Canada has now lost 90 soldiers and 1 senior diplomat in the NATO operations in Afghanistan. Each time this occurs, its headline news and all our news networks show ceremonies commemorating the soldiers service. And so they should. They died doing the right thing and trying to make a difference and to prevent a nation returning to servitude. We need to see each death as an opportunity to recommit to the mission – make Afghanistan safe so that reconstruction can take place for one of the poorest countries in the world.
But there is something else going on – something I am finding difficult. It’s the idea that this level of deaths is unacceptable and against the post second world war role of Canada in the world. It is almost like suggesting that no Canadian solider should ever die while serving their country.
So lets get things in perspective. When Canadian troops were involved in action in World War I in such battles as Passchendaele (the subject of a powerful new film), we lost this number of soldiers every few minutes. In fact, death of allied soldiers was 2 persons killed for every inch of ground gained – a total of 140,000. Canada took the Belgian town in November 1917, led by Sir Arthur William Currie.
In World War II, Canada lost a lot of soldiers in World War II – 45,000 in all, with an additional 54,000 wounded. On June 6, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on Juno Beach in the Battle of Normandy and sustained 50% casualties in their first hour of attack. By the end of D-Day, the Canadians had penetrated deeper into France than either the British or the American troops at their landing sites, overcoming stronger resistance than any of the other beachheads except Omaha Beach. 5,300 Canadians died trying to liberate Italy.
In the Korean War . some eleven army officers, 298 other ranks and 3 sailors fell in action. Fifty-nine officers and 1143 other ranks were wounded or injured. By all accounts, the Canadians performed exceptionally.
Since the end of the War many Canadians think that we have focused entirely on peace-keeping and that we are the leading peace keeping nation in the world. In part this is because we did well in the first Gulf War (1991), though we did have just 2,000 troops involved. Also, we did focus on peace keeping – often a dangerous activity. In the Balkans alone Canada suffered 11 fatalities and 102 wounded.
Canada is engaged in Afghanistan because it is the right thing to do. The Taliban were brital and repressive – beheading teachers if women were in the class, stoning people and generally pursuing an agenda unacceptable in the modern world. If we are not willing to intervene, to risk to defend human rights, then we should not have pretentions about being a world power and influential nation.
We dishonour our troops by decrying the mission in Afghanistan. Its now fashionable to think that war is wrong and peacekeeping is about diplomacy – it worked well in Zimbabwe didn’t it!
We need to think carefully before committing troops – it’s the most awful decision a Prime Minister can make (and this one was made originally by a Liberal Prime Minister). It is part of the burden of power. But once we have made this decision – it was the right thing to do and it remains the right thing to be doing – we should do all we can to minimise casualties but accept that it is part of the commitment we are making.
Honour those who have fallen. Honour those who continue to defend and build a new society in Afghanistan. Honour the mission, Accept that casualties will occur and don’t pretend that all situations can be solved by talk. They can’t.