Pte. Darrell Barker prefers not to discuss the semantics about whether Canada is at war in Afghanistan, or not.
“I have no opinion about that while I’m in uniform,” the soldier said on Thursday outside Porter Creek Secondary School.
After serving seven months in Afghanistan, near Kandahar, the 22-year-old Barker is technically a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Recently, he returned to Edmonton, where he serves with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
There are currently 2,300 Canadian soldiers leading the NATO operation in Afghanistan.
Forty-two have been killed there since 2002.
Barker’s tour is over, though he may go back.
But for Remembrance Day weekend, he was on leave to visit his hometown of Whitehorse and Porter Creek Secondary, where he graduated four years ago.
“I’ve seen, firsthand, what combat does to men and women physically and mentally,” Barker said onstage inside the school’s darkened gymnasium, while about 800 students, teachers and community members sat listening.
Nearby sat a coffin shrouded in a Canadian flag.
The Remembrance Day ceremony is the only occasion during which a few youth are allowed to bring real guns to school.
As Barker spoke, an honour guard of cadets kept symbolic watch by a small white monument bearing a cross and the words “Lest We Forget … The Glorious Dead.”
“I wear a poppy to remember those who have taken their lives and sacrificed them so that we could be here today,” the uniformed Barker told the students.
“So when you see a poppy or wear a poppy, think of the men and women who gave their lives so that you can live in a peaceful, free country with freedom of speech.”
Barker abruptly left the stage, barely containing his emotion.
The scars of war weighed fresh on his mind.
Barker lost a good friend in Afghanistan — 22-year-old Pte. Robert Costall of Thunder Bay, Ontario — during the first firefight to kill a Canadian soldier since the Korean War.
Barker had joined the army “to get some discipline” and see some of the world, and wound up losing a comrade he had trained with for years.
As he stood at attention and in full salute, his mother laid a wreath bearing Costall’s name and the date of his death — March 29, 2006 — at the foot of the coffin.
Speaking at his former school was an emotional experience, said Barker after the ceremony.
“There’s pride in it,” he said as he struggled to describe the complex emotion of speaking to students about a fallen comrade and Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
“Not a lot of students, before I joined, had been in the army.”
Though technically not at war, Canada’s armed forces are fighting what amounts to one, said veteran Maj. Red Grossinger.
“We have not declared war,” Grossinger said Thursday, inside the Royal Canadian Legion in downtown Whitehorse.
“It is a UN mandate, and NATO is involved in forcing the remains of the Taliban to disappear and to get on with the original UN mission of reconstruction.”
A declaration of war is only a political tool, he said.
“In Afghanistan, they are facing exactly the same thing.”
At 65, Grossinger mustered out of the military almost 20 years ago, but he served under the UN and NATO for 30 years, in Cypress, Germany and Lebanon, among other places.
A grizzled man with a kindly face and a dress uniform heavily decorated with medals on both breast pockets, Grossinger has a head full of memories and wisdom he is willing to share.
In the 1980s he was captured by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah during a patrol through South Lebanon in much the same manner that Hezbollah attacked Israeli soldiers earlier this year, prompting a summer of bombing and bloodshed between the two nations.
Grossinger was released after 24 hours, physically unharmed. But the experience gave him some insight.
The willingness of Israel and Palestine to recognize each other’s right to exist as a sovereign state is the pathway to peace in the region, and it looks as though the leadership on both sides is heading in that direction, he said.
That’s good, because there’s no such thing as peacekeeping, only peacemaking, said Grossinger.
“I hate that word, peacekeeping,” he said.
“It’s a political word that sounds good.”
The UN puts forces like Grossinger’s unit, armed or unarmed, between conflicting factions around the world.
He was never in combat, but came awfully close.
“We didn’t force peace, therefore we did not fight.
“But we were always ready to fight; we were always in close proximity.”
The UN “smartened up” in Kosovo when it asked NATO to enforce peace among Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, he said.
“The UN should have its own standing army that could be moved in quickly, into hotspots, to calm the situation down before it blows up.
“We have failed to do that so many times.”
For now, NATO plays the role of world cop, and can point to Yugoslavia as one of its successes, said Grossinger.
NATO’s Afghanistan mission is reminding Canadians about the sacrifices their forbears made, he said.
“It is opening the eyes of Canadians.
“Everyone wants peace, that’s for sure, but there are different ways to achieve peace and fighting insurgents or terrorists is one way to do it.”
Almost 117,000 Canadian soldiers have died in conflicts since the First World War, said Grossinger.
Still, the Remembrance Day ceremony almost died off in the mid 1990s.
Today, it’s being renewed, he said.
Does that mean war is inevitable?
Even if conflicts and so-called hotspots cool off for a time, are they bound to flare up again?
“That depends on the leaders,” said Grossinger.
“They must have respect for each other.”
Remembrance Day is not intended to celebrate the failure of political leaders, which leads to war, he said.
“We want to make people aware of the sacrifice of Canadians.
“The sacrifice for world freedom, for world peace, continues.
“Canadians should remember that constantly.
“Whoever forgets history will repeat the same mistakes.”
The legion is hosting a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Canada Games Centre on Saturday, November 11, at 10:15 a.m.