David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

War and Remembrance

Brandon Sun, November 7, 2011 - David McConkey

So the Harper government is going to build up the memory of the War of 1812 during that war’s upcoming bicentennial? I’m all for learning more about our history. But this government applies too much simple thinking to both the past and the present. Especially when it comes to war, which requires a real appreciation of complexity.

According to federal heritage minister James Moore in a recent Maclean’s interview, remembrance of the War of 1812 can help move Canada away from a liberal outlook. In particular, Moore says, enthusiastically marking the 200-year-old war can help erase the legacy of Pierre Trudeau.

“There is this leftist mythology that Canadian history began with the election of Pierre Trudeau,” Moore says. “That’s utterly irresponsible. There is a Canadian identity that goes back much farther and we should be very proud of that.”

Again, great idea to better understand our past. But not if the objective is so simple minded. A complicated issue like war requires much more than just attacking the spectre of “leftist mythology” and banishing the ghost of Pierre Trudeau.

And that goes for an understanding of wars not only in the past, but also in the present. Look where simple thinking got us in our latest war, the engagement in Afghanistan. 

When Harper became Prime Minister, he simplified Canada’s mission: we would not “cut and run.” In the end, however, Canada did “cut and run.” The Afghanistan war became the first time that Canada left the battlefield when our allies were still fighting. (When Canada departed this summer, 46 countries still had combat troops in Afghanistan.)

The war in Afghanistan – in the number of troops deployed and length of time involved – has overtaken Korea to became the third largest military effort in our history.

But the war was conducted poorly by our government. That is the conclusion of a new report from the think tank the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. The report, Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn from Afghanistan, is by two respected military historians, David Bercuson and J. L. Granatstein.

The report’s authors call Afghanistan a “just war,” where the “Canadian Forces served with great distinction” and “fought with honour and courage.”

But the authors criticize the simplistic approach taken by our government. For example, when the commitment was made to put our troops into a more dangerous role in Afghanistan, “apparently no one in the government had consulted the CF high command to find out if the Canadian Forces had the resources.”

And how much did the government really know, the report asks, “about the complex cultural structure of Kandahar province; the line-up of tribes, radical Islamic groups, al Qaeda, the Taliban, drug lords and others; or realize how much the corruption of the Karzai government had undermined stability in the region?”

The report is actually too gentle in its criticism of the federal government. Importantly, the report ignores how much our engagement in Afghanistan became part of the American-led war on drugs. As such, the mission was doomed to not succeed, as the war on drugs has been a failure everywhere.

Also, the report fails to emphasize that our troops should have been better equipped. For example, as the Americans are doing, provide equipment like mine resistant trucks to better protect against improvised explosive devices.

As citizens, we must challenge our government to look at the complexities when Canada is engaging globally – in diplomacy, war, peacekeeping, trade, the environment, or international development.
Now, what about that “leftist mythology” that was exemplified by Pierre Trudeau?

Actually, with Trudeau as Prime Minister, Canada had a much more robust military than with Harper at the helm.

Under Trudeau, the Canadian Forces had as many as 100,000 troops. Under Harper, the current number is 68,000. In terms of military spending as a proportion of the economy, Trudeau spent more than twice as much money as Harper. That included Trudeau’s buying many more fighter jets than Harper.

What about that? Turns out that the past is complicated. So is the present. Simple thinking about complex issues like war is just not good enough.

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See also:  

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little

Canadians Must Maintain a Higher Standard in War

Community Memorials a Link to the Great War

We Can Forge a New Drug Policy

Stephen Harper is the New Pierre Trudeau

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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