I felt like an excited little kid when the theatre lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled for "Act of Valor." The movie stars active duty Navy SEALs and was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. military. Depending on who you ask, it's a recruiting tool, a live action video game, or a multi-million dollar piece of propaganda. It's also a commercial success: The film led the box office on its opening weekend, taking in $24.5 million in U.S. and Canadian theatres. What might surprise you is the reason I eagerly bought my ticket: American patriotism. And by the way, I'm Canadian.
When I think of my country's armed forces, victory at Vimy Ridge and U.N. peacekeeping missions come to mind; more recently I picture the thousands who lined the Highway of Heroes to pay tribute when one of our fallen soldiers came home from Afghanistan. I understood Canada's involvement in that conflict but attended a couple of anti-war rallies after the U.S. invaded Iraq. I would say that along with most of my friends and relatives, I'm a proud Canadian who sits left of centre -- and has for the most part not given the military much thought.
That changed four years ago when I moved to the United States to work in network news. Through my job, I spoke with soldiers, wounded warriors, families whose loved ones were in Iraq and Afghanistan, wives who were now widows, and children who missed their fathers and mothers. I saw soldiers everywhere -- in airports, recruiting stations, and on leave in the city.
Part of that omnipresence is sheer size -- as of December, 2011, there were almost 1.5 million active duty personnel in the U.S. military, with a reserve force that swells the ranks to well above 2.2 million. Compare that to Canada's active duty force -- just over 68,000 in March, 2011 -- and it's easy to see why the military is much more visible south of the border.
But the longer I lived in the States, it was more than just being aware of the military -- my perspective changed. A New York Police officer who had completed one tour of Afghanistan and was preparing for a second told me that after 9/11 he thought it was his duty to enlist -- he felt personally responsible to protect and defend his country.
I know that not everyone joins the military just because of patriotism -- thousands enlist because the military will pay for schooling and others because the recession has made jobs scarce. But as I spoke to more soldiers, there were themes that kept coming up -- duty, responsibility, freedom, country. I don't know if it was a sort of cultural osmosis, but I started to absorb some of that same pride.
Patriotism was a muscle I hadn't really exercised in my home and native land. Canadians are a proud people, but it's a quiet pride (except during the Winter Olympics, then we're fanatics). This new outward, aggressive American emoting was refreshing and satisfying. It made me feel part of something bigger and it pains me to admit it, but I had rarely felt that in the patchwork quilt that is the Canadian national identity.
It also made me realize that the Western world sometimes forgets the role the United States plays as a global police force. I'm not suggesting that every U.S. military action is just -- but I am saying their role as recess monitors on the world stage shouldn't be taken for granted. And I think it's also the reason that Canadians like me don't give much thought to our own military -- we don't have to because we know that our ally the United States is watching the playground for bullies.
And that brings me back to "Act of Valor." The movie left something to be desired in terms of acting and plot, but that wasn't the point. While I was sitting in that theatre, I found myself thinking of the Navy's SEAL Team 6 -- the group of elite soldiers that was virtually unknown until they killed Osama Bin Laden last year and rescued two aid workers in Somalia in January.
And when one of the CIA agents in the film is murdered, I thought of the stars carved into a marble wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Each star represents an agent killed in the line of duty, but because of the covert nature of the job, the stars are anonymous. So too were the SEALs in "Act of Valor" -- their names were concealed to protect them for future missions. Instead, the men asked that the credits include a list of more than 60 SEALs who lost their lives during the last few years. There is nobility and integrity in doing the right thing even when no one is there to see it.
It took living in the United States and being surrounded by American patriotism for me to cultivate my own sense of duty and country. That has in turn made me cognizant of the extraordinary sacrifice both Canadian and American troops make every day so that I can live a free and privileged life. To all of those men and women, thank you.