Why has no widespread anti-war movement emerged?
One thing Canadians have learned from our armed incursion into Afghanistan is that we do not have a vocabulary for discussing war or warlike events. Judging by what we hear and read in the media, people find it difficult if not impossible to get past the simplistic conviction that supporting our troops means supporting the war, or, conversely, that criticizing government policy is tantamount to abandoning our soldiers.
Our political leaders, and most of the journalists that I have been reading, deploy tired historical analogies about “appeasement” and issue dire warnings that we mustn’t “cut and run,” that we must “stay the course.” But clichés, no matter how heartfelt, do not make a foreign policy, and they are no help in sorting out one’s own thoughts about the war. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his supporters keep saying that we have to do something to stop the terrorists, but there is little debate about whether what we are doing will succeed in that purpose.
It is clear that events are going badly in Afghanistan. More and more of our soldiers are dying. The promised “reconstruction,” the ostensible aim of our presence there, is not taking place. How can it, with war raging? As the fighting drags on and more civilians are killed, the local population inevitably turns against us. Canadians have become the latest in a long line of foreign invaders, each of whom has been driven, defeated, from the country. The opium harvest is the largest in years; the Afghan government is acknowledged to be corrupt.
It would seem to be time for a proper reassessment of Canada’s role. But instead, the government in September announced that it was going to increase our commitment by sending more troops and tanks. Evidently, Prime Minister Harper has no intention of rethinking the war.
In the spring of 2006, he reluctantly agreed to allow a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. Despite insistent demands for the debate by opposition parties, it turned out that no one had anything of consequence to say. At that time, polls indicated that a majority of Canadians opposed the war, yet none of our politicians raised any arguments around which a broadly based opposition to the war might rally.
A short time later, the Harper government surprised everyone by calling for a quick parliamentary vote to extend the military commitment by two years. Again, opposition was muted. Many MPS voted against the extension, but they made it clear that they did so because they objected more to the government’s blatant opportunism than to the war itself. For a long time, no one in government would even refer to Afghanistan as a war. It was a mission, or a deployment, or some other euphemism. At times we seemed to believe that our purpose was to ensure equal access to education for Afghani women—the strangest rationale for war I’ve ever heard. At least by this past summer we were agreed that for the first time since Korea, Canada is at war. Which was good to know, because by September more than thirty Canadian soldiers had died in the conflict that we can now call a war.
A strong sign of the immaturity of the national debate was the response to a call by Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, to remove Canadian troops by February 2007 and the beginning of talks with the “enemy.” Layton was accused by various newspaper columnists of being naïve, cowardly, even treasonous. Christie Blatchford, the Globe & Mail reporter whose dispatches from Afghanistan have been particularly maudlin and embarrassing, was outraged that Layton should consider negotiating with the people who had “murdered” our soldiers. But unless we manage to kill off every member of the Taliban, surely an unlikely outcome, we and our allies are going to have to sit down and talk to them at some point. That is how conflicts get resolved, not by petulant name-calling.
As the summer drew to a close, the vilification of Layton’s proposal in the mainstream press raised another question. Why has no widespread anti-war movement emerged? Press coverage largely supports the government. None of the front-runners in the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party is calling for a significant change in policy. Outside of Quebec, public opinion actually has rallied behind the government. Many so-called progressive leftists support “robust internationalism,” by which is meant support for military intervention in the name of human rights and democratic values; i.e., support for the Afghan invasion—which more or less dodges the issue of whether waging war in support of human rights is the proper way to achieve them. In August, Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, spoke eloquently against the war. Although her message was applauded by the audience, I get the impression that the Council’s opposition to the government’s Afghan policy is a voice crying in the wilderness.
In the past, Canadians have shown ourselves to be comfortable having public conversations about such arcane subjects as the constitution, Senate reform and asymmetrical federalism. But the so-called war on terror turns out to have dulled our critical faculties. Faced with soldiers dying in foreign adventures against enemies who are little more than caricatures, we appear to have taken refuge in knee-jerk patriotism.
I fear that we will stumble deeper into a mess in Afghanistan—sending more troops, losing more lives, achieving about as much as the Soviets before us (which is to say, nothing)—not because we have made a bad decision, but because we are not mature enough to know how to talk about it at all.