Wishing it Were Otherwise

What Canadians do not support, in my view, is a war-like, offensive role in the context of Afghanistan.

Remember Jack? He needed no last name, at least in context. In a CBC radio interview in January 2005, Jack Layton reiterated his oft-expressed view that Canadian soldiers should take a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, rather than pursue armed insurgents.

At least one officer agreed with the gentleman, at least in part. In another CBC radio interview soon after, Lewis MacKenzie (MGen, ret’d) referred to polls indicating that most Canadians preferred peacekeeping missions for our military. But MacKenzie went on, his voice rising in frustration.

There are none. There are none!

‘Peacekeeping’ is a legacy to our national psyche from Lester B. Pearson. Pearson, later to be Prime Minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the diplomatic resolution of the 1956 Suez Crisis. He envisioned peacekeeping as a distinctively Canadian way to be in the world. Two generations of Canadians grew up believing that our military’s proper role was disaster relief at home and peacekeeping abroad — anything but actually fighting and killing.

Pearsonian peacekeeping wedges neutral armed forces between formerly warring factions, helping them keep a peace they have already made. Using neutral forces gives neither side an advantage or a grievance; using armed forces discourages anyone from pre-emptively picking up weapons again. As an alternative to letting people return to killing each other, all for the lack of a strong and willing referee, peacekeeping is a high-minded use of military might.

All this had nothing to do with Afghanistan, where insurgents did not then (and still do not) have a peace accord with the government. What can peacekeeping look like when armed insurgents — not mere criminals, but trained fighting forces — are trying to wrest power from the more-or-less legitimately constituted government and are willing to kill to achieve this end?

The NATO Afghanistan mission was about making war, peace, and a modern nation: a dangerous, complex, long-term task with an uncertain outcome. Given the situation, we could have chosen to stay home or we could go in fighting.  As we know to our sorrow, being in Afghanistan meant war dead: even if we had drawn no weapons, others were not so restrained. Unless we sent soldiers in as sitting ducks, we had to give them license to injure or kill their attackers.

If we propose to change this, we need a more coherent objection than ‘war is bad’. Yes it is, but so are other things bad. Invasion is bad: ask the Poles and the Dutch, just for starters. State-sponsored terror is bad: ask Sudanese, Argentineans, Cambodians. Abducting children to use as rebel soldiers and sex slaves is bad: ask Ugandans.  Complete civil breakdown is bad: ask residents of what used to be the Congo. The ineffectual application of force when force is needed is bad: ask Rwandans.

Force is sometimes needed: it is life’s most bitter lesson. We can disagree honestly about when, how and to what extent force should be used; can we disagree honestly about the need? In today’s world, the need arises because of competing national interests and competing ideologies. Can we wish it were otherwise?  Clearly. Can we make it be otherwise? That is not as clear.

If international decisions seem obscure, things are more obvious closer to home. Using police forces, we protect ourselves against individual violence, knowing that to do otherwise would be irresponsible. We wish our neighbourhoods were different, but they are not. To survive, we play the ball from where it lies, but we do not stop there: we invest in social change. As a civil society we act both realistically and hopefully, using armed force to protect ourselves against violence while working to reduce it.

In the same way, using our military, we protect ourselves and others against state and pan-state violence. We wish the world were different, but it is not. As a country we act both realistically and hopefully, protecting today by using force where we determine it is necessary, protecting tomorrow by working for meaningful change.

Sometimes we must deploy people with weapons, prepared to see them die and, yes, kill on our behalf. We must also do everything we can to prevent the necessity from arising. Waging war and working for peace: if we understand this apparent contradiction, we will accept responsibility for our actions, navigate as safely as possible in the world as it is, and manoeuvre intelligently to effect the change we want.

Post script: The Ottawa Citizen sponsors a Twitter account that tweets the name of one of Canada’s war dead — from the Boer War through Afghanistan — at 11 minutes past the hour. Every hour. It started one year ago and will require another 12 years to go through all the names. At one every hour. Twelve years. @WeAreTheDead is a humbling, sobering and overwhelming roll call. I recommend it.


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2 Responses to Wishing it Were Otherwise

  1. Dave says:

    Alas. Must I be my brother’s keeper? And how far pray tell does that obligation extend? Is it just about self defense?
    When it comes down to clashes in culture and custom then what? But I guess in the end it is more about power and control and the division of resources. Tell me that is not in the genes.
    Where is this evolutionary trail taking us? The world needs more resources for its growing population. Is there an evolutionary plan? More natural disasters and plagues to reduce population? Space travel? Harvesting the oceans resources? Mass destruction? Or is it just life goes on and that’s all there is.
    Ok, enough musing time to get on with life whatever that is.

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