Lt.-Gen. the Hon. Roméo A. Dallaire (retd)

What have we learned from war?

There is no greater abuse of human rights than when the frictions of our differences degenerate into conflict and war. Over the last two decades, as we have seen too many mass atrocities perpetrated upon innocent civilian populations, we have finally created the international instruments to combat lawlessness. The United Nations created courts, such as International Criminal Tribunals, to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity. These bodies are the vanguard of justice as we work toward a peaceful world. The obligation of this commitment to human rights will be inherited by the youth of our era, who are the generation without borders and who are the future voice of the NGO community around the world.

This will not be the first time that youth has committed itself with such energy and enthusiasm to a cause of justice, and in so doing, paid in large numbers the ultimate price for the cause. I refer, of course, to the scale of the Canadian participation in the World War I effort overseas.

It was a policy that those recruited to serve in combat should meet the fundamental criterion of being adult males 18 years of age and over. But in the hustle and bustle of a reorganized mobilization plan that Sir Sam Hugues (the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence during World War I) initiated at the beginning of our engagement, a number of rules were not necessarily followed to the letter. This permitted a certain lax application of the age rule, and as a result, the Canadian contingent found itself manned by a significant number of 16 and 17 year-old (and even the odd 15 year-old) boys. By the time they reached the front, a number of them had been found out, and with great disappointment and amertume, they were sent home, with a pat on the back and a thank you from their colleagues who continued their march towards the trenches.

Combat requires the energy, the verve, the wilful commitment often without regard for danger that really only youthful persons possess. And so when exposed to the extremes of physical deprivations, to the constant stress of being targeted and indiscriminately destroyed, to facing the danger of being blown to pieces in the accomplishment of a mission that too often in that great war seemed impossible, these young men did not waver. The blood, the guts, the sweat, the tears and the pain that they had to endure every day and night for four years, in the most appalling physical conditions and mental duress, are examples of the stoutness, the resilience and the unbridled commitment that only youth can bring to the fray.

These young Canadians fought with such outstanding bravery that other countries noticed, admiring our new nation for our innovative approach to combat, and the victorious results that battles such as Vimy Ridge provided the Allied forces. The Canadian Expeditionary Force was held in high regard not because of its size, nor the numbers of great generals that led the force, although Sir Arthur Currie was exemplary as a tactical commander in his time, but because of the fervour and the doggedness of the individual Canadian citizen soldier. It was he who, inspired by the fraternity and cohesion found within his units, carried the day, even when a number of his colleagues were left lying on the hard fought ground gained that day.

The engagement of youth in horrific scenarios such as war is a fact of history, a seemingly ongoing story of friction degenerating into conflict between humans. This fact puts enormous pressure on senior leadership to ensure that the troops under their command are used sparingly and effectively, so that the scars of the experience of war do not affect negatively the social fabric of a nation in the post war era, when these young veterans come back so heavily affected by this extreme experience. We were not quite ready to handle the large scale of hundreds of thousands of these war-affected youths making their way back into the civilian life that they had left behind before World War I. A number of them continued to suffer for decades in silence, and that is why the creation of the Royal Canadian Legion, the construction of significant commemoration monuments and the decorum and dignity surrounding Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 11 were so important to them, and ultimately to Canadian society.

There is a saying that “war is hell”. No one has been to hell as such, yet what soldiers endure in war, in the destruction of human beings, and the fear and loneliness of combat has got to be the closest we could ever imagine hell to be. Having lived that experience, soldiers become the most ardent advocates of peace.

Lieutenant-General Roméo A. Dallaire, OC, CMM, GOQ, MSC, CD is a Canadian senator, humanitarian, author and retired general. In 1993, He was appointed Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, where he witnessed the country’s descent into chaos and genocide, which led to the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans. He is an outspoken advocate for human rights, genocide prevention, mental health and war-affected children. He founded The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization committed to ending the use of child soldiers worldwide.