of peace, human rights, the care for others such as refugees, the relief of suffering or the reduction of conflict. It should involve celebrating those worthy contributions that may have prevented violence, suffering or harm. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for reasserting the utter insanity of war, of people killing their fellow man, and of our complicity. We need speak the hard truth of what we have done, and this has to be an occasion for heartfelt apology and healing.

Canada must also recognize those who everyday makes contributions in the cause of peace. We must honor our humanity and compassion in the cause of peace.   Every life is so precious. Remembrance should also be about the lessons we never seem to learn.

Trauma and PTSD

Regarding our response to trauma or PTSD, it seems like we are missing something really important, that being the meta (or surrounding) environment around the soldier or veteran. We need something effective in the meta environment around the veteran that better enables medical and psychiatric responses. We seem to be in the treatment response mode; and not with any effective prior resiliency, preventative or mitigation efforts. As we know, once traumatized, the chances of soldiers seeking help are not good, and the result is often serious mental health risks. The effects of PTSD are well known and can include dysfunctionality, marriage breakups, depression, violence, addictions and suicide.   This increases the chances that family, close children and friends will also be seriously affected and possibly traumatized in turn.

The care for serious PTSD cases is certainly best served by the medical community and hospitals. However, at that point, medical care is seriously late to need. Dealing with trauma in a clinical setting may not always be successful, in particular, if any outside stigma, family issues, or social isolation factors are present. If social support and safety is lacking, or if family, friends, employers, schools and community lack an understanding of PTSD or how to help, then risks escalate.     People sometimes just need to know how to help; and veterans need to know how to help themselves and how to reach out for help.

Significant benefits may lie in “whole of environment” trauma resiliency approaches.   As the saying goes, “the human heart and the heart of the land must heal together.” A complete and healthy approach to trauma involves everyone.   Everyone must be resilient and heal together, friends, family, unit, community, teachers, employers, and society; everyone around the veteran.   Trauma resiliency approaches should begin on recruitment, and extend into the daily military culture. Everyone should understand practices that can be applied before, during and after trauma events that occur.  Harder yet, is to create a resilient society around a resilient soldier or veteran, in which everyone understands how to deal with trauma and understands resiliency practices. We should not refuse to do what we can.

I attended a talk by the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services (CFMWS) and inquired about trauma resiliency programs for service families and children, and was told this was the responsibility of the leadership. I could only assume it was handled to varying degrees across units, and wondered if is being handled consistently, or effectively at all. This presents a challenge if nothing or little is being done directly for veterans or their families. Help lines are one thing, resiliency practices are quite another.

This can be a problem in western military cultures where “strong bodies and strong minds” means cultivation of toughness, endurance, aggression, and warrior cultures which work against the soldier in post traumatic circumstances. We do not generally have traditions which are comfortable with the practice of meditation, mindfulness or handling suffering; practices which many in eastern cultures have been learning from childhood. Learning to recognize and deal with suffering in life is essential to military cultures. Ideally, veterans should practice together, with friends, families and their children, and with a view to their own and individual collective wellness and resiliency.

A “whole of environment” approach acknowledges that we all experience traumatic events in our lives. The question is – will we then be traumatized? Do we have the internalized practices that will know trauma or suffering for what it is, and be able to deal with it as an inevitable occurrence in life? This may mean a change in military cultures and the cultivation of continuous resiliency practices, similar to the attention we pay to physical fitness regimes. Otherwise unacceptable rates of PTSD will continue for military deployments and for veterans after release from service. We need something supportive in the meta-environment, around, before and after the PTSD clinical response.

This implies a new focus on the meta-environment around the clinical response. In this regard, we may seek to first build an environment around the soldier or veteran that is safe, positive, understanding and with capacities to help.   The notion of building resiliency is to teach soldiers to how to first care for themselves, by being able to recognize suffering or trauma indicators in themselves and others; and having simple practices or habits for responding effectively.

One possibility involves techniques of meditation and presence; which are increasingly common for athletes performing at high levels, for many religious or spiritual practices, or for general wellness.  Why not for soldiers and veterans? There can be significant benefit in building capacity to sit in silence, go to the breath, be fully present in the moment, and to know that suffering and related emotions, although a reality for everyone in life, are impermanent, imperfect and not self, and subject to arising and cessation. To know what is arising, however painful, and to be attentive to its inevitable and gradual cessation is the beginning of resiliency and the mitigation of victimization or suffering. Conscious mindfulness and meditation should perhaps be a daily practice for veterans. To practice meditation as a unit, or with family or friends may be a challenge in our military and social cultures, but one must start somewhere if change is ever to be possible. . There are many other useful coping strategies when stressful emotions or suffering arise. This is a question of routine and habit and culture.

Moral Injury

Without moral validity in war or conflict, we have a direct path to trauma. Intentions, means and outcomes must reflect deeply held moral values. In matters of war and military affairs, the government makes the highest level of moral decisions, involving the possible taking of lives.   Soldiers and the public in turn make moral decisions to be complicit or not. No one can avoid their moral responsibilities in this, and all are accountable for their actions. In the case of veterans, they may hold themselves deeply accountable, and therein lies the risk of trauma.   Killing in war, for whatever reason, affects deeply held moral values and even can affect ones core identity, in particular, what it means to be human.

More and more, the literature is referring to moral injury among soldiers as a violation of deeply held human values and subsequent damaging psychological effects. Soldiers in war may do things like the taking of life, evaluate themselves negatively, and no longer regard themselves as decent human beings.   They feel irreparably broken. In the background may be a lack of sufficient closure with veterans as to why governments did what it did in going to war; and “why I, as a soldier, did what I did”. Who accepts responsibility for all this; the killing, injuries and horror? What is the hard truth of the Iraq, Libya and Iraq and Syrian missions? What mistakes were made? We are left with a lingering feeling that we failed and made things worse. Why did we not go further in exhausting the chances for peace diplomacy or peace operations? No one wants to admit where we failed in these wars, and we tend to avoid discussions about the truth, about the dead, wounded, traumatized and suicides.

The result is lack of closure, and moral injuries unfold into trauma and PTSD, and this continues to take its toll in our veterans.   This subject of moral responsibility and moral injury needs an open and honest conversation, and within a context of accountability, apology, trauma, healing and within both the clinical response and the “whole of community” approach.

Suicide

“I pledge I will not harm myself or think about taking my life without talking to a good friend or trusted person first.”

This pledge has to be ingrained in military culture. A version is being used in US military veterans programs. They speak of talking to “battle buddies”. In the past, I have written to DND and Veterans Affairs inquiring about numbers of suicides due to recent wars, and the response from VA is that they do not track them. Serving member suicides are tracked by DND, but veteran related suicides – not much unless they receive VA benefits. Between DND and VA they have all the data they need, or could have, about veteran suicides.

The war is not over for many veterans and we continue to sustain casualties and we refuse to formally acknowledge them. Where is the list of suicides among the war dead? Where are the names? This is not honorable by any measures. It is beyond unacceptable that the government does not track veteran suicides. That the department or government does not track veteran suicides is an affront to all veterans and serving members. Every veteran taking his or her own life is a cause for national awareness and mourning. They are casualties of war.

Suicide prevention is a trauma issue and is a “whole of community” responsibility and should also involve everyone around the soldier or veteran. The first line of defence is the understanding of trauma and resiliency practices on the part of the veteran or soldier. Next is the entire military and social environment around the soldier or veteran. This environment should also understand resiliency practices, suicide indicators, and what to do if someone approaches them for help. Last is an effective clinical and medical response capacity.

“I pledge, if called or confronted by a veteran at risk to commit suicide, I will act.  I will be a friend, listen, talk, sit with them, counsel them to seek medical help, or notify the authorities myself if necessary.”

Closure

If we want true closure for veterans of Canadian military intervention since 9/11, I suggest it begins with a renewed relationship with serving members and veterans, all who served or suffered, and continue to die and suffer. Simple approaches to closure speak of the need for:

  • The truth: To speak the truth. To acknowledge the truth by all parties. To treat all parties with respect and fairness.
  • Accountability: To accept responsibility and make any necessary restitution. To make space for apology and forgiveness.
  • The outcomes: All parties are satisfied with the outcomes. All parties are able to heal, rebuild their lives, and live in peace, respect and dignity. Lessons learned, social good, a shared future, and harmony is restored between all parties.

At the level of truth.   Closure for those who suffered or are injured is often needed beyond medical care.   As listed above, closure should begin with acknowledging the hard truth, the good we did, the sacrifice we made, and the harm we did.   Both soldiers and innocent people suffered and died as a result of Canadian intervention, and our soldiers continue to die through taking their own lives. Closure means not only listing war dead, but also those who subsequently took their lives from PTSD, those physically wounded, and those currently suffering from PTSD.   The truth must be spoken by veterans, their families, the government, the community and those we harmed. All must be listened to, and taken seriously.

At the level of accountability: At the national level, closure also means speaking and accepting the truth, acknowledging the mistakes we made, the collateral damage, accepting responsibility, making restitution, and all being satisfied with the outcome. This means the soldiers, the government, Canadian society, and those innocent civilians and families we harmed in the countries in which we conducted combat operations.   We must understand that apologies alone do not suffice unless they are from the heart. Otherwise words are hollow. To truly care for veterans is make sure this never happens to others.   Canada is directly responsible for what happens in these wars and need to show that we owe those harmed and their families a “duty of loyalty and care” for the rest of their lives if necessary.

At the level of a shared future: Perhaps to truly honor veterans is to build strong institutions for peace.  Perhaps to develop better options that make war a truly last resort for us. In the global community, being a nation of peace, not a nation of war, is the highest honor and respect we can bestow on our veterans and military.

Way forward

Perhaps it is time to look at a new “whole of community” statement of relationship between veterans, the Government and the Canadian public. Perhaps we may wish to look at something like:

  1. That the government accept a “duty of moral responsibility” to soldiers and veterans to only engage in military operations that are just, with meaning, purpose and conduct that reflects the highest moral standards and values, and clearly in the cause or peace.
  2. That the government accept a “duty of accountability”. The government accepts to enable public remembrance and accept full responsibility for past military interventions that is coupled with the complete truth about the good we do, the sacrifice we make and apology for the harm we have done.
  3. That the government accept a “duty of care”, that is “beyond normal” for soldiers with physical injuries, mental injuries, moral injuries or economic hardship.
  4. That the government accept an expanded “duty of remembrance” to track, remember and record, not only direct war casualties, but ongoing war casualties through suicide, or deaths from war sustained injuries, and to the extent possible those non-combatant civilians we have grievously harmed.
  5. That the government accept a “duty of dignity” for veterans, enabling the voice of veterans as “military elders” in a independent “council of veterans”, with a clear and effective voice in applicable government foreign and military affairs and training.
  6. That veterans accept a “duty of wellbeing and agency” to seek help with physical or mental emergencies when necessary, to contribute to their own economic and social wellbeing, to be a voice for peace, and to pledge to talk to someone before attempting suicide,
  7. That society accept a “duty of living and healing together” with veterans, to enable the economic, mental and social wellbeing of veterans.

The reminder and renewal of all this should be Remembrance Day.

Summary

Thank you for the chance to say something. In summary, I am proposing four directions as important to Veteran relationships:

  1. Towards a more comprehensive relationship based on a shared moral foundation of military affairs and building peace;
  2. Towards a “whole of military and community approach” in response to physical injuries, trauma and suicide risks.
  3. Towards a more comprehensive approach to remembrance and rededication to peace and truth.
  4. Towards an inclusive and active “elder” role for veterans as a voice of experience, truth and peace; in decision making regarding foreign and defence affairs.

I can only offer that perhaps when we meet a disabled veteran, and feel inclined to say “thank you for the service” perhaps we can also consider – “I am truly sorry for the suffering you have endured. We should not have done this and hope to never let this happen again”.    If we cannot say this, we can feel this. This is the beginning of authentic closure.  It is time to face the truth together.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”   Dwight D. Eisenhower

I believe there is much good we can do for veterans and them for us. The biggest is we can listen and learn from them, the lessons they have to teach us, and to continually remind us of the hard lessons of war. This is a call to commit to the primacy of peace operations in the world as a response to conflict. The true validation of the sacrifice and suffering of veterans is the achievement of meaningful peace somewhere, celebrating peaceful means, and not in any way celebrating destruction and killing. All we need is honesty, a little courage and political will.  Good luck to us all.

In the cause of peace;

Paul Maillet

Colonel retired

Former DND Director of Defence Ethics

Accredited Peace Professional, Civilian Peace Services Canada (CPSC)

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