Highway of Heroes: An Open Letter to David Miller

Sep 14, 2010

Dear David Miller, Mayor of the City of Toronto:

Bloor Street Sign

I would like to register my strong objection to the co-naming of parts of Bloor and Bay Streets and the Don Valley Parkway as the ‘Route of Heroes’.  Three years ago you did the right thing in rejecting the overtures of Legions and others whose interests are linked to war to change the name of the DVP; now it’s parts of Bloor and Bay, as well.

Yours is one more contribution by our governments to the sense that there is only one kind of hero:  it is a soldier and, even better, a ‘fallen’ soldier. We have decided, as a nation, as a society, to have done with the creation – and honouring – of other kinds of heroes:  the Gandhian and Kingian types: Mildred Fahrni, J.S. Woodsworth, Wangari Maathai, Badshah Khan, Hammarskjold, Mairead, Rigoberta, Suu Kyi – and to co-opt the word for one meaning only.  Those heroes who have decided to non-violently resist violence are mostly anonymous, living and dying in obscurity, but making a difference in their families, neighbourhoods and societies.  Recall the lone man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square 21 years ago.  Iconically obscure, his identity remains a mystery.  The creation of that kind of hero is done against a war-juggernaut that co-opts governments, corporations, publics and entire semantic fields to its purposes.

A recent Canadian Forces study found that those interested in a career in the armed forces tend to ‘be timid in the face of change, prefer traditional categories of identity by race, gender and nationality, tend to be lacking in life goals, feel alienated from society and its values…, support sexual stereotypes…, to have values that tend to lead to intolerance of people not like themselves…, are attracted to violence more than the average member of Canadian society and accept violence as a legitimate means of getting what they want.1

Cover of WAR by Gwynne Dyer

A US study characterises those who succeed in the military as ‘alpha-male types who can take orders well’.  In his book, War, Canadian author, Gwynne Dyer, affirms the seemingly unlikely pairing of physical aggression and mental docility in the soldier as logical, since ‘basic training… works with the same raw material that’s always there in teenage boys:  a fair amount of aggression, a strong tendency to hang around in groups and an absolute desperate desire to fit in.’ Dissent, not so ironically, the key ingredient to democracy, is discouraged, punished.  Soldiers are not there defending their country or supporting some political, ideological value; as one soldier put it in a letter home, ‘these people want to go to war and kill.  It is that simple.’2

There is a scene in the movie, Jarhead, in which a company of recruits is watching a film.3  The strains of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries gradually flood the air, accompanied by the thumping cadence of helicopter blades.  As Vietnamese skies on-screen fill with helicopters, the soldiers in the army base theatre rise up out of their seats, arms pumping, enthusiastic cheerleaders for the destruction playing out before them.  As terror-stricken women and children run across the open, palm-dotted spaces between thatched houses, helicopter gunships mowing them down, the soldiers fling expletives of approval.  The fate of the peasants is deserved, irrelevant, funny, erotically satisfying.  Throughout Jarhead, there is a conflation of violence and degraded sexuality, with the object of their violence in no way validated as human, of political or ontological value.  The sniper-class, whose creation Jarhead tracks and which one watches, appalled, in the end are bereft, denied their ‘kill’, that thing that gives them life.

Soldiers carry wounded in a field in WW1
bodies on ground in WWII

Soldierly training prepares young men, some women, for both of two eventualities:  killing and being killed.  It is a training whose success requires dehumanisation of the self and of the other, requires the creation of mental illness, a pathological bifurcation of the brain and the soul into the ‘family man’ on one side and the killer on the other.  Post-traumatic Stress Disorder happens when the barrier between the two begins to break down in an agonising grasp after health, the family man bleeding onto the battlefield and the killer into the living room.  Robbery of our children’s minds, fragmentation of their souls, creating a distance sufficient to kill another human being, is not an act of heroism.  It is the act of a nation bereft of better ideas.  I don’t want to honour that.  A nation willing to train dehumanisation into its soldiers – disproportionately poor and poorly educated – has already taken those steps itself, pushing some of its most vulnerable citizens out in front of the parade to soul-destruction.  Heroes? or victims?

Vietnam War Family huddled in ditch

Killing is not a natural act; human beings are, in reality, hard-wired to not kill another human being.  It is a wiring that requires a massive psychological assault to dismantle in the service of war-making.  And the result is death, rising levels of desertion, sometimes by suicide, PTSD, violence multiplying violence, battlefields and living rooms bleeding into one another in an endless cycle of dehumanisation.

Video still from a Blackhawk helicopter camera

[In a 2006 interview for the Peacemaker] US war resister and now Toronto resident, Jeremy Hinzman, described his journey into – and out of the military.  There is nothing that can prepare you for the programme of dehumanisation that begins with the first day of basic training.  The bloodthirsty, hyperbolic talk of drill sergeants, the mantras that provide the rhythm for marching, running, shooting – are all designed to separate you from – or kill – those parts of you sympathetic to the Other.  As another puts it, ‘If you were in the civilian world and openly talked about killing people [the way we do in the military], you would be an outcast, but here people openly talk about it, like it’s going to be fun.’ 4 The Other is derogated, categorised, labelled, eliminated from ‘us’, readied for killing.  The solider is desensitised to the suffering of the enemy and readied to kill – and, in so doing, dies, having successfully broken through a psychological, cultural and moral resistance to killing, having been successfully stripped of ‘self-worth, pride, will, hope, love, faith, worth…’

Book Cover: On Killing David Grossman

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a retired soldier and professor of military science, notes that firing rates common to the World Wars were 15 to 20%:  only 15 to 20 per cent of infantry were willing to fire their weapons, regardless of the threat to their lives or the lives of their comrades.  The military went to work on the problem, creating and deploying innovative methods designed to raise that rate.  They were remarkably successful.  By the Korean War, the rate had gone up to 55%.  In the wars that followed, firing rates have risen to as high as 95%.  How did that happen?  And what was the price?  Grossman explains:  ‘Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare:  an era of psychological warfare – psychological warfare conducted, not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops.’5

Book Cover: War is a racket

So, Mayor Miller, I object.  In no way does this objection trivialise the grief of those who have lost – and will lose – sons and daughters in Afghanistan. I challenge yet more bumper sticker thinking that joins ‘Support our troops’ in its elimination of all but one interpretation – not just about what it means to lose a son or daughter – but that the cause in which that person died requires unalloyed support.  General Smedley Butler’s comment – War is a Racket – made back in 1933 has never been more apt than it is today.

I challenge the reduction of ‘hero’ to one meaning.  To our collaboration in the killing of our own souls.  I suggest another category of meaning, bringing alongside those of us who are part of the unarmed forces for peace who have died out of love for the enemy, thereby eliminating the category of enemy. Martin Luther King, Jr was right:  ‘Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’

Many scoff at the notion of love as foreign policy, but see no problem with the industrialised hatred and murder that is modern warfare as foreign – or domestic – policy.  Our choice, even more so than in the 1960s when MLK first said it, is not between violence and non-violence; it is between non-violence and non-existence.

1 Canadian Armed Forces, Canada’s Soldiers:  Military Ethos and Canadian Values in the 21st Century Army: The major findings of The Army Climate & Culture Survey and The Army Socio-cultural Survey’, Ottawa:  March 2005.

2 Gwynne Dyer, War, Toronto:  Random House Canada, 2004; first published in 1983.  See also, Kathy Dobie, ‘AWOL in America’, Harper’s Magazine, New York:  March 2005.

3 Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, 1979.

4 Kathy Dobie, ‘AWOL in America’, Harper’s Magazine, New York:  March 2005, page 38.

5 David Grossman, On Killing:  The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Back Bay Books, 1996.  Lieutenant Colonel Grossman is the founder of the Killology Research Group and a fierce critic of violent video games.  See also, On Combat:  The Psychology and Physiology of Combat in War and in Peace, PPCT Research Publications, 2004.  Both books emphasise the impact of war training on both the project of war and on the society that trains the soldier.


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