On May 9th, the Globe and Mail featured “In photos: Faces of honour on a day marking Canada’s Afghan mission.” The piece was introduced with the words, “Day-long event commemorates Canada’s sacrifices during guerilla war that claimed the lives of 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors.”
I do not honor those who carried guns in an illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation. I do not honor sacrifices in support of America’s global ambition, including revenge. Those who ‘served’ did not make Canada, freedom or me safer; they made the world less safe. I will not participate in the murder of civilians or the rape of a vulnerable nation by being pressured into the appearance of approval. Those who voluntarily ‘served’ should be ashamed of themselves.
There are Canadians who deserve to be honored; they’re the ones who spoke out against the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
In the months after 9-11, anti-war voices were isolated and treated with general hostility by the public. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers was too fresh, and the soldiers committed to Afghanistan were not draftees. America had learned two lessons from Vietnam: fight the war with volunteers or mercenaries; and, do not give the media open access. The lack of a draft and of accurate coverage impeded the peace movement across North America.
On October 7, 2001, America began to bomb Afghanistan, claiming to target only military or terrorist sites. As of March 2014, an estimated 18,000 – 20,000 civilians have been killed in the war that was named “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Civilian casualties have been evident from the first bombing through to the current day. According to a recent United Nations report, 2,959 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2013 alone and 5,656 were injured. A report from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies (updated March 2014) suggests the indirect casualties may be far higher. “The war in Afghanistan continues taking and destroying lives, both due to the direct consequences of violence and the war-induced breakdown of public health, security, and infrastructure.”
To its shame, Canada almost immediately sent soldiers from its elite Joint Task Force 2 to Afghanistan. A contingent of regular troops arrived in January–February 2002. Canadians ended their combat role in 2011 but soldiers remained to oversee training programs until early 2014, making the Canadian presence span twelve years.
By spring of 2002, America was blatantly laying the groundwork to invade Iraq. The pretense? Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that had tobe destroyed.
Canada responded differently to the prospect of Iraq than it did to Afghanistan. On one hand, there was precedent for participation in Iraq because Canada had been part of an international coalition against that nation in the Gulf War (1991). Moreover, America exerted extreme pressure on then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to have Canada enlist in what was called “the Coalition of the Willing.”
But the Canadian public was against the invasion. A March 2003 poll sponsored by the Toronto Star and La Presse found 71% objected to an American-led invasion, with 27% expressing firm disapproval. Chrétien prudently wanted the United Nations’ sanction before putting boots onto yet another battleground. When America and the U.K. ceased diplomatic maneuvering with the UN, Chrétien announced that Canada would not join the anticipated invasion.
An American-led invasion of Iraq began a few days later on March 20th, 2003; no weapons of mass destruction were discovered.
Another factor undoubtedly influenced Chrétien’s refusal to directly participate in Iraq. Protests had been growing. On February 15th, a month before Chrétien’s announcement, there was a day of co-ordinated protests in eighty cities across Canada. In Montreal, an estimated 250,000 people clogged the downtown streets in one of the largest demonstrations in Canadian history. The participants were described as “a broad cross-section of Montreal’s population drawn from all the city’s major ethno-linguistic groups—French, English and immigrant. Young people comprised much of the throng, but there were also many working class families and large delegations of teachers and other professional workers from the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec.” Known as “F15,” the day of protest drew millions worldwide.
Other forms of protest garnered international attention. Canadian anti-war activist David Langille described one, “Several friends from the Vietnam era thought it ironic that the country with the most weapons of mass destruction was attacking a country that proved to have none.” Langille and his associates responded by creating the website “Rooting Out Evil” in order to assemble an international weapons inspection team to search for weapons of mass destruction in America. Langille claimed the website “attracted 28,000 honorary weapons inspectors from around the world, who contributed $26,000 on-line to send our team of parliamentarians and senators from Italy, Denmark, the U.K. and Canada down to Washington.” He added, “We got major attention on CNN and the BBC — but were virtually ignored by the Canadian media.”
The politicians paid enough attention, however, to make sure Canada’s role in Iraq was either limited or quietly conducted. Perhaps the most popular participation was when Canada joined with non-belligerent nations in an attempt to rebuild a post-invasion Iraq – an endeavor toward which a considerable amount of Canadian tax money was directed.
But Canada’s humanitarian role is a myth. Richard Sanders of the Coalition Opposed to the Arms Trade explained,“Canadian participation through the navy was quite significant, we had thousands of people aboard numerous multi-billion dollar frigates and a destroyer that were involved in leading and protecting and supplying the coalition navy in the initial invasion in 2003, as well as many times since over the years….[T]here were three different Canadian generals who held command positions leading the entire war, they were deputy commanders, so number two in command of the Iraq war. [T]hey each spent a year to a year and a half in Iraq. There was another Canadian general who led a US base where they trained thousands of US soldiers and sent them off to war in Iraq. We provided war planners which helped to organize the strategy for the wars, once it started.” In fact, Canada’s indirect contributions were greater than all but three other countries that were not officially part of “the Coalition of the Willing.”
As egregious as that support may be, it was limited by the decency of Canadians who protested or otherwise spoke out against war, in Afghanistan or Iraq. These people of conscience are the ones I honor as “war heroes.” I join them in urging other Canadians not to invade foreign lands and point guns at strangers who have done them no harm. Soldiers should put down their weapons, they should refuse to obey orders and so become true “war heroes.”