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Intentions Matter

Always leave a place better than you found it, even in war.

Prediction: This month, the 11th hour of the 11th day will feel like any other to the average Canadian Veteran.

Remembrance Day (originally called Armistice Day) was inaugurated across the British Empire in November 1919. By that time, final death tolls had been confirmed, bringing rise to the realization that the Great War had caused the largest loss of human life in modern history. 

I imagine that people wanted to formalize public reflection on the cost of war, with a view to ensuring that those who survived conflict would consider the sacrifice of those who did not, before embarking on similarly violent initiatives in the future. 

As many have written before me, no matter where we are, or what we’re doing, we remember the cost of service, be it those borne by our ancestors, our friends, our loved ones, or ourselves. 

And while people across the world debate the propriety of commemorating the human cost of war through Remembrance (or related) Day ceremonies, this Remembrance Day, I will wake up to the sound of – and shock from – an 11-year-old jumping into my bed. 

The 11-year-old is my daughter. She jumps into my bed every morning that she can, because I am alive, and she is still at an age where this pleases her. 

I live for this moment, and moments like it. 

 
  Photo by Canadian Armed Forces photographer, Sergeant Dan Pop, 
(Combat Camera), 2007. 

The Golden Rule?
In my lifetime, I have been shocked out of sleep in a variety of ways. Sirens. Horns. Yelling. Gunshots. Explosions. These methods will all encourage a sleeping soldier to transition from resting to ready. 

As you may imagine, the airborne (bed) raid, as perpetrated by my own daughter, is by far my favourite way to start any given day. 

Naturally, our time together involves the full spectrum of Dad-Daughter activities. We live for the fun stuff, like hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, archery and more. Just like everyone else, we struggle – together – through the less fun stuff, such as complex homework tasks and other chores. 
To me, in many ways, the quality time my daughter and I now spend together reinforces the relative value and importance of sacrifice in service to others. 

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we aim to follow at least one guiding principle: always leave a place better than you found it. 

I apply this rule to my everyday life. I would urge everyone to consider doing so. I sincerely believe that its consistent application can improve quality of life for anyone who adopts it.  

Having spent the better part of my adult life in service to the Crown, I often reflect on the weight of my own sacrifices in relation to this principle, and through a cost/benefit lens. 

Signing Up for … Something
I think the younger you are, the harder it is to evaluate the decisions you make because of a general failure to concretely define goals. As we grow older and become responsible for the lives of others, goal definition gets really simple.

But in 2001, at only 19, I had no goals. 

I liked studying psychology. I liked smoking cigarettes and playing chess. I didn’t like going to most of my other college classes. I liked the idea of people flying aircraft into the World Trade Centre even less.  

And so I joined the Canadian Army Primary Reserve (an opportunity available to all Canadians who meet age and fitness standards) so that I could study psychology full time, while training to be an infantry soldier part time – on evenings, weekends and during summer months.

As a lover of extreme sports and other forms of outdoor ridiculousness, perpetually attempting to grow beyond existing personal limits, I chose to serve the Canadian Army as an infantry soldier. Infantry soldiers can specialize in a variety of skills that would appeal to anyone wanting to test their mettle, including parachuting, reconnaissance, complex (mountainous) terrain operations, and more. 

Roughly speaking, the function of the infantry soldier is to destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of weather, season or terrain. 

War is a dirty business. 

Thus, full-time, my studies afforded me the opportunity to quench my seemingly insatiable appetite for understanding the origins of human behaviour; part-time, the Army provided a bottomless pit of my favourite flavour of escapade: the kind that raises your heartbeat. They even helped me pay tuition, and provided a wage that far exceeded that which was offered by competing student employers at the time. 

In 2006, upon graduation, now carrying a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science, I volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. A budding young infantry officer – as ridiculous as this may sound – I was keen to serve in any position that would enable me to support Canada’s contribution to what would come to be called “the global war on terror.” 

I didn’t know where I should be, or what I should do. I just knew I wanted to help. 

That I had just completed a psychology degree, spoke four languages, had run my university’s student newspaper, and volunteered with a suicide helpline helped determine my direction. The Army interpreted this blend of civilian and infantry skills as potential to succeed in the domain of Influence Activity. 

Occasionally defined as “Activities that are planned and conducted to have behavioural and psychological effects in support of the Commander’s intent or mission,” the Influence Activity domain is often home to military officers and soldiers specially trained in one of two areas, namely: Civil-Military Cooperation, i.e., working with or partnering directly with non-governmental organizations and other agencies; and Psychological Operations, i.e., military marketing, sales, and deliberate relationship management. 

At the time, I had no idea what Influence Activities were. I just knew there was opportunity for me to do some good in a place that I sincerely believed needed it. My friends felt the same. In February 2007, we deployed together. 

When War Means Rebuilding
I spent my first four years in the military training to defuse conflict through the application of focused violence. I spent the next decade achieving the same goal through the application of cooperation, collaboration and relationship building. By the time I turned 29, I had spent nearly 18 months, over the course of two deployments, working directly alongside Afghan leaders who were completely devoted to building and reinforcing the credibility of their newly formed government. 

When the average person imagines the life of a soldier in Afghanistan, I think there is a natural tendency to presume that everyone was fighting all the time. 

Afghanistan was, indeed, a dangerous place. 

It was also a beautiful place, with incredible people, the vast majority of whom just wanted to live and grow old with their families. 

In fact, although the mitigation of threats posed by insurgent activity was always top of mind, more often than not, my colleagues and I leveraged it as a means to an end. In other words: we used effective risk and consequence management to enable governance, development and reconstruction work, alongside our Afghan partners. 

By the time I came home from my second tour, despite experiencing countless near-death moments, involving truck-bombs, rocket attacks, automatic weapon fire, and more, I had personally destroyed exactly zero enemies.

Yet somehow, it had become clear to me that the reconstruction and development work I was doing was far more relevant than any traditional warfighting I might have ever imagined. 

My colleagues and I were literally helping real people get their wits about them in a chaotic place, overcoming challenges that we had never encountered growing up in Canada. 

We were risking it all to help Afghans rebuild Afghanistan. Shoulder to shoulder. 

A Love for Life
There is a look, on any child’s face, that is hard for any empathetic human to forget.

 
   

In the western world, parents and other adults often see this look during the holidays, when children receive gifts that have not been clearly or coherently earned. I call it the “Christmas Morning Look.”

Most Canadian children will display this look briefly upon receipt of that extra special gift that they knew they really wanted. But this look often fades quickly. 

I saw the Christmas Morning Look on almost every Afghan child I met. Every day. Under almost every circumstance. I say “almost” out of respect for the children I encountered in the immediate aftermath of deep tragedy or physical injury. 

Even children who threw rocks at our armoured vehicles as we drove by – an expression of clear disdain for authority, and an oddly appealing opportunity to demonstrate bravery to pre-pubescent peers – had the look. 

From where I sat, Afghan children were literally as excited about every day they lived as the average first-world child temporarily becomes when receiving special gifts on birthdays or Christmas. 

It’s been eight years since I last left Afghanistan. I will never forget the seemingly endless stream of “Christmas Morning Looks” on the faces of children across the country. A look that, from my perspective, was directly associated with the kind of appreciation for life that can come only in places where its fragility is constantly at the forefront of conscious thought. 

I have often considered this observation when performing the cost/benefit exercise I mention above. I have learned that, regardless of any given outcome, your intent does indeed matter. 

Big picture, both in and out of uniform, I have expended a significant amount of time, effort, and energy trying to leave places better than they were when I found them. This lifelong pursuit has cost me a lot. It has cost my daughter and other loved ones a lot. 
The costs, however, have brought with them renewed appreciation for moments in life that many of my non-military friends and colleagues have almost forgotten to enjoy. 

Today, I consider this appreciation to be priceless. 

So, for my daughter and I, this Remembrance Day will pass just like any other. 

She has never directly lived war or protracted conflict. She has, however, been indirectly exposed to all of this and more, through me. 

My second tour started moments after her third birthday and ended moments before her fourth. She didn’t understand everything at that time, but she has grown to learn about how lucky we both are that dad came home safely.  

We will attend a ceremony somewhere together. We will publicly express respect and appreciation for those who have sacrificed in service to Canada, alongside our colleagues, friends and family. We will appear sombre or solemn to the objective observer. 

Few will know how our day began. 

The crack of a door. The pitter-patter of small feet attempting to conceal the tactical movement of an 11-year-old, moving into attack position, staging for an “airborne (bed) raid.”

That look of elation that accompanies surprise snuggles and other expressions of affection between humans elated to be in one another’s company. That look people wear when they know that the moment they’re living might not have been. 

That Christmas Morning Look. On both of our faces. Every time we see each other. 

Author

  • Over the last 16 years, Mark has served Canada both as a Defence Scientist and a Military Officer, supporting a variety of domestic and international operations. Today, he works primarily as a behavioural science and market research consultant. Mark holds a Master of Science Degree in Behavioural and Economic Science from the University of Warwick, and is a graduate of the Canadian Army Staff College, and the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare and School.

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