Mournful leadership

Do our leading politicians strike you as a sorry lot? No, not that way. I mean do they seem to be in a constant state of mourning? If not, they are brazen hypocrites or wooden windbags.

I say this with confidence because the tidal wave of sludge that deluges me in my professional capacity as a journalist includes a steady stream of press releases from senior public figures saying they "mourn" or are "deeply saddened" or feel "profonde tristesse" due to various events. They not infrequently insist that they "stand with all Canadians as we mourn" or some such formulation that dares assign an approved emotion to the rest of us only to horn in on it without delay or embarrassment.

If I were thus to wave my superior sensitivity in your face you would insist that I remove my bleeding heart from my sleeve and tuck it back into my chest. And if I were genuinely in mourning I would resent a politician converting my feelings into a "sorrow op." In any case, one look at them on a day they've stapled their superior feelings to their foreheads tells you they are not feeling the emotions they shout from the rooftops. No shadow of reflection on the transitory nature of life, the vanity of ambition (the what?!) or our common humanity in the face of our common fate interrupts the flow of political boilerplate.

I know what a person in mourning looks and sounds like. These politicians seem smug and snide, not sad. And they are lying for political advantage on a subject where it ought to cause even more shame than usual because the most frequent occasion for the missives is the death of a Canadian soldier. I trust I will not be accused of indifference to the military or their friends and families when I say this is obnoxious hooey.

I have consistently called for higher military spending, more realistic strategic goals, and a better appreciation of how and why defence is the first duty of government. I have tried to increase appreciation for Canada's military past, I wear something red every Friday and I understand that every soldier's death leaves a hole in the lives of those who love them. So do all deaths, but those in the military risk death or mutilation in defence of my freedom and I am anything but unmindful of it. But I do not appropriate it to make myself seem praiseworthy. (The response to Haiti's devastating Tuesday earthquake offers an instructive contrast: The Governor General, who is from Haiti, has shown what genuine grief looks like while, I am pleased to note, the government's reaction combined rhetorical restraint with practical help.)

I'm glad our politicians make a show of "supporting the troops." But as the old Spanish proverb says, love is deeds, not fine words. If they really support the troops they ought to devote more money to defence and less to buying the votes of the middle class. Otherwise, it's Matthew 6:21 for the lot of them ("where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.")

I do not even know what benefit they think they derive from this purple haze, since I have never seen a news story quote one of these releases. Perhaps they think it does no harm when hypocrisy falls in the press gallery and no one hears it. It may even be objected, as a last-ditch defence, that they neither write nor read this stuff before their staff slide it out the door. Some of them might have grounds for contracting out their emotional responses. But the result is both weird and harmful.

To be sure, politicians send me a lot of strange stuff, like Monday's 13-second, soundless video clip of the prime minister getting a national security briefing. (Oh Max, not the cone of silence!) But there's a darker side to this sludge.

The appropriate response to the enemy killing a soldier is resolution, not depression. On Remembrance Day I give solemn thought not only to the soldiers of Afghanistan, the two World Wars and Korea, but the Boer War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Armada, Agincourt, and for that matter Hastings, Stamford Bridge and Alfred's battles against the Danes. I am not convinced our party leaders know this history or feel gratitude. But I am quite certain it would be impossible to function, let alone make sound strategic decisions, if one were in the grip of such emotions on a regular basis.

Imagine what would have happened to our leaders during the Normandy campaign if each of the 70 Canadians killed a day had plunged them into mourning? Or to Winston Churchill's inspiring, steely resolve if every British death, in battle or Blitz, had broken his heart? It would have broken his will, and Hitler would have prevailed.

Indeed, it is the conviction and hope of the Taliban that killing just a few of our soldiers will demoralize us. Why does our political class pretend, with vacuous futility, that it's working?

They are a sorry lot.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson