Print Edition: November 9, 2011
This Friday will be the first Remembrance Day ever to occur on 11/11/11, a notational quirk which will not be repeated for another century. Coincidentally, the year 2011 also marks the end of the first decade of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, and the beginning of new non-combat role for the Canadian forces in Kabul.
For me, both November 11 and the transformed Afghan mission are hard to reconcile to my personal convictions about the nature of war. This is neither to say that I don’t “support our troops,” nor that I have adopted, as is so commonly expressed, the notion of divorcing the individuals in uniform from their role in the greater war machine, and praising one while damning the other. The reasons behind “the war machine” are often a mix of justifiably righteous and grossly practical motivations, and the individual soldiers themselves are just as difficult to squeeze into one easily-definable mold. What I find hard to reconcile is a matter of principle – the need to honour those who fall protecting freedom, balanced against my need to condemn the method by which they protect it.
I’m not actually, at heart, a true pacifist. I am very aware of the contention between the moral absolutes which make (in my opinion) such a position untenable. Yet I have a deep respect for people like my grandfather, who spent WWII in a work camp as a conscientious objector, and the position of my Mennonite ancestors in war-torn Russia, who were willing to give their own lives rather than harm the army deserters who raided their villages. For me, November 11 is about remembering them as well, along with the millions of other civilians who slipped beneath the tides of war, never to rise again. They may not have been part of the military complex, they may never have taken up arms in defense of king or country, yet their stories are tied up in the war experience and the questions that we are forced to ponder each November about ourselves and the human capacity for violence.
I find myself more able to stand with Canada’s military now that our official stance in Afghanistan has changed. However, as many of you know by now, on October 29, the Canadian Forces suffered its 158th casualty of the war, Master Corporal Byron Greff. While I am deeply against using a soldier’s death in the line of duty as a segue into a critique of that same duty, it does bother me that the Corporal’s death came after Canada has relinquished its “combat role” in Afghanistan. Much has been made of the Canadian Forces’ new role as teachers, trainers, promoters of diplomacy, and deliverers of humanitarian aid, all of which I wholeheartedly support, especially since it implies the assurance of safety for our troops.
This official presentation of our role hardly seems to be consistent with the facts on the ground as I discovered from a conversation with a friend. In this new role, officially Canadian troops are to stay behind “the wire” (the guarded perimeter of the military camp), yet the reality of warfare rarely follows the official plan.
As a former member of the British Army, my friend served in Iraq, and his brother is both a member of the Canadian Forces and a friend of the late Corporal Greff. In his eyes the danger is still very real.
“Before my brother deployed,” he told me, “we were sitting around with a couple of his friends…and we were all talking and I said ‘So your mandate isn’t a combat role?’…’So you land in Kabul national airport,’ and I said ‘How are you getting to your base?’”
For those of you who don’t know, Corporal Greff was one of 13 NATO personnel killed when a car packed with explosives collided with their armoured bus. The armoured bus is also the form of transportation used to ferry troops between the airport and “the wire,” or military compound.
“IEDs are everywhere…,” my friend continued, “people watch. You think that every single movement that is made isn’t watched? That’s insanity. They don’t just put 700 kg of explosives in a guy’s car just to drive around arbitrarily and look for a patrol. No, they’ve been watching that patrol, they’ve been calling out when they pass certain checkpoints. It’s well thought out…how do you get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’? Road move. What does that imply? IEDs. What does that imply? [They’ll] cut through an armoured bus in a heartbeat. This isn’t rocket science…if six private soldiers sitting around can come to this conclusion then the government [obviously can as well].”
Aside from the logistics of transportation, “the wire” itself is hardly immune to “IDF,” or indirect fire. The mortar was essentially invented to crack hardened positions, and mortars are something the insurgency has in abundance.
“A mortar team can jump out of their Toyota pick-up, fire six bombs in what, thirty seconds, maximum, and be on their way before anyone can do anything….In Iraq, I think one night we got hit with 75 107mm Chinese-made rockets in the span of six minutes. That was like some sort of record, they fired from like 12 firing points simultaneously.”
Obviously I’m not providing a comprehensive analysis of the new Canadian presence in Afghanistan, nor implying that “the wire” will receive anything like the punishment my friend’s camp suffered in Iraq, but I am concerned about the presentation of this new role as a safe alternative to combat duty. The end of Canada’s “combat role” does not neutralize the danger its troops face working in a combat zone, nor the determined hostility of the opposition.
This November 11, even as I attempt to reconcile my own personal conflict, I will be remembering Corporal Greff and the rest of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. The men and women who are in danger every day from a war that is officially over, yet are pursuing a mandate that I find closer to my own concept of freedom than any combat operation.