November 11, 2007

Hard Memories

Today is a day of remembrance - expressly for soldiers who are fighting, had fought, are fallen. But just remembering the soldiers who partake of the most difficult task a nation can ask of them is to only give them a partial justice: we must remember the history of our soldiers, the battles they waged, the events around them. Not only who they were and are, but why as well.

Perhaps most difficult is to remember unflinchingly.

With our men and women in Afghanistan, my thoughts are turning to one of the worst chapters in our history. Not in terms of lives lost, but in the cost of something far more nebulous; something, oddly, more precious.


It is a strange thing to say: something more valuable than life. In Jewish tradition, there isn't a rabbi in the world who would tell one of the faithful to starve to death before they could eat pork: first, survive. Everything else, even worship, comes later.

Soldiers are told a different story. They are told that the survival they fight for isn't their own, but that of their nation, their people, their ideals.

This third is where Canada stands. We have, by good fortune and careful labour, been able to select our battles. And we've chosen what I feel is the hardest path: Peacekeeper.

Wars cannot be won by playing defense; and so we have deliberately chosen never to win. We toil for peace; for compromise; for negotiation. We know that even the loudest voices are drowned out by a hurricane. Our duty is to enforce calm, so that communication without conflict may happen.

There is no glory in the role, but there is honour.

There are many who feel our war in Afghanistan is an invasion, a war of conquest: it is not. Canada has no interest in controlling the land, commanding its people, or owning their resources. But we also could not allow such a safe haven for those who attacked our allies.

Even as battles there are being fought, we are looking for ways harm as few as possible, and to build an infrastructure for a lasting peace. Even to negotiate with our current enemies.

But all negotiations are a trade of some kind, and what do we have to barter? The threat of continued violence will only result in its return. So we offer calm in the storm: we offer peace, and compromise, and negotiation. We are encouraging not only the Taliban, but those warlords ringing Kabul, to rest their arms and let their people know peace; but to give up a large measure of their their independence as a trade. But why should we be listened to? Trust is needed before talk, and thus far our only contact with our current enemies has been war. What else can we offer?


It is an expensive coin: you can fight for it, but never claim it for yourself. It is only yours as long as others believe it should be. And if it is ever lost, it is nearly impossible to reclaim.

We learned this to our cost in Somalia.

In 1992, the Canadian Airborne was sent into a war zone, with either bad information or ill applied or abruptly changed plans. For whatever reason, instead of supplied being on board ship, the troops were ordered to establish a base on land, at Belet Huen. Now surrounded in a strange land by rival factions, mercenary forces, and desperate civilians instead of safely at sea, they were unprepared and ill-equipped for what was a radically different circumstance.

Thieves were nightly visitors, trying to steal what supplies they could grab for black market sales or personal use.

But there was another problem - one that wasn't revealed until much later: this supposedly elite unit of the armed forces had been raising red flags, as shown by at least two internal memos warning of arrogance and failed readiness tests before the mission even began. Reports of a rebel group within the Airborne, one whose symbol was the Confederate flag, who had former white supremacist members, and who Airborne commander Lt-Col Paul Morneau was so concerned about that he recommended they be left out of the Somalia mission: the 2 Commando.

Lt-Col Morneau was replaced shortly before the mission began.

Three months after Canada's arrival, a reporter noticed one soldier being taken from a holding cell, unconscious. It was an apparent attempted suicide by on member of 2 Commando, and it was the first crack in the facade of what we thought we were.

Soon after the reporter's story, it was discovered that two apparent thieves were killed on the Canadian compound. That in itself would not be too exceptional: that they were shot in the back was, and an inquiry was launched.

What came from the one incident, after years of silence, evasion, altered documents, re-named papers that "couldn't be found", and the resignation of Canada's top general, were stories of racism, willful ignorance from supposed leaders, and the photographed beating and murder of a 16 year old Somali civilian, Shidane Arone. This was a devastating blow not only to our international reputation, but to our national psyche.

At the cost of two Somali lives, with the evasiveness of trembling leaders, and because of the failed excision of a cancerous few, our honour demanded the elimination of the entire Airborne Regiment. It is the first, and thus far only, Canadian military unit to be broken in disgrace.

Was it worth it?

Consider now: with that history, in this time, in careful negotiations and cautious hope in Afghanistan, what else could we reply? What result if the 2 Commando were in that nation now?

Honour is an expensive coin, one that is always being paid for. We cannot afford to waste it.


posted by Thursday at 8:43 pm


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