The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

9-11 decade reshapes military and Canadian attitudes toward soldiers

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OTTAWA - A man who would later command Canadian troops during the war in Afghanistan was deep in the back woods of New Brunswick the day al-Qaida struck with fury in New York and Washington.

Jonathan Vance, who commanded both Canadian and American troops for almost 15 months in the killing fields of Kandahar, was on an exercise near Petersville, N.B., outside of the army's training base at Gagetown.

An intelligence officer passed a note to one of Vance's staff. The major read the scrap of paper with silent disbelief before announcing the news that not only changed his life, but the lives of all of the men around him.

"The World Trade Center has been hit by a jet. They think it's a terrorist activity," Vance recalled the officer saying.

Vance — at the time the newly minted commander of 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment —turned to a satellite television that had already been set up just in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers.

"I thought: 'Oh, crap,'" he said.

The battalion was field-testing new LAV IIIs. The light armoured vehicle would become one of the most recognized symbols of Canada's desert war.

The troops were ordered back to Gagetown to assist in handling the wave of commercial jets landing in Canada.

"It was the first day I'd heard the word al-Qaida," Vance said in an interview last winter with The Canadian Press. "I just wasn't moving in those circles — or reading those journals at the time."

The ensuing years would be a bruising learning curve.

The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally reshaped the Canadian military in ways the public is just beginning to understand, said historian Desmond Morton.

The nearly 10-year combat mission in Afghanistan casts the longest, most obvious shadow. Without 9-11 there wouldn't have been a campaign in Kandahar, nor 157 deaths and the public treasury would likely be heavier by more than $11 billion.

But Morton said there has been a subtle, yet profound shift not only in public attitudes toward the military, but in the political culture which treated the forces more like a glorified constabulary.

"Today, if the military asks for something, it gets it, whatever the cost, whatever the quantity," said Morton. He pointed the Conservative government's determination to spend billions on F-35 jetfighters as proof of the shift.

The aftermath of 9-11, particularly the war in Kandahar, has allowed the military to reclaim its place as a respected national institution.

Soldiers, who in the 1990s had been reluctant to wear uniforms in public following the Somalia torture scandal, suddenly found themselves faced with total strangers buying them coffee — or even lunch. It was the perk of a grateful nation.

Ordinary citizens flocked to windy stretches of Ontario's Highway 401 to mourn dead soldiers as their hearses passed throughout the war in a spontaneous display of grief.

For ordinary troops today, those who had not already been in uniform, 9-11 was the galvanizing call to arms that continued echo throughout the decade.

Pte. Gordon Farmer, currently serving with the headquarters that's packing up combat gear in Kandahar, pointed to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington as his motivation for enlisting.

Farmer, working as a paralegal in his hometown of Hamilton, remembered Sept. 11 as having been "a kind of lazy day around the office" until the news broke.

"I almost didn't believe it," he said.

Farmer dabbled with the military in the years following, but didn't sign on the dotted line until 2008 when it was clear Canada was mired in a deadly shooting war.

He wasn't alone. The combat mission in Kandahar was, among other things, a bloody recruiting newsreel for young men eager to fight.

Figures released last June show that the more intense the fighting, the more volunteers there were for military service. The numbers rose steadily throughout the decade and reached, at one point, levels twice those at the beginning of the mission.

The Canadian Forces processed 25,738 applications in 2009-10, up dramatically from the 2001-02 fiscal year, when applications numbered 13,504.

Morton said the same sort of patriotism played out during the First and Second World Wars, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The attitude of Canadians, in response to Britain's declarations of war, was best described as "Ready. Aye. Ready," said Morton, a professor emeritus at McGill University and an adviser in the 1980s to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

What 9-11 demonstrated was how tightly bound Canada was to the United States — ties many Canadians took for granted.

"We've benefited (economically) from being part of the American empire for decades," he said. "We had not paid the price of being in the empire."

The war in Kandahar was a searing experience for the nation, but Morton said he doesn't think it will make the current — or even future governments — more reluctant to commit ground troops to a war.

"We've changed," he said. "The world has changed."

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