Volume 95, Issue 38

Thursday, November 8, 2001
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War memories teach today's generation lessons

The reflections of a Canadian peacekeeper

The reflections of a Canadian peacekeeper

By Alena Papayanis
Gazette Staff

In the opening moments of an interview with Major General Lewis MacKenzie, one of Canada's most famous and best regarded peacekeepers, his direct and focused nature was immediately evident.

Like a true soldier, he answered questions when asked, never veering from the goal.

MacKenzie, a Nova Scotia native, served 33 years in the military, including nine years in Germany with NATO forces. He also participated in nine peacekeeping tours in six different mission areas.

The daily entries MacKenzie made in his diary during peacekeeping assignments were invaluable for writing his book, the 1993 national bestseller, Peacekeeper: Road to Sarajevo.

Remembrance Day remains close to his heart, MacKenzie said. "I would've guessed 15 years ago that it would begin to wane as the presence of the vets waned and I'm delighted that it's exactly the opposite."

Last year, as MacKenzie drove along a major highway on Nov. 11, he pulled over at 11 a.m. and was amazed to see how many other people did the same to observe the recognized two minutes of silence.

Gazette File Photo
The Lieutenant Lewis MacKenzie in his early days of peacekeeping, Cyprus, 1965.

"It's a time to be appreciative of what people did. They were young, they went off for excitement – let's not look at it through rose-coloured glasses," he said.

MacKenzie said he was fortunate enough to be trained by veterans of World War II – "true vets" who knew where their priorities rested. "[Priorities] did not rest with political correctness or social experimentation, but in trying to motivate soldiers and look after them," he said.

These were men who had gone ashore in Normandy, fought and proven themselves in the carnage of WWII, he said. They were experienced, confident, battle-hardened leaders who could take new soldiers by the hand and show them the ropes.

According to MacKenzie, soldiers have always known something that North American civilians have only now realized. "The events of Sept. 11 have sort of taken the cocoon off us and now we're part of the real world," he said.

"Soldiers are reminded every time they come home that the norm in North America is not the fear, anxiety and terrorist acts that they constantly experience in places all over the world," MacKenzie added.

"I think more people understand now, how fortunate we were and will continue to be, because although the war on terrorism will continue, our daily anxiety will pass as we get used to it," he said.

The perception of soldiers thinking of flag and country while performing acts of bravery during conflict is exaggerated, MacKenzie said.

"In reality, flag and country are very important before and after the conflict, but when soldiers are actually on the ground being shot at, they will tell you that acts of bravery are related to the fact that they're not going to be shown up in front of their buddies," he said.

Soldiers get tunnel vision during battle, MacKenzie said, making a soldier's world very tiny, including only the soldiers a few metres in their periphery. Queen and country are far from their minds, but God is close, he explained, noting people become very religious the closer they get to the front lines.

MacKenzie said there is no front line, battlefield or trenches in Afghanistan. The United States military is currently in a technologically enhanced stage of combat, where satellite imagery, constant communication and portable data stations overwhelm commanders with a phenomenal amount of information never available in the past.

"They will fly in under air cover in helicopters and gun ships, land based on information they picked up from satellite imagery and go after a group of people," he said. "If they cannot find [their targets], they'll leave, not sticking around to face off against each other in a battlefield."

The reality throughout history is that politics are often amoral and based on global business purposes, he said. "It would be nice to wave a magic wand and have international standards of morality drive foreign policy, but unfortunately, every nation in the world, no matter how egalitarian they are, has national self-interest," MacKenzie explained.

For war to end, he said, there must ultimately be negotiation, otherwise one side wins and the other side has to not only lose, but be exterminated. If they lose, those people will fight back as terrorists, MacKenzie explained.

"Even before the bombs started dropping in Afghanistan – due to the war against Russia and the internal civil conflict between the opposition groups and the Taliban – the land and buildings were devastated," he said.

Although the average North American takes one day a year to remember those who have fought and died in war, people like Lewis MacKenzie, who have experienced the bloodshed and constant fear in war survived and now, vividly remember it every day.

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