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John Doyle: Remembrance Day is now different, as we recognize what lingers

We approach Remembrance Day a bit differently now. It's not that there is less respect and honour shown to veterans. It's a matter of better understanding what war does to the people who fight – the unseen psychological issues that linger, long after the fighting is done.

This newspaper's investigation into veteran suicides has laid bare the issues of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder that officials and institutions struggle to deal with. It is now more common to approach Remembrance Day in a manner that encompasses not just the matter of heroism and sacrifice, but also the vulnerability of those who returned home deeply traumatized.

TV coverage related to Remembrance Day has changed too. The remarkable series War Story (made by Barry Stevens) exists as several startlingly powerful statements. In previous productions, the emphasis has been on allowing actual stories to be told only through the personal reminiscences of witnesses of the events of war. The singularity of the voices, without the interruption of a narrator or pundits, is intimate, unmodified and stunningly forceful.

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The series continues this year with the formidably moving and illuminating War Story: The Damage Done (Friday, History, 8 p.m.). In it, Barry Stevens sits down around a table with a group of veterans from four wars who share their often excruciating stories of dealing with PTSD. "War is hell and it does things to the human mind," one elderly man says with authoritative simplicity.

What's remarkable is how similar the stories and reflections are, no matter whether the veteran was in Afghanistan, Bosnia or the Korean or the Second World War. These are not men given to rueful reminiscence or boasting. They are not telling tall tales or colourful yarns. They are talking to each other about the bleak horror that lingers for all of them in the minds.

"Why go to war?" is the first question Stevens asks them. Many of the answers are remarkably similar. Most say it was stories and images of men going off to previous wars that intrigued and then compelled them to join up. A veteran of Afghanistan says joining the military was all he ever wanted to do. He felt it was in his blood. And then there is the story of Sayed Shah, an interpreter who worked with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. He talks about witnessing the savagery of the Taliban and feeling compelled to help the Canadians when they came to end the Taliban rule.

Sure, they remember early eagerness to be in combat. One says, "When it came to people shooting at me, I was in my glory. Bullets would be flying and you'd be laughing." But, as a veteran of the Korean War interjects, "I was cool and collected. The fear takes over when you see your comrades die or being injured and shipped home." There is agreement on that.

For all of them, there is the deeply painful memory of watching civilians die or be seriously injured. Explaining what haunts him, an Afghan vet recalls an explosion that struck near him and hit locals, not the soldiers. He says, "Basically, I watched a woman be decapitated." A veteran of service in Bosnia tells a horror story of children coming to the Canadian soldiers to get treats of candy and cookies. The soldiers threw gifts from windows at the kids. One little girl was being pushed aside by the other, bigger kids, so he made an effort to get something to her in particular. Then a mortar exploded beside her. He was a sniper and believed he was equipped to deal with the consequences of his actions. Today he says, "What I couldn't handle was the screams of other people. That's what's been eating me up to this day."

It's an unforgettable program: Plain talk about traumatic pain.

Black Watch Snipers (Friday, History, 9 p.m.) is a more traditional acknowledgment of Remembrance Day. Made by Robin Bicknell (Camp X: Secret Agent School), it profiles and celebrates four surviving members – now all in their 90s – of the Black Watch sniper brigade, who in the summer of 1944, after D-Day, were sent to the front lines in France to help clear entrenched German forces.

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The idea is to create a "Band of Brothers" narrative and that is achieved partly through the use of many dramatic re-enactments but mainly through the tough, clear voices of the veterans: "Only one thing kept us going. We looked after each other." There was a slaughter of the regiment in one engagement, with dozens dying. The harrowing aftermath is conveyed, as one Jimmy Bennett says, with charged emotion: "Anyone who tells you what's going on in war, they're not telling the truth. I know what was going on." There are tales too of great bravery and escapades, of young men being astonishingly brave. If you watch this one, watch to the end to learn more about this small group of brave survivors.

There are many Remembrance Day programs airing over the next few days. These two offer contrasting, illuminating perspectives. And, of course, CBC, CTV and Global will have special coverage of Remembrance Day ceremonies from the National War Memorial in Ottawa, beginning Friday at 10:30 a.m.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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