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Issue Date:  April 28, 2006

The bitter necessity of force

Canadian debate highlights the paradox of 'peacekeeping' in Afghanistan


Canada’s first true combat death since 1974 took place March 29. The death of Pvt. Robert Costall was the final kindling needed to spark a quintessentially Canadian debate: Everyone was on the same side. All Parliamentary parties -- those that had agitated for the public debate and those that had strenuously resisted -- agreed that they support our Afghanistan mission despite more than 50 injured and 12 killed in accidents, insurgent attacks and friendly fire since 2002.

This preoccupation with a few casualties and even fewer deaths must appear odd to Americans, who count their own war dead at more than 280 in Afghanistan, 2,350 in Iraq. While a war debate might seem familiar, our approach is decidedly foreign. Canada does not have the same military tradition as America. There’s been no draft since World War II, no discounts for currently serving and retired military members at stores and restaurants. Instead, we have a self-image defined by “peacekeeping,” a legacy to our national psyche from Lester B. Pearson.

Mr. 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 have grown up believing that our military’s proper role is disaster relief at home and peacekeeping abroad -- anything but actually fighting.

Notwithstanding the recent debate, it’s a view also held by some federal politicians. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, has repeatedly argued that Canadian soldiers take a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, rather than pursuing armed insurgents. As he said in January, “What Canadians do not support, in my view, is a warlike, offensive role in the context of Afghanistan.”

At least one officer agrees with the gentleman. In a radio interview, retired Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie referred to polls indicating that most Canadians prefer peacekeeping missions for our military. But Gen. MacKenzie went on, his voice rising in frustration, “There are none. There are none!”

What are we to make of this disparity of views?

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 preemptively 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. Heavily armed soldiers handing out candy to kids in Kandahar become a metaphor for the power to wage war, held in check solely by the decision not to.

All this has nothing to do with what is happening in Afghanistan, where insurgents 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 legitimately constituted government and are willing to kill to achieve this end?

NATO’s Afghanistan mission is about making war, making peace and building a nation: dangerous, complex, long-term tasks with uncertain outcomes. Given the situation, we can stay home or we can go in fighting. Being in Afghanistan necessarily involves casualties: Even if we draw no weapons, others are not so restrained. Unless we send soldiers in as sitting ducks, we must 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. 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 the remaining 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; it is hard to disagree with intellectual honesty 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 neighborhoods 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 kill and die 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, navigating as safely as possible in the world as it is, and maneuvering intelligently to effect the change we want.

Isabel Gibson writes from Ottawa.

Related Web sites

Canadian casualties in Afghanistan

American and coalition casualties in Iraq

American and coalition casualties in Afghanistan

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2006

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