Is war the father of us all?
War is the Father of us all. – Herodotus, Greek historian, 5th C. BCE
Study War No More. – 1960’s peace poster
War is over, if you want it. – John Lennon
Forgive me Lord, I do so love it. – General Patton, American Army
War is the typical normal condition of humanity, not peace. – James Hillman, psychologist
Letters to a local print newspaper, The Nelson Star, have had writers at odds over capitalism and socialism (Pratt vs. Fuller) and business vs. working people (Abrahams vs. Osak). There was even a woman critiquing a Christian bishop over the new pope, making the point that papal religion is “bronze age ideology.” Canadians have a lot to fight over, eh?
Readers, pause for gratitude. Our fights are figurative, not literal. War is far from our homes. But Canada has made a new precedent for itself since 2001, going far around the globe to make war in the middle of Asia in a mission that is patently a capitalist post-colonial police action to defend imperial power. We thus became like America, Britain and France.
Our media has ignored the radical newness of this policy; we never used to fight insurgencies.
My weekly radio program, The History Hour, has for several seasons taken as its theme the topic of war and military history. Not a topic that many might, in a Lennon-esque way, want to hear about. Now I need to write about it. Canada’s Afghan Mission demands it. Our news media do not apologize, ever, for error, yet they were mute or inert as critics of our violence in Asia.
1) What did Canadians want to accomplish by letting our government send our forces to Asia to kill and destroy? (2) Do we think the mission was worth the atrocities of violence and waste? (3) Did we think hard about it? If not, why not? (4) Did we try democratically to change government policy if we disagreed?
I will answer my questions in order.
1) The Mission was to protect the new government of Afghanistan, installed early in 2002 by the invasion of the nation by the US and its NATO allies including Canada. Kabul was quickly occupied and a Constitution put in place that was written for a republic with Islam as its majority religion but with rights for minorities and for women, and President Karzai was elected. We would train and equip his armed forces and defend his regime against insurgents. We would build some schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, too, to show the people our good intentions and assist Karzai. We decided what territories to protect, and tried to make those zones secure for civilian life.**
2) We did believe the invasion and new regime was worth the small number of our casualties. The invasion begun within three weeks of 9-11 was the American response to being attacked. The US invoked the NATO treaty terms: the allies fight together so that all must defend any member that is attacked. Afghans of ethnic groups other than the Pashtuns in the south were eager to help overthrow the Kabul Taliban regime. We had a swift “victory.” But the warlords who helped defeat the Taliban didn’t do it to help us attain our goals.
3) Canadians were told about the Taliban in a way designed to manipulate opinion against their regime: their record on women’s rights, minority religious rights, education, justice were judged to be atrocious. We began to see ourselves as bringers of our way of life to people desperate for it.
Perhaps if Canadian forces and other NATO troops quickly left Afghanistan after the new government was in power, at the end of 2002, we would have scored a success and had very few casualties. But we did not think about what we were doing when we entered a land where the people, their culture, history, economy, and politics, were so alien to the Western mind. Our NATO Treaty commitments were falsely invoked by the USA and President Bush; yet we did not raise any objections to going, so soon after September 11, 2001.
We were doing something we had never in our history done before: we were invading a land where there was no external invader to expel. We went to fight internal insurgents and create a regime and a society we thought was better. We did not know what the masses of Afghans wanted and we talked only to those whose minds were heavily influenced by Western attitudes of normalcy.
Karzai was a great figurehead for a regime comprehensible to electorates in rich Western democracies. He speaks English. He dresses well, is handsome, has the political lexicon of a Westerner, and is a Pashtun — he is of the ethnicity of people in the south of Afghanistan roughly half the nation’s population. Pashtuns originated the Taliban political/ religious faction that took over the country’s Kabul government in the wake of a civil war from 1988 to 1996.
That long bloody civil war was not covered by Western media. We did nothing to interfere or help the people who were dying in it. The Taliban won. They built the first national regime with real power to rule since the Soviet Army had evacuated in 1988. The Soviets had backed a Marxist Afghan regime since 1976, and invaded in 1980. The US armed anti-Soviet forces, and “won” when the Russians left. Then America’s attention faded. While Afghans killed one another with US weapons, the US ignored the chaos.
The Northern Alliance of non-Pashtuns lost the contest with Taliban forces, but their feudal lords kept some regional power and were only looking for a chance to reverse the verdict of the civil war. In 2001, that chance came. Hence, we and NATO came into a situation with a long, deep history — and we knew nothing about it. But our ignorance made us arrogant.
4) The great misery of Canada’s new foreign policy is that we have become like “white man’s” powers who’ve been intervening for over a century around the globe in places where the empires saw “reasons of state” to impose a government over people far from imperial homelands. Canada has a historical record of not helping any empire impose its rule over foreign folk. We refused to go to war against African Boers in their rebellion against Britain (1899) against the Irish (1918/22), the Turks (1922) rebels in India (post-WWI era) or African rebels (post-WWII era) or in Vietnam. We were, happily, not colonialists.
In summary then, the worst effect of the Afghan Mission is its precedent. We have since then helped Libyan rebels against their dictator, but thankfully our PM has said no to interventions in Mali or Syria, and I am grateful to him for that. I hope he said no because he reads well the mind of Canadians. We do not want another Afghan-style intervention war that costs us dear in our soldiers’ lives and war expenditures. We are not imperial police, so, we do not invade to make alien people be like Westerners. We won’t impose political or religious empire on them.
My last question is whether we will educate ourselves enough to stop a policy such as we upheld in Afghanistan when we learn it is wrong-headed. We did not learn sufficiently about the Afghan Mission before we had our soldiers there, dying and killing. Once we’ve let blood on the ground, it is too late. The soldiers’ families, the armed forces, the Royal Canadian Legion – these are potent voices denying the call to stop, voices saying: “We must fight until we win or they died for nothing, their deaths will mean nothing.” And even our progressive voices, such as feminists, are co-opted by saying Canada was in Afghanistan to enforce women’s rights. It is up to us to stop our wars before we attempt “the military solution.”
I believe in educating Canada’s electorate. We can be helpful abroad — if we learn to look before we leap. I try to inform Nelson’s public opinion every year at Remembrance Day, by carrying anti-war messages at the cenotaph. It makes me unpopular. But some people thank me.
**A hardly-acknowledged motive for the Mission was purely a political-military agenda: Harper wants us to stand tall, be assertive, on the global stage. The Canadian armed forces’ high command, with the PM at the apex, wished to upgrade our capacity for war to a high level commensurate with 21st Century technologies and training for violence. This motive has accomplished its goals. Canadians are asleep to that fact, innocents in geopolitics as we are. We once were proud of our UN peacekeepers role. Now we are not helping in that role in any major fashion, while much less-affluent nations supply significant peacekeepers in the world’s worst war zones.
If we want to atone for our violence in Afghanistan, we must be very generous in bringing Afghan immigrants to Canada. We should take as many as need to come, and be less eager to let in Asians whose main qualification is their economic benefit to Canada. Immigration policy in this nation is dictated by the needs of corporations for workers, and by demand for investment capital that wealthy foreigners produce in exchange for their citizenship.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.