What does the returning soldier expect of Canada? . . . Shapiro tells of the hopes and fears of our victorious fighting men
L. S. B. SHAPIROJuly11945
"All We Want is a Fair Break"
What does the returning soldier expect of Canada? . . . Shapiro tells of the hopes and fears of our victorious fighting men
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean'» War Correspondant
LONDON (By Cable)—The return of Canada's fighting men to their homes during the next few months at once attains the stature of becoming the most far-reaching social and political development in the last 25 years of the nation’s history. Before the end of this year some 200,000 young men—the blood and guts of the Dominion’s future—will project themselves into the stream of Canada's life, and they will be followed by many thousands more in the ensuing months. When they voluntarily left their communities three, four and five years ago, these men had no particular standing as a group except that they all wanted to fight for their country. They were average Canadians from all walks of life and schools of thought; and they left behind them other average Canadians who have carried the nation along the t raditional paths óf enlightenment and progress.
If these men returning to their communities were the same average Canadians who walked bravely to recruiting offices, if they were to drop .automatically into the same niches they abandoned five years ago, there would heno postwar problem and Canada would not be faced with the challenge of absorbing a farreaching social and political development.
But they are not the same men. Something has changed them—that something being five years of exile, five years of danger and strain, five years of resourcefulness and thought, each to the utmost of his ability, five years of comradeship and compassion, five years of being together. They were trained as a force and they passed magnificently their test as a force. Now they cannot untrain themselves and slide gently into their old grooves, like letters on a linotype. Returning home, they remain a force.
This force can be an instrument of the greatest good for Canada because it is a healthy force fused by vigor, faith, unselfishness and love of country. It poses a challenge to the community at home, and upon Canada’s answer depends whether our returning men become u national problem or a pulsating tonic to our stringy national structure. In order to utilize this force to the greatest good one must understand the Canadian overseas soldier and appreciate the five years’ process which has changed him. The family that has already greeted its returned hero may deny that he has changed at all except that a few specks of grey play at his temples and a look of maturity is drawn like a night shade across the depth of his eyes. The hero himself may deny it as he bathes in the glow of reunion and the enchanting carefreeness •f the immediate future. But he has changed. I n a few weeks he will again be as one with the men still overseas eagerly awaiting the order to move to dockside concentration points. He is still part of the force.
Let there be no mistake about it. There is an overseas mentality, a distinctive train of thought, no matter what the soldier’s social or economic background. It is inevitable. A man’s body and its reflex actions cannot be rigorously trained for five years without a corresponding change in his mind; he cannot live fearlessly for five years and return pliable to the diffidence and discords of normal peacetime existence.
Canucks Not Toughs
II’ 18 perhaps necessary to correct the popular home concept ion of the Canadian fighting man. Although he was as good a soldier as any in the European theatre he is not a battle-scarred toughie having a loud and rollicking time in the bistros of a leave town. Nor is he the engaging yokel characterized by Bing Coughlin's Herbie cartoons. I have talked with him in his thousands. He is the Saskatchewan youngster who, standing in his gun pit on a September day, suddenly muses, “I wonder if I’ll be home for next year’s fall plowing? The old man sure could use me.” He is the sergeant who, at the height of the Zombie controversy, quietly says, “Well, 1 joined up because I wanted to. My brother stayed home. Until the law is changed he’s got the right to stay home if he wants to. That’s the kind of Canada we’re fighting for, isn’t it?” He is the company commander, a major at 22, with fuzz, not stubble, on his face, addressing his men before a battle! “We’ve drawn a tough one, men. Some of us may buy it this time, just like some of us did on Walcheren. But what the hell, the plan is good and they’ve laid on all the support we need. If every man does his job the company will come through just as it always has. Besides we know what we’re fighting for. The poor Krauts across there still don’t know. Okay, Baker Company, get some rest and come out fighting.”
These and thousands like them have been thinking a
long time about the Canada they’ll go back to. During the last six months they’ve been thinking of little else. Not that they ever forgot the homeland during the dreary endless days of waiting in England and in the midst of the bloody campaigns in Italy and Normandy. But for the Canadians the homeward trek began to loom vividly in mid-November of last year, after they had won the frantic costly battle of the Scheldt Estuary and had opened wide the gates not only to Antwerp but to final victory. From that time on they pondered deeply and realistically about Canada, as though preparing themselves mentally for t he new life that lay ahead. They could feel the enemy crumpling before them. They knew, with a sure instinct , that the end was near.
Let me paraphrase what the Canadian fighting man t hought and said about Canada. These are not the words of one man. They are the composite thoughts of 1 he hundreds with whom I lolled under conditions as variable as the winds: “More than anything else I
want to go back to Canada—the same Canada I left —the greatest country on earth for a fellow like me. Not that I mean it’s the biggest or most powerful country on earth and maybe it’s not even the most beautiful, but after looking at all these places overseas I’m sure that Canada is the country for me. I never was the ultrapatriotic home-loving type before, but a man’s got to go away for a while to learn what a fine country Canada is.
“And when I say I want to go back to the same Canada I left I don’t mean that changes aren’t necessary. We didn’t fight to preserve the disunity all of us felt and the unemployment and hunger some of us knew before the war. We’ve won a tough war and in winning it we’ve proven something bigger than the war itself.
“We’ve proven that when Canada sets its mind to something—when everybody pulls together—we can do pretty fine things. We’ve proven we’ve got everything it takes, in men and equipment and brains and spirit, to do things a lot better than we did them before. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not going home with a chip on our shoulders. We’re not going around crowing that we did the fighting and therefore the country should pat us on the back and stick a cigar in our mouths the rest of our lives. All we want is a fair break.
“But we’ve learned two things here overseas. One isa love for Canada we never felt before. And the other is that life can be lifted and improved all along the line if the same unselfish effort is made in peace that was made in war. If the returned soldier who goes back healthy can become part of that lifting and improving process there’ll be no problem about war veterans. All we ask is that the chap who goes back disabled gets all the breaks he deserves.
“One more thing. We want to get back fast. No delays or red tape. Most of us like the ‘first in, first out’ system, if that’s the quickest way of getting us home.”
Why He Says It
If’ THE home community is to digest properly what the veteran says, it must first understand why he says it—it must appreciate how a high-minded vision of a better life has come to arise out of the desolation and wretchedness of front-line existence that has taught the soldier, better than he ever knew at home, that a more secure, more abundant way of life is possible and attainable. What strange alchemy worked on his mind amid the death and destruction?
The short answer to this question is that our fighting men, living constantly in imminent danger of death, knew an economic security and felt a community spirit of purest unselfishness. They were always fed and clothed adequately and though their shelter was often primitive or nonexistent it was the best the circumstances of war would permit. Someone saw to it that they had no cares to distract them from doing the best possible job in their dangerous profession. In their little community of the front line, social and economic distinctions were swept away in the common struggle to attain an objective. The battalion commander was concerned for them and they were concerned for the battalion commander—and in thus shadowland of pure compassion they felt something new.
Here was a fresh approach to the relationship of a man to his immediate community. His fellows were not fighting against him; they were fighting for him and with him. In the hell of war the soldier found a warmth, comradeship, a purity of character and a nobility in the best sense of the term. Although he was only a simple soldier—not a colonel—-he was somebody important enough to deserve the best his fellows and his country could afford. When he was ill or wounded he was given the finest treatment known to science, no matter what the expense. When he was on leave he discovered that the authorities recognized that a man who has done his job deserves recreation, comfort and modest luxuries.
How different this was from the existence he had known as a civilian. How utterly foreign was the old fear he had known—the fear of losing his job and not being able to get another. How strange was that dim past when the family gathered sadly to discuss whether they could afford hospital treatment for their mother’s illness. How curious was the bitterly remembered time when he regarded the next man as one who was trying to step over him, rather than step with him, toward the objective of success and security.
Can he go back to all this? That is what the soldier ponders in his deepest heart when he thinks about his return to Civvy Street. He will not—willingly. He has been fighting for a new world, a better world, and in the process of fighting for it he has discovered the basis for that better
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world even in the midst of mud and slaughter. He has discovered that men can attain the hitherto impossible if they have the spirit and the motivation. He Has discovered that the nation united by necessity can organize the machinery for secure living and carefree health. If the nation can do this to achieve success in war, why cannot it be done to achieve a more lasting and worth-while success in peace? This is what gnaws at the mind of the soldier as he prepares for his return home. This is what has made him a different individual from the fellow who walked out of his office or factory job—or from no job at all—to join the Army and fight the Germans. This is the postwar problem.
Rut is it a problem? Is it not rather a challenge—a grand scintillating challenge to be welcomed and studied and accepted by a country as young, vigorous and rich as Canada?
It is a challenge that swirls within the ranks who were less privileged in pre-war days and also within those who return to the assured future of the professions and the sciences. I spent one day, recently, visiting in the reception ward of a Canadian general hospital. A great many cases passed before the examining medical officer.
A man was trundled in. He was contorted with pain. Perhaps appendicitis, perhaps an old shrapnel wound acting up. “Give him morphia and I want an X-ray of his stomach every half hour from now on until I’m satisfied with the diagnosis,” the doctor said.
A walking patient arrived. His eyes bulged with the effects of a terrible head cold. Sinusitis was suspected.
“Take X-rays of his head, front, right and left. I’ll look at them in half an hour,” the doctor said.
Another man came in with high fever
and a hacking cough. “Put him in the private room on the second floor and start him on penicillin. Meanwhile have Colonel Jones called in,” the doctor ordered.
So the afternoon went. Every man who arrived for treatment was a privileged patient entitled to the best t he medical brains and laboratories of Canada can produce.
When the doctor finally put away his stethoscope and we walked from the reception ward, I asked, “What are you going to do when you return to your practice hack home? After five years of treating men for what ails them and not according to what they can afford, how are you going to handle patients who say they cannot afford to leave their jobs or haven’t the money to pay for X-rays or penicillin or to consult Doctor Jones who is a chest specialist? What is going to be the attitude of men, who for five years have accustomed themselves to the notion that, hospitals are the highest form of public service, when they return home to find themselves haunted by the spectre of illness because they cannot afford proper treatment?”
T he doctor walked silently a few moments. “I don’t know—honestly don’t know,” he finally said. “I’d almost forgotten that such a world existed.”
This is only one facet of the larger problem—or shall we say the larger challenge. Reside it the lesser problems of returning men—the demobilization system, the discharge grants, the digestion of thousands of new men into the nation’s economic body, the care of the disabled—are almost inconsequential; these can he solved within the framework of the larger solut ion.
If the people at home will realize that they themselves, in their magnificent support of the fighting men overseas, have created a new form of public responsibility to the individual there will he no postwar problem in Ganada., Instead there will he a new birth of real unity and real happiness for the Dominion.
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