Feature

War Games

Soldiers, not peacekeepers, are the heroes of the new Canada. How 9/11 changed the way we talk about our troops—and how we see ourselves

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Illustration by Barry Blitt

• 3,571 words

Illustration by Barry Blitt

On 9/11, Canada arrived at a fork in the road. One route led out of the country’s history of peacekeeping, and another, more trammelled, led to conventional combat work of the kind that the war on terror was demanding. It was an alteration that would require, along with any legislative action, the wholesale revision of a packet of nationally binding stories—from the flowering of the country during the Trudeau years and the idea of the country as a safe haven, to that most enduring of English Canada’s creation myths, the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The story that Canada, the modern nation, was forged in the trenches during the First World War at the Battle of Vimy Ridge when, as the Canadian Corps, all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) fought together for the first time is a story that acts as both a creation myth and a cautionary tale. As a creation myth, the story offers an explanation of the country and its present mores, as well as the possibility that a population so absurdly dispersed might actually behave as one. As a cautionary tale, it suggests how best we can conduct ourselves in order to navigate our way through the global war on terror, and that a better country will arise out of the ashes of our present turbulent times. It says we must be selfless and brave and nation builders, as that hallowed First World War generation was, so that the security of the country is not breached, the territory is defended, and an even stronger, finer Canada is in place for our children.

The story of Canada as a peacekeeping nation is also a myth, though one with a different narrative sensibility. For more than fifty years, the peacekeeping story flourished. It became an integral part of the national character; a determination of how the country believed its foreign policy should be conducted and of what sort of global citizens Canadians imagined themselves to be. Whether or not its positive thinking was a true reflection of the nation or no more than a mask for Cold War military strategies; whether or not the very idea of peacekeeping was, in fact, invented by a Canadian or thrust into the country’s lap by chance, for fifty years the peacekeeping story offered a plausible and unchallenged idea of the country as it was and how it saw its future. Its view of good and evil was, like that of the novel, humanistic. The peacekeeping story sees good and evil not as incontrovertible forces of a hostile world against which, in epic fashion, we must be permanently on guard, but as quantities that reside in each one of us—and that we are able to put into play or to prevent.

Not until the late ’90s was the story of Canadian peacekeeping as a national foundation myth effectively taken on. After the complications of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the embarrassments and scandal of the earlier interventions in Somalia and Rwanda, a groundswell of seething and frustration had started to mount against the tasks that Canadian soldiers were being asked to perform, and the very idea of the country behaving as a benign force in the international arena that the myth had come to represent.

The Canadian public’s estimation and even awareness of the country’s military was, during the ’90s, at a noticeable low—to a large extent because of the Somalia affair but also because the world seemed to be veering toward a more peaceful equilibrium after the rise of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Enough so that when, in May 2000, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were repatriated from France to be interred in front of the National War Memorial near Parliament Hill—not far from where Reconciliation: The Peacekeeping Monument had been installed by the National Capital Commission and the Department of National Defence in 1992—University of Calgary military historian David Bercuson, a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, was able to write despairingly of the virtually unnoticed event, and of “the disparaging of war by Canadian academics, journalists, the professional peace lobby and the political left [who] have all but removed war as a legitimate part of the process of Canadian national formation.” Along with the “annual virtual starvation of the Canadian War Museum budget, and a series of deep cuts to the Directorate of History,” declared Bercuson, these phenomena were “the most obvious signs that Canadian governments were not interested in preserving Canada’s military heritage.”

Behind the burgeoning allegations was a modicum of unsavoury truth. The country’s spending on the military, as a portion of GDP, had been steadily reduced ever since, in 1968, the army, navy, and air force had been gathered by the Liberal minister Paul Hellyer under a single command as the Canadian Forces. In the fiscal year of 1998–99, Canadian military spending had sunk to the bottom of the trough of its post–Cold War minimum.

The numbers of “boots on the ground” told the story. More than 100,000 Canadians had served under the UN’s peacekeeping aegis since its inception, operations in which 121 Canadians had died, but during the watershed month of September 2001, a mere 317 Canadians were being deployed in blue helmets in small numbers in various UN operations around the world, along with some 650 troops serving with NATO’s Stabilisation Force in Bosnia, where a twelve-year mission that had involved some 40,000 Canadian military personnel over its duration was being wound down and taken over by the European Union. In that same year, the rank of the country’s peacekeeping forces had plummeted to thirty-third among UN members.

Outside of the country, more so than within, the commitment of successive Canadian governments to peacekeeping duties was being seen in a dim light. The country’s military capabilities having been substantially eroded, its failure to come forward with the requisite resources was being criticized increasingly. This exasperation reached its peak when the UN’s failure to muster more than a mere 7,000 troops to protect the six “safe areas” established in Bosnia and Herzegovina (rather than the 36,000 troops that UNPROFOR, the United Nations Protection Force, had requested) led to the massacre in Srebrenica of as many as 8,100 Bosnian Muslims in July 1995. Coming as it did after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the revelation of the atrocity contributed to the widespread impression that UN peacekeeping forces were logistically and systemically incapable of doing the work assigned to them.

Anthony DePalma of the New York Times, then the newspaper’s Canadian bureau chief, noted of the United States’ northern neighbour, in 1997, that growing controversy was surrounding the struggling, budget-tightened Canadian Forces, especially after the debacle in Somalia. “Despite having an army so small it could be seated comfortably in the home arena of the Montreal Canadiens,” wrote DePalma, “Canada is on the front line of most peacekeeping missions around the world.” But, DePalma warned, “When peacekeeping becomes more like combat, the line between restraint and toughness blurs. And the debate over the proper role of Canada’s 21,000 troops and the other 40,000 members of its combined defense forces has left Canadians frustrated and confused.”

The discrediting of Canadians as peacekeepers was regarded by the military lobby as a necessary condition to send the Forces to war and to restore the military’s “connection” with civilians that General Rick Hillier and others believed to have been lost. Deploying troops to Afghanistan, ran the argument, would improve Canada’s reputation on the international stage, restore a greater sense of purpose to the Forces, and return to the country the robust character that critics imagined had wasted away, after fifty years of apparently useless humanitarian interventions.

It is a gauge of just how seriously the war’s proponents understood the task of unravelling the country’s peacekeeping persona that the job of contending with it was undertaken on a variety of levels. With the Conservative defence minister Gordon O’Connor’s prohibition, in 2006, of the photographing or filming of the repatriated dead and the accompanying decision not to lower flags for each new soldier’s death, alongside other measures such as the government’s endorsement of “Red Fridays,” the way was being laid for there to be no confusion about the war that the nation was fighting and the likelihood that there would, after the acceptance of the role in Kandahar, be more losses.

The Red Fridays were a component of Operation Connection, described by its expositor, CBC’s Brian Stewart, as a “highly skilled sales campaign to sell the mission” to the Canadian public that was spending, in 2007, upwards of $23 million and employing 500 military and civilian personnel worldwide. The veteran reporter Stewart, then host of the CBC foreign affairs newsmagazine Our World, described the “information machine” behind Operation Connection as “a public affairs unit that dwarfs all other government promotion offices.” Laura Ryckewaert of the Hill Times newsweekly in Ottawa estimated, in 2011, the number of staffers working in ministers’ offices to be 1,500, including eighty-seven serving in the PMO and the Privy Council Office. The DND generated “a hive of publicity supporting the whole Afghanistan force and the military’s overall image,” headed by the forthright General Hillier, its “key architect and salesman.”

This job of national transformation was also taken on in the recruitment advertisements that the DND was using in cinemas in 2006, when not just the war but also the battle to fight it on the propaganda front was at its peak. Russian advertisements from the period have the same production values and veneer as the Canadian ones but do not shy away from showing soldiers shooting at people. The Canadian advertisements, however, are markedly different. War does not feature. The recruitment ads show Canadian soldiers herding citizens toward a Red Cross truck that could be—but as easily might not be—in Afghanistan, and rescuing the survivors of a winter plane crash, forest fires, and flooding. They show them saving boat people from the Pacific and fishers off the coast of Nova Scotia. Only in one less-than-a-second scene is a shot fired at any thing, let alone at a person—either at short range or from the insentient long distances at which much of present-day wars are now fought. There is no death. No maiming. No blood.

The titles across the final frames of the short videos read, FIGHT FEAR. FIGHT DISTRESS. FIGHT CHAOS, and, ultimately, FIGHT WITH THE CANADIAN FORCES. But the tasks that are portrayed in these advertisements—of soldiers, according to the thumping narration, “across Canada, around the world, making a difference”—are ones that the 2006 viewing public would almost categorically have associated with peacekeeping or search and rescue work. The transition between the image of Canada that existed before 9/11 and the requirements of the country it was becoming were so smooth as to have constituted a deception.

It cannot be forgotten, and certainly was not by the ad’s designers, that the basic Canadian impulse has always been one of generosity, of the unambiguous wish to assist in the improvement of other people’s lives. The film advertisement needed to acknowledge the habits and fundamental character of a majority of Canadians, even as the government was seeking to alter these traits. It needed to be sly. It needed to deceive.

By 2006, even the perfunctory nods that had been offered in Remembrance Day editorials toward Canadians clinging to a past idea of Canada as a peace-oriented nation had been replaced by outright hostility. In the new paradigm, Canadian soldiers were warriors and nothing else, and anyone who deigned to imagine alternative roles for the Canadian Forces (the video recruiters notwithstanding) was almost certainly without the moral authority derived either from combat experience or from supporting the troops without qualification.

In January 2010, the month in which an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Canada’s rank among nations contributing to UN stabilization operations had plummeted to fifty-seventh position, with just seventeen actual troops among its 142 personnel serving in peacekeeping roles. Nine months later, Canada’s ranking had risen, but only slightly, having managed the small climb to the fiftieth rung. The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre that had been established in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, in 1994, with its headquarters moved to Ottawa in 2006, was a pathetic shadow of itself, its insignificance an insult to the memory of the man after whom it had been named. Canadian participation in peacekeeping missions had become utterly token, while enrolment in the military continued its burgeoning path.

By January 2012, the uniformed ranks of the Canadian Forces amounted to more than 90,000, including some 25,000 reserves, but still considerably fewer than the approximately 116,000 combined forces enlisted in 1956 and nowhere near the more than one million who enlisted in the course of the Second World War. But, unquestionably, the Canadian Forces were enjoying a higher and more visible profile than at any time since the Korean War. The solemnity with which Canadian military fatalities in Afghanistan were honoured was the envy of other armies and countries fighting in the International Security Assistance Force there.

The prominence that had been given to Canada’s “non-violent society and our international role as peacekeepers,” and to its creation “through discussion, negotiation and compromise,” was not to be found in the 2010 version of A Look at Canada, the country’s guide to citizenship, renamed Discover Canada. A bid for recruits highlighted on the page describes serving in the Canadian Forces as “a noble way to contribute to Canada and an excellent career choice.” In the new document, the military is mentioned fifty times, peacekeeping once.

The changes in the nation’s approach that took force so vehemently after 2001 were achieved through language, ritual, and the upholding of mythic accounts of Canadian valour, the story of the Battle of Vimy Ridge chief among them. The promotion of these means to the “warrior nation” end occurred alongside the obstruction of stories likely to impede such revisionism, and the suppression of groups and incidents likely to prompt contrary tales—such as, for instance, the stories that the coffins of the fallen arriving home tell.

If Canada was to be able to fight effectively in Afghanistan, if the Forces were to benefit from their turn away from the low budgets, piecemeal public attention, and generally ignominious standing that had been their lot since the reversals in Somalia and Rwanda and the exhausting and not altogether understood war in the Balkans, then new leitmotifs were going to have to come into effect, ones supported by the venerable, enduring language of heroism. Whatever dialogue of common humanity that had existed prior to 9/11 needed to concede its place to an epic form of storytelling in which evil was absolute and had a face. The enemy wore a kaffiyeh and a black beard and, like the monster Grendel in the story Beowulf, lived in a cave; “good” was the property of a country rushing back into a majestically unsubtle narrative of the frontier.

No longer entertained were the more complex narratives of novel thinking—with its curiosities, its openness to arguments of “root causes,” and, as significantly, its capacity for humour, though above all its capacity to expand the sphere of our moral concern through the imaginative leap it demands of its readers. In a country in an epic state of mind, a narrow, regimented, and intolerant polarity reigns: simple opposites of good and evil, strength and weakness, male and female dominate.

There can be no argument, no confusion. “Victory” is the end, and patriotism is the means. In support of the war effort, an allegiance to territory and to property, rather than some more vague set of transnational ideas about rights and identity, is paramount. Home is all that is good, and at the border lurks the enemy. Other countries are “with us or against us,” and to challenge the simplicity of this idea is to be a traitor, and to prevaricate as only a dithering (surely liberal) or contract-breaking, cowardly soldier might—and as the hero, most of all, would never do.

In Canada, the cult of the hero provided a point of fusion in which domestic actions and those in the realm of foreign policy were combined to alter and then to reinforce the new, more martial state. Well before the events of 9/11, there had been initiatives to commemorate heroes in uniform, but from September 11, 2001, the word “hero” took on a heightened importance. In deference to the firefighters and police who lost their lives in the World Trade Center towers and the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the idea of the hero attained a new gravitas in the United States. In Canada, too, courageous actions by Canadians in uniform achieved new prominence.

Out of the smoking ashes of the World Trade Center rose a cult of the hero willed on by an angry, injured, and impassioned nation—one that saw an enemy and wished to slay it. In Canada, standing side by side with the United States despite Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s decision not to send soldiers into Iraq, the selflessness of the fire and police services at Ground Zero resonated and the cult of the hero burgeoned. After Canada suffered its first casualties, the qualification of “hero” was awarded to soldiers and police officers with fervour. The Ontario Police Memorial is a tulip garden at Queen’s Park, in Toronto, where more than 200 officers who have died in the line of duty are remembered. HEROES IN LIFE NOT DEATH, reads the votive plaque. “The names on this memorial remind us that we can never take for granted the contributions of our police officers,” Premier Ernie Eves said there in May 2003, as the names of two more police officers were added to its honour roll. “They are routinely asked to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our families and our communities. They are, in fact, putting their lives on the line for you and me and society.”

The veneration of “heroic” sacrifices that started in the new century, after 9/11, became routine with the deaths occurring in distant Afghanistan. These uphold (a condition of the narrative) the ideological contention that a person in uniform can do no wrong. The funerals and ceremonies accorded police officers are early examples of what has become, in Canada since 9/11, a commonplace series of instances asserting a trend in which, more than the actual circumstances of the death, the uniform is the thing that is being honoured.

There is no question that bravery on the battlefield or in the defence of others should be held in awe. But there is a fundamental distinction to be made between often politically expedient attributions of heroic praise and the nature of the heroic acts themselves, a distinction that goes a long way toward granting or denying substance to the idea of whether or not a soldier has been injured or has died “in vain.” But the idea of the common man as capable hero belongs to the novel rather than the epic. It envisions, with grace, the hero as someone who may not be in uniform, as someone who is potentially any one of us. The complicated flip side of such a construction, the pill that is hard to swallow, is a concomitant imagining of the enemy as not distant from what circumstance could have any person become. Beneath his monster’s uniform, he is someone who in his essence is not different from us. He is someone bound by the universal laws of our common humanity.

Wrote the American playwright William Saroyan, in the prologue to his Pulitzer Prize–winning play, The Time of Your Life, which opened on Broadway in October 1939, the month after the Second World War started: “Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand.”

In succumbing to epic thinking, we excuse ourselves from the sometimes onerous implications of universal experience and of our having to imagine that we might think or behave as the enemy does. Instead, we describe the enemy as monsters and their actions as “unspeakable.” We treat them as a breed apart and, in this way, are relieved of the responsibilities and obligations but also the benefits of human empathy.

Excerpted from What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Forthcoming publication by Goose Lane Editions. Copyright 2012 by Noah Richler. Reprinted with permission.

This appeared in the April 2012 issue.

Noah Richler has written for the National Post, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and Maisonneuve. He earned a gold ­National Magazine Award for his 2010 Walrus ­cover story, “My Dad, the Movie, and Me.”

Barry Blitt has illustrated more than seventy covers for The New Yorker over the past two decades.