Ottawa is a city of memorials, as befits a national capital. But the most poignant and powerful one isn’t in Ottawa proper. It’s the Afghanistan Memorial Hall, a 30-minute drive from Parliament Hill, at the National Defence Headquarters (Carling).
Tucked into the centre of the sprawling Carling Campus, the memorial pavilion is a striking building: low-slung, sharp-edged. Its front walls are slabs of highly polished black marble, buffed to such a shine that they reflect the sky above. On them are engraved the words “We will remember them/Nous nous souviendrons d’eux.” Step inside and the pavilion is filled with light. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto a forest wilderness, white in winter, lush green when summer finally comes.
The hall is a tribute to the Canadians who died in Afghanistan: 158 military personnel and seven civilians. It also recognizes and commemorates the US service men and women who died while under Canadian command.
The centre of the memorial is a large rough rock. A boulder. Taliban fighters used this rock as a roadblock, to force a Canadian military vehicle off the road. The tactic was successful. Fatally so. And so the Canadian soldiers decided that this particular boulder would never be used to kill another Canadian. They lugged it to their base in Kandahar. It became the start of a makeshift memorial. A haunting cenotaph the soldiers built for themselves. For their own.
Made from Afghan white marble, the cenotaph displays the names and photos, the birth dates and birthplaces, and the death dates and death places of the fallen.
Walking through the hall on my first visit there, last June, took my breath away. I remembered so many of those names and faces from my days writing for the Edmonton Journal.
The first Canadians who died: Sgt. Marc Léger, Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, Pte. Richard Green and Pte. Nathan Smith. All four were members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton. They were killed by Americans, not Afghans, in a “friendly fire” incident on April 17, 2002. I covered their massive public memorial service at the Oilers’ arena. Thousands turned out that bright April day, shocked by the horror of such pointless accidental loss. But their deaths were only the first of many that the Princess Pat’s would suffer.
Over the years the news stories continued. But the big public memorials stopped. The losses of Canadians in Afghanistan slowly became, if not routine, then something that no longer surprised us.
But in Kandahar this grassroots memorial kept growing.
As I walked along, I saw the memorial plaque for Cpt. Nichola Goddard, the young Calgary woman and officer in the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery who died on May 17, 2006. I saw the plaque for Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter killed while on assignment in Kandahar in 2009. So many Alberta names and faces. A powerful reminder of how deeply this war, so many miles away, touched and scarred our province.
May those who served in Afghanistan be examples as we set about the everyday heroism of life in the pandemic.
The memorial is black and white and grey. As black and white as we thought the issues were in the wake of 9/11. As grey as they seemed when Canada left Afghanistan in 2011.
The memorial hasn’t been without controversy. Some people complain that it isn’t more public, more accessible, more central. Because it’s on a military base, it can only be visited by appointment, though families of the dead can visit 24/7. But I understand the military’s desire to keep this luminous, numinous space protected, to ensure it’s not going to be vandalized by graffiti nor used as a backdrop for tourist selfies. I think it’s appropriate too that this memorial rests right in the heart of National Defence Headquarters—an omnipresent reminder of the human cost of war.
I’ve been thinking a lot of late about memorials, and how we remember the dead. Small wonder. I’m writing this column on March 22, 2020. Alberta is on edge about COVID-19. As I type, the death toll in Canada is rising. Magazine production deadlines being what they are, you will read this column two months after I file it. Who knows what our body count will be by then? After 9/11 shook our world to its foundations, we sent young Canadian men and women off to war to fight in our name. To protect us. In 2020 a new certainty-shattering crisis came home, and no army could defend us.
When the COVID-19 crisis abates, we’ll need to pick up our lives, mourn the lost and screw up our courage to confront the economic and social challenges left in the virus’s wake. We’ll all need the fortitude and esprit de corps we demanded of those who served us in Kabul and Kandahar. As beautiful as the Afghanistan Memorial Hall is, perhaps the best legacy for those we remember there is to let them be our examples and guides as we set about the hard, everyday heroism of life in the shadow of pandemic.
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.