We Are All Soldiers

11 Nov, 2012


On November 11, 1918, Private George Lawrence Price of the Canadian 28th “North West” Battalion was sent on patrol in the village of Havré, near Mons, Belgium. Price moved from house to house across the canal to locate and destroy an enemy machine gun nest, but found only civilian occupants. Upon exiting one of these houses, he was shot in the heart by a German sniper. The occupants of the house dragged him back inside, but to no avail – the 25 year-old Nova Scotian died at 10:58 am, two minutes before the end of the war. He was officially the last soldier of the Commonwealth to be killed in World War One.

The nature of war has evolved since that autumn morning, but human nature has not changed; the ensuing decades following Price’s death have seen the bloodiest armed conflicts in human history.  The “War to End All Wars” faded into the annals of the past century as a mere stepping stone to mass genocide, total war, and the emergence of weapons of mass destruction. The war of 1914-1918 was a product of late Victorian-era power struggles within Europe but since then, the motives of total war have shifted to battlegrounds of ideologies. How pathetically sad, when one ponders in retrospect, that at one point in the 1960s, human civilization was on the brink of self-annihilation all because at the crux of the issue, two power blocs had a difference in their economic and political philosophies.

Earlier this morning, our nation stood quiet for two minutes in respect for the fallen soldiers of our forefathers’ wars. Without having experienced war as a solider, I’ve never fully empathized with the deceased, and like so many of my peers, I have always regarded Remembrance Day as a ceremonial day, rather than a day of reflection, which is what I think it should be. It’s the least we can do to reflect quietly for two minutes a year on how the motives for global conflict have evolved, how it will continue evolving, and how we as citizens are laying the seeds for our grandchildren’s wars.

Much has changed since Price stormed the Belgian houses with his Lewis machine gun more than 90 years ago. International coalitions, a market-based global economy, and a union of European nations to share the same monetary objectives have become the by-products of our growing will to prosper harmoniously. In short, global interdependence means that the industrialized nations are too busy making money with each other than making war, and as a result, armed conflict among the world’s largest power blocks have been rendered obsolete, if not self-deprecating. While this new age of globalization has ushered stability among the richest nations, it has also produced a new fog of war that hides its casualties and obscures the motives of nation states.

I predict that in the 21st century, the focal point of war will shift from ideological power struggles to economic dominance. Already, we are seeing the tide in the geopolitical power arena shift from the world’s sole superpower to China, whose GDP is expected by the IMF to exceed that of the United States by 2017. As the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations nurture a rising middle class and slowly move away from an export-oriented model to a consumerist economy, existing trade partners will likely see heightened price pressures on their goods for export as economies compete with each other to satisfy a voracious appetite for consumer and luxury goods.

Take Japan, for example, one of China’s largest trade competitors (incidentally, China is also Japan’s largest trade partner) who has seen the brunt of Chinese economic passive aggressiveness in recent years. The two nations’ long history of military conflict have since evolved to economic animosity; in an effort to diversify its currency reserves away from the dollar, China is believed to have been buying Japanese bonds en masse, pushing up the value of the Yen in the process. This does not bode well for Japanese exporters, for whom an overly strong Yen is about the last thing they’d want to see during a period of downward demand for Japanese consumer goods.

Economic disputes may no longer be an impetus for armed war, but the threat of conventional warfare is still very real. One of the gravest threats to international security is the development of nuclear weapons in aggressor states, namely North Korea and Iran. If and when war is declared on either of these countries, the biggest difference that will be witnessed is perhaps the way in which the “battles” will be conducted.

The 21st century has ushered in the Digital Age, and with it, is the very real possibility that war will be conducted over cyber space. “Cyber war” is no longer a gimmick of science fiction; advanced nations, and even North Korea, are ramping up both defensive and offensive cyber warfare capabilities. At its most trivial, hackers working for such agencies as the United States Cyber Command could infiltrate enemy databases and steal information. At its worst, coordinated system attacks could compromise a nation’s entire digital infrastructure, destroying its stock exchanges, utility grids, and telecoms networks completely. One of the most famous incidents of cyber-attacks is the Stuxnet worm, which was deployed to harm an Iranian nuclear facility. It was believed that someone (either US or Israeli-backed) planted a USB drive onto a Windows PC that was linked to the centrifuges. The code on the drive made the machinery spin too fast, eventually destroying it. All this time, Stuxnet fed the facility’s technicians false reports about the machinery’s logs and disabled the alarms. If Stuxnet set back the Iranian nuclear program by months simply by being planted onto someone’s PC, think what else it, and more advanced iterations of it, could do.

The nature of cyber warfare may seem trivial compared to the horrors of trench warfare conducted almost a century ago, but it nonetheless begs us to rethink, and perhaps redefine “casualties of war” in today’s geopolitical landscape. Some of these casualties are less obscure. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is host to some of the most violent atrocities on Earth today. To this date, more than 5 million men, women, and children have been killed, tortured, and raped by armed rebel groups that vie for control over pockets of mineral-rich areas. These minerals are then transported to ore refineries, most of them Chinese-owned. Other casualties may be more ambiguous by definition. How would one label the Japanese fisherman who can’t sell his stock to nearby Asian markets because the value of his home currency is too high, or the Greek restaurant owner who will have to lower prices to warrant a higher value-added tax that comes as a condition of the Greek austerity package approved earlier today or the investor who has all his funds wiped clean from a rogue cyber-attack?

If Private Price were here with me today, I wouldn’t tell him that the world is still every bit as bitter and cold as it was when he was still in the French trenches. I wouldn’t tell him that since then, nothing has changed, save for the way we kill each other.  I wouldn’t tell him that he died in vain, that we have learned nothing from his sacrifice. Instead, I’d tell him that we are all soldiers; everyone has the duty to uphold his legacy and to constantly fight during times of peace to prevent war. I’d tell him that since he died, the country we live in now is a safer, freer, and better place. Last, I’d tell him, “Thank you.”


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