Death and the maiden: Mourning a fallen comrade.

January 1, 2010

The words in the e-mail’s subject line sent an icy shiver down my back.

Did you know her?

Past tense always equals bad news.

The message contained a link and that link sent me to a story about Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang being killed, along with four members of the Canadian Forces, while on assignment in Afghanistan. Michelle had accompanied the soldiers on a routine patrol to gather information for another story. Sadly, she became that story.

The person who sent me the link knew I worked at the Calgary Herald for eight months in 2007 and, to answer the question, yes, I knew her. At least in passing.

No one will admit it, but there is a distinct hierarchy at major daily newspapers. As a small-town boy in his first stint in the Big League, I certainly noticed it.

The news reporters had attitude, as if their every word was written in gold and sprinkled with star dust. Maybe you need that edge, that ego. Maybe that’s how you stay in The Show, by coming off as slightly superior to everyone else. I never once assumed that attitude through 20 years of journalism — perhaps that’s the reason the past tense is also now used in reference to my newspaper career.

I worked in the Herald’s Features department; most of my duties consisted of pagination. My desk was located on the outer fringes of Editorial, where the lowly worker bees toiled, turning the magic into black letters on a white page.

Reporters didn’t bother soiling their shoes by wandering into our area and so any relationship I had with Michelle Lang consisted mostly of nodding and smiling if we happened to pass in a hallway somewhere.

In fact, the only time we actually held a conversation was when she asked some preliminary questions about a story that fell under her beat as the Health reporter. That was before the Herald’s mucky-mucks nixed the story because it concerned an employee’s relative.

So yes, I knew Michelle Lang. And yet I didn’t know her.

But you don’t have to be friends with someone to mourn their untimely death. Journalists, by the very nature of their job demands, tend to be a brotherhood of sorts anyway, so to see one of us die like that is always going to hurt.

I’m not sure what a Health reporter was doing in a war zone, but I guess it doesn’t matter now. Because the bigger question is this: Why are Canadians in Afghanistan? Why are Canadians dying in Afghanistan?

The hawks among us are going to brandish their swords at this blasphemous thought, but there is no way to win the war on terrorism. Kill one insurgent/terrorist/scared young man, and 10 more step up to strap on the vests. What are you going to do, butcher them all?

Canada and the other coalition countries are doing little more than pissing on sparks while the forest fire bears down on them, destroying everything in its path.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the Vietnam War ended and yet the lessons learned there have obviously been forgotten. And the first lesson is this: Good people died and nobody won.

I’m saddened by the deaths of Michelle Lang and the four soldiers. I’m sickened by the thought that they won’t be the last.

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