Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.
The military is not on most Canadians’ minds, particularly because Canada has one of the lowest rates of per capita military involvement in the world. According to this Macleans article, “[looking at] military personnel per capita […] leaves Canada the fourth-lowest number, with 0.0018 per person. In this instance, Canada is only beaten by India, Brazil, and China, whose large armed forces are eclipsed by their giant populations.”
Canadians are blessed to live in such a peaceful country with the best neighbour on whom we can rely for cooperation on our security interests. However, the meagre percentage of our population that serves in the military bespeaks a weakness in our cultivation of civic responsibility and even of the value of a noble patriotism.
Almost every time that I have been to Israel, I have visited Mount Herzl, the national military cemetery. And, each time it has been a profound and memorable highlight. Below is an excerpt from journal about my first visit there with the Philos Project on July 24, 2017 with the #1 Israeli guide Assaf Boker.
Next we made our way over to the graves of soldiers recently killed in combat. We stood before the graves of Michael Levin and then of Max Steinberg, both Americans who participated in Birthright [trips to Israel] and then decided to enlist in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Steinberg came to Israel in 2011 and said, “I’m going to be exactly like Michael, except I’m going to live.” At age 24, Steinberg was a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, and became one of thirteen killed on day 13 of Operation Protective Edge in a neighbourhood of Gaza City. The Californian volunteer who didn’t know Hebrew insisted on serving in the elite unit. His father reports his son saying, “If I’m not in Golani, then send me to jail or send me home.” The army initially did send him home, but when he returned to Israel, they finally accepted him. Assaf told us that an astounding 30,000 people attended his funeral in Jerusalem to demonstrate their conviction that Steinberg was not a ‘lone soldier’; he became the ultimate Israeli. Assaf read excerpts from Steinberg family members’ eulogies as we stood before the tomb which says, “Live for yourself and you will live in vain. Live for others and you will live again.”
Imagine the impact it has on young people to hear this story told to them as they stand before Levin and Steinberg’s graves.
This constitutes a unique education, and I will be grateful for this experience for the rest of my life.
Young people are dying to be called to lead lives of responsibility and moral courage. Jordan Peterson says he watches eyes light up when he speaks about how responsibility gives life meaning. And when the Conservative leadership race was taking place in 2017, Peterson spoke to the candidates about their difficulties communicating to millennials: “What the hell are conservatives going to sell to young people?” he asked them. “Being conservative is something that happens when you’re older. Well, they can sell responsibility. It’s unbelievable how hungry people are for it and no one’s selling it.”
Similarly, Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed, “Without the awareness of a task to be done, a task waiting for him, man regards himself as an outcast. The content of this task we must acquire.”
And how do we acquire it?
What made my friend briefly consider joining an army in a country he never visited that speaks a language he doesn’t know? Quite simply, they asked.
You elevate young people when you demand great things of us.