War and (the need for) remembrance

November 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Today is Remembrance Day, and it is appropriate to recall and honour those untold numbers of young Canadians who gave their lives fighting to secure the freedoms and democracy we enjoy today. It is also significant to note, as Gloria Galloway does on The Globe and Mail‘s website, that 2011 marks the first year in almost a decade that Canada is observing this day while not engaged in active combat overseas.

Galloway also points out that although Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar may have ended this year, our troops are still there, and still risking their lives. It is essential that we honour and respect their sacrifice, and that of their families and loved ones, who have given so much to this country and the world. It is also essential that we remain cognizant of the multifaceted geopolitical considerations that sent them into harm’s way in the first place.

To that end, I here reprint a double review that was first published on this site on April 2, 2008. Much has changed in the intervening years, but much, sadly, has not. Both of these books remain as relevant today as on the day they were published.

War is always muddy and ambiguous. Sometimes it is necessary. But we should always approach the subject with clarity and focus, and avoid the temptation to retreat into jingoistic sloganeering and blind patriotism.

Lest we forget the real reasons so many of our citizens have lost their lives over the course of this country’s history.


The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang; $35.00 cloth 978-0-670-06722-0, 368 pp., Viking Canada

Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire. Linda McQuaig; $34.95 cloth 978-0-385-66021-9, 304 pp., Doubleday Canada

In a recent week-long series of articles for the Globe and Mail, Graeme Smith, the young investigative reporter who blew the lid off the Afghan detainee controversy in 2007, provided a portrait of the Taliban insurgents that Canadian soldiers are battling and at whose hands many are dying in the southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan. In a two-page overview article, published on Saturday, March 22, 2008, Smith offers a snapshot of a typical Taliban soldier that flies in the face of the oft-repeated image of a Western-hating global jihadist:

He looks like an ordinary Afghan in ragged clothes. He says he’s young, 24 or 25 years old … Somebody he knows, or loves, was killed by a bomb dropped from the sky, he says. The government has tried to destroy his farm. His tribe has feuded with the government in recent years, and he feels pushed to the edge of a society that ranks among the poorest in the world.

So he lives by the gun. He cradles the weapon in his arms, saying he will follow the tradition of his ancestors who battled foreign armies. He is not only a Taliban foot soldier, he says. He belongs to the mujahedeen, the holy warriors, who fight any infidel who tries to invade Afghanistan.

What is significant about this portrait is the motivations Smith attributes to the Taliban soldiers. They are not, Smith suggests, fighting a global battle against Western decadence and cultural values, which is the line many of the hawks in governments and the media north and south of the 49th parallel like to parrot as a justification for the continued occupation of Afghanistan. Rather, they are battling a government that burns their farms and their crops – often in the name of poppy eradication – and struggling to drive foreign invaders from their soil. Smith goes on to point out that the average Taliban insurgent might recognize the foreign soldiers in his country as Canadians, but would be hard pressed to find Canada on a map.

As an explanation for the ferociousness and resilience of the continued insurgency, this line of reasoning has more traction than does the competing one that insists we as a nation are acting in self-defence and must force democratization on the Middle East before we fall victim to a global plot to destroy us.

It is a point that Linda McQuaig echoes in her provocative and angry cri de coeur, Holding the Bully’s Coat:

Isn’t this a more likely explanation for the rage that is surging through the Middle East?

If you attack your neighbour, destroy his house, trash his car, kill several members of his family and kidnap his six-year-old son, would it be logical to conclude that your neighbour is in a rage against you because he doesn’t like how you dress and what movies you watch?

More measured and less polemical than McQuaig, Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang nevertheless make much the same point in their essential book The Unexpected War. They point out that although it could be argued that al-Qaeda’s motives have a global reach (an argument that has been challenged by writers such as Gwynne Dyer and Lawrence Wright), the Afghan insurgency is localized in both its composition and its ambition. Stein and Lang point out that the conflation of al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is conceptually flawed, and that the Afghan problem needs to be considered independently:

A close look at many of the insurgencies in Muslim societies tells us that they are almost all local, inflamed by local grievances, with a local political agenda. … Very likely, connections exist between the Taliban and a resurgent al-Qaeda that appears to be organizing again on the frontier of Pakistan, where the Taliban is centred. The two certainly are in close proximity to each other, but they are not one and the same. The Taliban are local, Pashtun, rooted in southern and eastern Afghanistan and in the frontier and tribal areas of Pakistan. Their ambitions are local, while al-Qaeda’s are global.

This is an important distinction. Understanding the putative enemy in Afghanistan and the nature of his country is essential to the success of Canada’s continued involvement there, and it is coming, if at all, not a moment too soon.

In their exhaustive examination of the origins of Canada’s military mission to the violent Kandahar region in the south of Afghanistan, Stein and Lang point out the stunning lack of knowledge about the country on the part of the very government officials who sent our soldiers into battle there:

Much was ignored: Afghanistan’s history, its traditions and accomplishments, its social structure, its strengths and fault lines, its tribal and ethnic divisions, the devastation of its social and physical infrastructure after thirty years of fighting, its deeply rooted patterns of warfare, and its long history of expelling foreign armies that thought they had come to stay.

This ignorance of the region was deeply ingrained and pervasive. In December of 2003, then Defence Minister John McCallum and Ken Calder, assistant deputy minister of policy in the Department of Defence, attended a meeting with Arthur Kent, a London-based journalist who had been reporting on Afghanistan since the early ’80s. Stein and Lang write:

The guests sat silently for about an hour and listened to Kent present a picture of a highly complex, textured, layered society that seemed congenitally prone to conflict and war. And at the end of the lunch, as the guests were walking out of the restaurant, Calder turned to McCallum’s chief of staff and said anxiously, “We don’t know anything about this country.”

This is a staggering admission from one of the men who was instrumental in the decision to send our country’s troops into their largest and most dangerous combat mission since the Korean War, and it is an extension of the shortsightedness that plagued the thinking about the mission in its earliest stages.

In the autumn of 2001, when sympathy for the United States was still high following the appalling attacks on New York and Washington D.C. of September 11, 2001, Canadian officials were casting around for a way to help out our friend and neighbour to the south. One proposal, floated by then Minister of Defence Art Eggleton, was participation in an International Security Assistance Force, “a UN-mandated operation that fell somewhere between combat and peacekeeping.” Stein and Lang quote Eggleton as saying that this was “not an offensive mission, not a front-line mission. This is a stabilization mission to assist in opening corridors for humanitarian assistance.” Should full-scale combat break out, Eggleton suggested, “they’d probably be taken out.” In Eggleton’s conception, Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan would amount to an “early in, early out” commitment.

By carefully documenting how this “early in, early out” mission transformed into the current open-ended combat mission, Stein and Lang have provided a necessary document for anyone in this country who wants to understand why we are in Afghanistan and how we got there. (That is – or should be – every Canadian citizen.)

The nexus of pressure points and influences that drew our military ever deeper into a combat operation in Afghanistan is complex and varied, but in Stein and Lang’s conception it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Rick Hillier’s appointment as chief of defence staff in February 2005. It was Hillier who convinced the government of the necessity for Canada to fight what he called the “Three-Block War” combining humanitarian aid, stabilization, and combat. In so doing, Hillier spearheaded a revisioning of the Canadian Forces’ purpose away from the peacekeeping they had undertaken in the decades since the end of the Korean War and toward a more combat-oriented fighting unit.

Hillier’s political influence has resulted in influxes of federal cash to the military under the aegis of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but Stein and Lang question the effectiveness of this military enhancement if it comes at the expense of development assistance to Afghanistan. “The international community has spent only eight percent of the total funds it committed to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2006 on development and poverty relief. The conventional wisdom is diametrically opposed: Eighty percent of the spending should go to economic, political, and social development.” They quote a 2007 report by Seema Patel and Steven Ross that reads in part, “Poverty is fuelling anger towards the central government and motivating young men to rearm and fight in the insurgency or with local illegal armed groups to earn cash.”

In a country with a 23% literacy rate, an average life expectancy of forty-three years, and a per capita income of $230, it is unsurprising that young, unemployed men with no prospects are attracted to a militia that offers cash and food for them and their families. This should be one of the clearest indications that the insurgency will not be defeated by military means alone; indeed, the military contribution may not even be the decisive factor in the long run. Rampant poverty and the lack of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals are among the motivating factors driving young Afghans to join the Taliban; removing these factors would alleviate a good deal of the motivation for these young men to take up arms in the first place. The disparity between Canada’s military spending in Afghanistan and its commitment to development aid is one key area that Stein and Lang highlight in the course of their analysis.

They also point to the relationship between Canada and the United States as a serious stumbling block in our thinking about Afghanistan. Stein and Lang reconstruct decisions that military leaders made “out of the corner of their eyes as they looked squarely at Washington” and carefully outline the series of policy errors that resulted from this misplaced focus. “What explains this obsession with the United States?” they ask.

It is this signal question that Linda McQuaig sets out to address in her book, Holding the Bully’s Coat. Unlike Stein and Lang, McQuaig is not interested in measured responses. Her new volume is an impassioned investigation into how in recent years we have abandoned the traditional “Canadian” values of peacekeeping, multilateralism, and diplomacy in favour of a military engagement in Afghanistan and a consistent bowing and scraping to a bullying administration to the south:

As the U.S. has rejected the rule of international law and become a law unto itself, Ottawa has followed in close step, ever eager to please our powerful neighbour. To this end, we have abandoned our traditional role as a leading peacekeeping nation and adopted a more militaristic, warlike stance as a junior partner in the U.S. “war on terror.” We’ve also abandoned our traditional attempt to be a fair-minded mediator and conciliator, most notably in the Middle East conflict, where, like the U.S., we’ve adopted a hardline anti-Palestinian position that will make a peaceful, just solution all the more evasive.

This is a line of argument that is certain to infuriate those pundits and commentators who insist that we need to foster ever closer ties to the United States in the name of continental security and economic prosperity (and Canadian sovereignty be damned). However, although one might cavil with McQuaig’s provocative and deliberately argumentative tone, it’s difficult to find fault with the substance of her argument. One need look no further than Stephen Harper’s assertion that Israel’s devastating 2006 bombing campaign on Lebanon was a “measured” response to the kidnapping (or capture, depending upon which side of the fence you sit on) of two Israeli soldiers to recognize that there has been a tectonic shift in Canadian foreign policy, and that that shift has brought this country much more in line with our American neighbours.

McQuaig even anticipates the knee-jerk charge of anti-Americanism by turning it on its head. Why, she rhetorically asks, are Canadians who defend our nation’s traditional values — peacekeeping, diplomacy, multilateralism — always smeared with the tag “anti-American”? Why are the people who accuse us of this not branded “anti-Canadian”? It’s a salient question for those of us who begin from the premise that peacekeeping, diplomacy, and multilateralism are virtues that are worth preserving in the Canadian psyche. No doubt there are citizens of this country who would disagree. McQuaig singles out as examples of dissenting voices the usual suspects on the right, including Tom D’Aquino, Margaret Wente, and Andrew Coyne.

Still, if McQuaig is willing to admit that there are a multiplicity of views in Canada – from Prime Minister Harper on the one side to McQuaig and, presumably, much of her target audience on the other – she seems less willing to make these distinctions about Americans, whom she tends to lump together under one blanket. Of course it’s those who control the reins of power who come in for direct attack: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; Paul Wolfowitz and his Project for a New American Century; CNN’s Lou Dobbs. But one never gets the sense that the unidentified mass of the American electorate contains a broad spectrum of opinions and imperatives, not all of which line up with that of the current administration in Washington.

George W. Bush won the 2004 election by the slimmest of margins; it’s still possible to argue that he didn’t win in 2000 at all. What this means is that a significant minority of the American public – almost 50%, in fact – disagree with the direction in which the current American administration is moving the country. The Democratic victory in the 2006 midterms and the recent admissions even on the part of some Republican members of Congress that the war in Iraq is a disaster and the American economy is a mess should testify to the deep divisions and prevalent fault lines that exist in that country.

By viewing the United States, and its entire citizenry, as a monolithic entity that is determined to project its imperial ambitions well into the new millennium, and to drag Canada along with it, McQuaig evinces a lack of nuance or subtlety every bit as dangerous as that of the people she castigates. It’s true that the focus of her book is the way in which Canada has made itself subservient to a bullying and belligerent American administration in recent years, but some acknowledgement of the tensions within the American union would seem appropriate, if only to prevent her very legitimate arguments from being dismissed as mere ravings from the dogmatic left.

Ultimately, it is this willingness to engage with all sides of the issue that renders The Unexpected War the stronger of these two books. Both provide much food for thought, much of which is unsettling, provocative, and infuriating. But by cutting through partisan rhetoric and providing a clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis of how we got here and where we might conceivably be going, Stein and Lang have given us an absolutely essential text for understanding Canada’s current engagement in one of the world’s undisputed hot spots.