Sunday, April 08, 2007

What to say when soldiers die

Deepest condolences to the families of the Canadian soldiers who died today in Afghanistan. It must be unimaginable grief to endure such a loss.

It's also, however, appropriate to respectfully voice one's thoughts on the Afghanistan mission at times like these. These losses bring into focus the risk our soldiers are taking and force us to question why they are undergoing it. They're undertaking it, of course, because the Parliament has ordered them to do so. The people are sovereign in this country and we speak through our Parliament. We have the power to change this mission if we decide to do so or continue with it. We are a democracy and the call that we hear from voices in comment threads - see the Globe today - for silence, unquestioning support and suggestions of a lack of patriotism for asking simple questions or voicing opinions is antithetical to what we're about as a nation. Let's not fall prey to the oppressive group think we've seen elsewhere in the world where military missions are not to be questioned simply because they're ongoing.

So have your say today and as the Afghanistan mission continues. It's one of the greatest issues of our time and say whatever you like. Our soldiers understand we live in a democracy.

Harper is certainly having his say today, elevating Taliban terrorists to the same stature as the enemy fought in WWI:
“We still live in a dangerous world and as Prime Minister, my thoughts these days are never far from Afghanistan where a new generation of Canadian soldiers” carry the torch of Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian officer who penned the poem In Flanders Field.

“For these men and women, the terrain of Kandahar province looks as desolate and dangerous as Flanders field did 90 years ago,” Mr. Harper said.
The folly of elevating the struggle against terrorism to the level of previous world wars has been a favourite tool of Bush and Cheney and was used by them to justify the Iraq war. The two struggles don't compare. Here's why Harper's inflated rhetoric on terrorism and a world war is inappropriate today:
Al-Qaida or its sundry offshoots could crash many more airplanes, wreck many more buildings, and bomb many more subways—and the magnitude of their power, and the urgency of their threat, would still fall far short of that posed by Nazi Germany. The panzers of the Wehrmacht rolled across the plains of Europe, toppling governments with ease, imposing totalitarian regimes, and killing millions in their wake. This was a war of civilization on a level that today's war—however you might define it—doesn't begin to approach.
If this war's stakes are comparable to World War II's, the entire nation should be enlisted in its cause—not necessarily to fight in it, but at least to pay for it. And if President Bush is not willing to call for some sort of national sacrifice, he cannot expect anyone to believe the stakes are really high.
We're not being asked for that kind of sacrifice. It's never risen to that level. Here's Tom Friedman on the same point, when Bush has sought to similarly justify the Iraq war:

Mr. President, you want a surge? I'll surge. I'll surge on the condition that you once and for all enlist the entire American people in this war effort, and stop putting it all on the shoulders of 130,000 military families, and now 20,000 more. I'll surge on the condition that you make them fight all of us -- and that means a real energy policy, with a real gasoline tax, that ends our addiction to oil, shrinks the flow of petro-dollars to bad actors and makes America the world's leader in conservation.

But please, Mr. President, stop insulting our intelligence by telling us that this is the ''decisive ideological struggle of our time,'' but we're going to put the whole burden of victory on 150,000 U.S. soldiers. Yes, you're right, confronting violent Islamic radicalism by trying to tilt Iraq and the Arab-Muslim world onto a more progressive track is indeed hugely important. But the way you have fought this war -- with our pinky -- is contemptible. For three years you would not summon the military means to back your lofty ends.

The effort in Afghanistan is by all accounts insufficient. If nations of the world are serious about beating back the Taliban, it's going to require more than the few thousand Canadian soldiers that are there, likely more NATO troops and definitely more American troops who are otherwise entangled and whose army will within a year get to the point of unravelling. It may take a different approach. Smarter, faster, more flexible, fighting the insurgents on their own terrain. John Burns of the NY Times says the insurgents are funding the Iraq war themselves, at a cost of approximately $200 million a year. Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending $8 billion a month. It's ludicrous and it can't be sustained. The same ratios no doubt apply in Afghanistan. We need to be more reliant on intelligence and technology, I don't know.

But we sure as hell need to talk about it.