Monday, October 31, 2011

Occupy Europe Cartoon Misses the Point

The cartoon above from a Halifax newspaper has been making the rounds via social media, and I have to confess, I'm not sure I understand it at all. I think I get the intent of the cartoonist - he means to point out that the "greatest generation" (Tom Brokaw's phrase for the generation of young men and women who faced the trials of the Second World War) put themselves through peril while the generation of today has something more of a sense of entitlement. Ironically, I think, we tell ourselves every Remembrance Day that those veterans were sacrificing for a better world - in other words, the ability to pamper ourselves with that same sense of entitlement the cartoon, I think, is lampooning.

The wording in the speech bubble is significant. As a published author, and a graduate holding a Bachelor's Degree in Communications Studies, I've always felt that words mean things. It's important to note that the Germans - some call them the Nazis, but there are distinctions to be made - occupied Europe for several years. The Italians, Vichy French and other collaborators, willing and not so, aided them. But the Germans were the main enemies we faced, and they occupied Europe in a most villainous fashion, murdering in cold blood 10 to 12 million civilians, with the aid of local collaborators, including a generally accepted figure of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

Canadians did occupy parts of Europe as well; we certainly had soldiers up and down the Lines of Communication from the beaches in Normandy all the way to the front during the course of the Northwest Europe campaign, and ditto the gruelling campaign in Italy. Terry Copp's evocatively named MAPLE LEAF ROUTE series of books reminds us of this; this "occupation" was fleeting, and benign. Slightly less benign were the activities of the Canadian Army Occupation Force, which was a division-sized entity formed in Europe in 1945. 1 They remained for a year, on German soil, and was in the truest sense of the word a military "occupation." There had been a composite Canadian unit in Berlin briefly as well.

Canadian forces remained in Europe for decades as partners in the NATO alliance, coming to be good friends to the West Germans, and not so good friends to their former allies, the Soviet Union.

The word "occupied" itself is harmless; a soldier can occupy a place in time and space, and its use in a sentence is of no great import by itself. I don't get that sense from the cartoon. Political cartoons by definition are drawn, and captioned, with emphasis and deliberation. For that reason, I find the wording awkwardly done. "Occupation" in the sense implied here is a word associated at first blush with our enemies; Canadians went to Europe to liberate and free from oppression. That Canadians did occupy Europe is a historical fact; to have a cartoon veteran proclaim it, as the only line in a political cartoon seems out of character with what our war effort was truly about. The occupation was the last necessary act of a gruelling war forced on the democracies by fascist dictatorships. It seems disappointing to see it used as a punch-line, rubbed in the face of the youth whose freedoms were purchased by the sacrifice of those who never grew old enough to be satirized as old men with medals and canes.

The cartoon has clearly spoken to many people; it's unfortunate it has become a clarion call for a wide variety of viewpoints, such as the reintroduction of conscription. Those kinds of comments further betray knowledge of basic historical facts; drafting unwilling soldiers simply dilutes the quality of the soldiery. Canada saw it first-hand when it sent a brigade group to the Aleutians to defend North American soil from the Japanese. A number of desertions from among the unwilling took place.2 Other unhappy events regarding the "Zombies" - the home defence conscripts who refused to volunteer for overseas service - are dutifully recorded in the Army's official histories.

I record here no opinion one way or another with regards to the "Occupy _____" movements. Canada's war record in 1939-1945 speaks for itself. I see no reason to compare the two, and am puzzled why a political cartoonist should choose to do so either. It seems like a cheap stunt. The Second World War was an awesome national - and international - imperative. I get the impression the cartoonist would like to suggest that the Occupy movement does not meet the same standard. By mentioning the two in the same breath, he may have done more harm than good in giving the latter more attention than he may have wished, and in the process, distorting the historical record with regards to the former.

  1. Stacey C.P. The Canadian Army 1939-1945 (Queen's Printer, Ottawa, ON, 1948) pp. 323-324
  2. Stacey C.P. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War Volume I: Six Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific (Queen's Printer, Ottawa, ON, 1956)  Ibid, p.500