Image by Sheila Steele
It’s great to see resistance growing against Canada’s slavish following of the U.S. war machine. Franciso Juarez was speaking in Toronto Oct. 28/06 to a rally which was one of 37 city protests in Canada.
(This grab is from an earlier interview) We need more brave Canadians like this!
Half of all Canadians want troops pulled out of Afghanistan: Poll
David Staples, CanWest News Service, Tuesday, October 31, 2006
EDMONTON – Canada is on new and shaky ground in the Afghan conflict. An unprecedented number of citizens are wavering in their support of the battle, something that Canada’s most prominent military historians say never happened in previous wars.
In some recent polls, about half of all Canadians said the federal government should pull the troops from Afghanistan. Such open talk of leaving never occurred during the Boer War, the First or Second World Wars or the Korean War.
"It’s a different country now and I’m not sure I’m all that happy about it,” says University of Calgary military historian David Bercuson. "Public support for the war is a news issue in a way that was not the case in earlier wars.”
Canadians are so lukewarm about Afghanistan that the issue has transcended the usual divide in our politics. In the past, English-Canadians generally favoured joining in with the country’s major allies to fight foreign enemies, while French-Canadians generally were against doing so, says Pierre Martin, a University of Montreal political scientist. But with the Afghanistan conflict, English-Canadians have also started to question things.
"This is unusual ground for us,” says Prof. Kim Richard Nossal of Queen’s University, author of The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy. "Quite clearly what we’re seeing is some serious difficulties in terms of sustaining public support, and not only in Quebec.”
Support for military action by Canadian troops against al-Qaida and the Taliban has dropped from a high of 80 per cent in the weeks after the 9/11 attack. This summer, as Canadian troops began dying in larger numbers in Afghanistan, polls pegged national support for Canada’s role in the war at between 40 and 50 per cent. Support is lowest in Quebec (below 40 per cent), but it also dipped below 50 per cent in several other provinces.
Canadian armies suffered far greater losses in previous wars, with hundreds of men killed in single engagements (such as the Dieppe raid on Aug. 19, 1942, where 907 soldiers were killed), but never before has there been such a resulting dip in support, Bercuson says.
"What is happening here now is we’ve got 42 people dead in Afghanistan, and people are saying, `It’s time to go home.’ The Canada of 1942 would not have thrown up its hands the week after Dieppe and said, `It’s time to go home.’ People rolled up their sleeves and they said, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to try harder.’ ”
So why is the attitude so different now?
It’s clear that Canadian society has changed dramatically since the Boer War (1899-1902) and the First World War (1914-1918). These wars were the last time that large numbers of Canadians showed unbridled, flag-waving enthusiasm for war, says war historian Des Morton of McGill University.
At that time, the vast majority of English-Canadians were either born in Great Britain or had parents or grandparents from Great Britain. Many still identified strongly with “Queen and Empire.”
Nossal says his students today are puzzled by the notion Canada should spend money and lives in a war as far removed from the Canadian experience as Afghanistan is, but this wasn’t the case with English-Canadians in the early 1900s.
"If you’re a good Imperialist, you would see a defeat for the Empire in one place as a defeat everywhere,” Nossal said.
Only French-Canadians were against joining in the Boer War. They saw themselves as victims of British Imperialism, Martin says. Many of them identified with the enemy, the Dutch Afrikaners, and saw the conflict as a British imperialistic adventure. In the end, a volunteer force of roughly 8,000 Canadians fought there, with 244 men dying, half of them from disease.
The same pattern of anglophone support and francophone resistance developed during the First World War.
Quebecers resisted even though it was largely fought in France, the mother country of French-Canadians.
There had been little migration from France to Quebec since the 1760s. Family ties between the two places were weak, Nossal says.
"Many in French-speaking Canada simply didn’t see this as a war that involved Canadian interests.”
English Canada supported the war even after Canadian troops were slaughtered in the trenches (60,000 Canadians died in the First World War).
"There was never any notion that, `Well, we should bring the troops home,’ ” Nossal says.
"If in 1916 you actually say, `We’ve now lost 25,000 men, it’s time to come home,’ then what you’ve essentially said is that you’ve wasted those 25,000 men.”
"Here is where a weird reverse logic kicks in: the more men you lose, the more that you have to remain committed to the fight to ensure that you don’t diminish their memory by cutting and running and wasting their supreme sacrifice.”
After the battle of Ypres in April 1915 _ which saw gas attacks and the deaths of 6,000 Canadians soldiers over a three-day period _ enlistment in Canada actually shot up, Morton says.
The main opposition to the war came in 1917, when the federal government brought in measures to conscript troops and French-Canadians rioted. “We came as close to splitting the country then as we did in 1995,” Morton says.
But French Canada never argued that English Canada shouldn’t fight the war, only that French-Canadians shouldn’t be forced to fight.
A similar dynamic developed in the Second World War when the federal government brought in conscription in 1944, though this time the French-Canadian reaction wasn’t nearly so negative, as all Canadians accepted the need to confront Hitler.
More than 42,000 Canadians died in the Second World War but, again, there was never any talk of pulling out of the battle. Unlike today with Canada’s adventure in Afghanistan, it was a time of total war, Nossal says, where everyone sacrificed. Any talk that might encourage the enemy was seen as unpatriotic and subject to censorship, or even arrest if it was deemed that a speaker actually sided with the enemy, Bercuson says.
In the early 1940s, polls were taken by the federal government for the first time, but the pollsters never asked if people supported the war. It simply wasn’t an issue.
Like the Afghanistan conflict, the Korean War was a limited war, led by the U.S. under a United Nations mandate and fought in a faraway country. The Canadian army was made up of volunteers and there were fewer killed _ 512. But unlike Afghanistan, public support never wavered in Korea.
"Everybody would regret the casualties, but it wouldn’t have resulted in an attack on government policy,” says Korean War expert Prof. Denis Stairs of Dalhousie University.
Not even in French Canada did the Korean War spark resistance. The province was still firmly Catholic, and the Chinese Communists, who supported North Korea, had brutally persecuted Catholics in the late 1940s, Nossal says. “From every pulpit in Quebec, priests were excoriating the Chinese Communists. This was a righteous fight.”
The current public wavering over Afghanistan is mainly the result of dramatic changes in the way Canadian society deals with combat deaths, military historian J.L. Granatstein says. Canada used to bury its dead on foreign soil, but that practice changed during Canada’s peacekeeping era of 1950-2000, with the bodies flown home for burial. Television cameras now roll as the caskets arrive on Canadian soil. Much more is made of each death than in the past, Granatstein says.
"If in World War One we had brought the casualties home in the way that we do them today, I don’t think that support would have lasted more than a month, and the same in World War Two E I don’t think any war effort can withstand that.”
A related issue, Morton argues, is that Canadians are less religious today. "In a secular society, we don’t have a great big heaven where (the dead soldiers) live happily ever after. Death is now an unrequited tragedy for everyone involved.”
There is a new equation for war support in Canada, says Martin. When the death toll mounts, support drops.
This dynamic was first seen during the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s. At first, Canadians supported involvement in the Balkans, Martin says. But after the Serbian kidnapping and mock execution of 11 Canadian troops in December 1993, support for the Balkans mission dropped rapidly.
At the same time, he says, Prime Minister Jean Chretien presented a confused picture of his government’s stand on Bosnia when he declared he was considering the removal of Canada’s troops.
When troop losses are coupled with mixed messages from political leaders, support tends to plummet even more, Martin says. “If the political leaders can’t quite explain in three or four sentences why they’re doing what they’re doing, people start having doubts and questioning.”
Just as in Bosnia, the Canadian public initially showed strong support for the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. One poll conducted a week after 9/11 found 81 per cent of Canadians favoured joining a military alliance to fight terrorists. But right from the start, the Liberal government gave unclear messages about what Canada’s involvement would be, Nossal says.
In the first few years of fighting, Canadian snipers were killing great numbers of the Taliban, but this was never heralded by the Liberals, Nossal says. Both Chretien and former prime minister Paul Martin preferred to sell the mission as peacekeeping and nation-building rather than as a war on the Taliban and al-Qaida.
"The Liberal governments that got us involved in Afghanistan did so without really levelling with the Canadian people,” Nossal says.
The notion Canadians are in Afghanistan only as peacekeepers is the most recent incarnation of four decades of Canada convincing itself that it is the world’s moral superpower, Granatstein says.
In this way of thinking, Canada’s job is never to make war, but to spread peace and the values of multiculturalism, gender equality and social justice. Many Canadians are so convinced of this world view that it is incomprehensible to them that a group like al-Qaida might see Canada as the enemy, Granatstein says.
"We have a society that is not aware of its national interest and forgets we are a country that simply cannot be loved by everyone, and that there are people out there who want to kill us. I think a harder, more realistic view of the world is essential for Canadians,” said Granatstein.
Public support in Canada only started to drop when Canadian soldiers moved into the violent Kandahar region in February 2006. By May _ when the House of Commons, led by Stephen Harper’s new Conservative minority, voted 149-145 to extend the mission until 2009 _ an Ipsos-Reid poll found that just 57 per cent of Canadians supported the use of Canadian troops to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. Support continued to fall through the summer, as more troops died. An Ipsos-Reid poll in July showed 47-per-cent support for the mission.
Since then, Harper has spoken out repeatedly in favour of the mission. Popular support has risen slightly. Harper is doing a better job than Chretien or Martin, but must do more, Nossal says. "What we really need is the prime minister to go on TV, a national broadcast, and say, `This is why we’re there. This is why Canadians are dying.’ ”
In early September, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Canada should pull its troops from Afghanistan and blasted Harper’s government for joining in the United States’ so-called war on terror.
Back in the 1950s, the NDP’s predecessor, the CCF, backed the war mission in Korea. The socialist party was afraid if it spoke out against the war, it would be labelled pro-communist, Granatstein says. But it’s now clear a party can win votes by appealing to anti-American sentiment, he says.
It’s also permissible to voice such comments because Afghanistan isn’t a total war, like the Second World War.
"In 1939, if you were against the war, you must be for Hitler. Today you can be against the war and simply say, `Well, it’s the wrong place’ or, `It costs too much money’ or, `Too many lives are being lost’ or whatever argument you want to make.”
The unpopularity of U.S. President George W. Bush and his war in Iraq is by far the most important reason Canadians are doubting the Afghanistan mission, Bercuson says. “They (the antiwar coalition) can’t make the case without pinning it to George W. Bush.”
But Bercuson says Canada’s Afghanistan mission has little to do with Bush, that even a more dovish president like Jimmy Carter would have had to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida, and that Canada inevitably would have helped out militarily.
Morton agrees federal leaders have done a poor job explaining that it’s imperative to fight in Afghanistan simply because we must stay on good terms with the U.S. government.
"We weren’t affected by 9/11, we were affected by 9/12, which is when the (American) border closed, and everything we have done since 9/12 has been to keep that border open, as best we can, and to keep on terms with a relatively uncomfortable ally,” he says. "And even if we don’t think they’re rocket scientists, or even bow-and-arrowists, we still have to keep on terms with them.”
When he recently visited a Canadian army base, Morton found much support for the troops, but also many soldiers who were tired of the conflict and asking, "How many times are we going to have to go back?” and "What is the winning strategy? What is the end-game?”
The main problem with the Afghanistan conflict is it’s dragging on, Morton says, and people wonder if it can ever be won. A recent Decima Research poll suggested 59 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement that “Canadian soldiers are dying for a cause we cannot win.”
But if the antiwar movement were to succeed in getting Canada to pull out of Afghanistan before its commitments were met, the consequences would be dire, Nossal says.
"If Canada now withdraws, it would cause huge rifts, and not just with the United States, but with other countries that would have to pick up our slack.”