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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dulce et decorum est?

Many Canadians have strong feelings about Canada’s involvement in the current military adventure in Afghanistan. Some support it. Some believe that we never should have entered the war in the first place. Others agree with the original aims but believe it’s now time to depart, either because we have largely accomplished what we’d set out to do, or because we can no longer plausibly accomplish what we’d set out to do, or else because it’s time for other nations to take on some of our burden.

I confess that until very recently I was sitting firmly on the fence with regard to the war in Afghanistan. I am no lover of the Taliban. I’m not being jingoistic when I say that I would happily see the savages wiped off the face of the earth if there were a quick and costless way of doing so. It’s not war nationalism that makes me say this. It is the fact that they throw acid in the faces of little girls and rape and murder women for daring to want an education or have a personality. Savagery is about the only way to describe the Taliban modus operandi.

On the other hand, knowing a little about the history of the place, one can confidently assume that the prognosis for prospective invaders is not good. And, high moral aims notwithstanding, invaders is precisely what we are.

My attitudinal default position on war in general is scepticism. I think such scepticism is entirely justified. This does not mean that I was against the idea of military involvement in Afghanistan from the beginning, but I was suspicious about the lack of public debate over our entry, as well as about the utter lack of frank discussion on what we could expect it to cost in terms of blood and treasure. Still, in comparison with the US invasion of Iraq that was in the works at the time, the Afghanistan venture seemed to have a relatively firm moral basis. If, as it is often speculated, Canada entered Afghanistan as a way for us to avoid entering Iraq, then many thought it was a shrewd move on the part of our then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Much time has now passed. Too much time. Almost a decade, in fact. I am now ready to come down off the fence and declare myself to be against the war. I believe we must pull out of Afghanistan immediately. I say this not because of the death toll in terms of military and civilian lives, although that is certainly an important consideration, nor because I do not believe in the putative moral aims underlying it.


Canada has been militarily involved in Afghanistan almost as long as it was involved in World Wars I and II combined. Both of those wars changed the nature of our country in many ways, and few of these changes were, in my opinion, for the better. For example, the First World War brought us the introduction of the income tax, which was supposed to be a temporary measure but which will now be with us forever. And besides atomic weapons, the Second World War also brought with it a level of centralized control over Canada’s economy and society that we have never managed to shake off. As Nietzsche once wrote, “when doing battle with monsters, one must look to it that one does not himself become a monster”. In order to fight totalitarianism, we found it necessary to take on some of the characteristics of totalitarianism. We granted our government unprecedented powers to mobilize and control the productive forces of an entire society in order to defeat a formidable enemy. We won, but at great social cost, and many measures stayed in place when the circumstances which necessitated them had passed.

I have begun to see disturbing changes in the political culture of this nation as a result of our long involvement in Afghanistan. We now have a government that refuses to answer legitimate questions from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition on the grounds of “national security”. Many of these questions have to do with allegations that our military may have been complicit in the torture of prisoners, in direct violation of all international conventions governing the conduct of war. If true, these are activities that would themselves constitute a national security threat: if our enemies expect to be tortured by us or our allies, can our captured troops expect any better treatment at their hands?

Government is becoming too much the “silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few” which Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) decried as the political order of slaves, not of free men. Not only is the government not open or forthcoming with the most basic requests for information, but they are quick to accuse those who criticize or ask too many questions of not being sufficiently “behind the troops” and of giving aid and comfort to the Taliban. (This, while official government policies towards women would probably draw applause from the Taliban. But that’s another story.)

Every time the current minority government is threatened with a vote of non-confidence, we are told that, because we are at war, this is no time for an election. Does this mean that, because the war has been dragging on for some nine years, democratic elections ought not to have been held during that time? If we were to adhere to that logic, then the current government would never have been elected in the first place. A government that only expects to stay in power through fear-mongering has, I’m afraid, very little democratic legitimacy left.

(But, then again, at least in terms of popular vote, every Canadian government is a minority one and, as such, has little democratic legitimacy. That too is another story.)

The Speaker of our House of Commons recently had to issue an opinion to the effect that the government is answerable to Parliament and must hand over Afghanistan-related documents that it had been trying to keep secret. What has become of our democracy when our government has to be reminded that the ancient body comprising the elected representatives of the people is sovereign, and where a speech that merely re-affirms three hundred years of established constitutional practice can be reported on as if it were some new-fangled political innovation? Of course, how can we expect the government to respect our Parliamentary traditions when the very documents it was trying to withhold seem to indicate that it has as little understanding of the equally ancient and venerable concept of habeas corpus?

The war mentality has even entered the conduct of politics itself. Where once a political leader would speak of defeating an opponent at the polls, our current Prime Minister is on record as aiming at the “destruction” of the Opposition. This is the same Prime Minister who issued little handbooks to his Ministers with handy tips on how to disrupt committees and stall the machinery of government when things threaten not to go their way. This is politics turned into a sort of low-grade civil war, which is, as Lucan described it, “war less than civil”. The Opposition is described in language which to the ears of the unschooled mob is designed to make them sound like a pack of conspiratorial traitors: they want to make our country safe for foreign terrorists; their criticisms are subversive and give aid and comfort to Canada’s enemies while putting the lives of our brave troops in danger; they support effeminate and unwarlike types such as homosexuals, women, liberals, tree-huggers, and champagne-sipping city elites.

The war is not solely responsible for the current ills of our system of government. We can also blame the first-past-the-post electoral system, as well as the increasing consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office that has been going one for quite some time now. But our current Prime Minister happens to be a man who is dangerous precisely because his intellect is inversely proportional to his moral integrity, and for him the war is a convenient shield to hide behind while he beavers away with his ongoing project to disassemble Canada’s institutions and new-model them in a way more congenial to his autocratic nature.

The war is not only destroying our political institutions. It has also begun to infect our everyday culture and language. Where once we were proud of our nation’s “peacekeeping” tradition, now we speak proudly of our “fighting men and women”. A stretch of highway near where I live has been unofficially renamed “The Highway of Heroes” because it forms part of the route along which dead soldiers are brought back from Afghanistan. One of our national newspapers, The Globe and Mail (or, as it is called in some quarters because of its warmongering, The Globe and Male), can carry a callous story about the exploits of one of our snipers and the number of his kills in a way which made me wonder if I was reading the Sports section. The story reeked of the worst kind of insensate martial masculinity. This is not the Canada I know, and it is not the Canada I used to be proud of.

To my mind, perhaps the most egregious symptom of this cultural degeneracy ― and I am well aware of how cynical this must sound ― is the maudlin public sentiment vomited forth by the media and its audience. This mushy and over-sweetened pablum comes in two pre-digested forms; one is to be swallowed by right-leaning citizenry, while the other is intended for the consumption of hand-wringing lefties. Frankly, I have trouble keeping either form down.

First, there is the “paying tribute to our fallen heroes” drivel that fills the news every day. Yes, our soldiers are brave to go to distant lands and fight our wars for us. But if we really cared that much about them, we at home would take better care of the institutions they’re supposedly fighting to protect and export. That care must include free and open questioning of why we’ve sent them over there to do our dirty work in the first place. It would also involve open debate about aims, costs, and whether or not we’re leaving our brave soldiers open to charges of war crimes (the detainee torture allegations) and consequent enemy reprisals. Such frank debate would be a better demonstration of our respect for our troops than easy crocodile tears and mindless flag-waving along the “Highway of Heroes”. The latter sort of thing is for Americans. It must stop. It’s yucky and un-Canadian. We’re made of sterner stuff. Neque quisquam omnium lubidini simul et usui paruit ― “no one has ever served at the same time his passions and his best interests” (Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 51.2).

Second, there is the high-minded claptrap about all the good works we’re doing for the oppressed people of Afghanistan. Aren’t we kind and wonderful? Yes, Afghanistan is terribly poor, and yes, its women are generally treated with unspeakable inhumanity. But if we were able to conduct an honest poll of the Canadian people, with a device that could scan each person’s secret heart of hearts, I am willing to bet that we would not find very many who really gave the smallest fig about Afghanistan or its people. To be clear, I am not saying that people don’t care in some vague, ill-defined, and costless way. But I am saying that there are few who really believe Afghanistan is a worthwhile ground upon which to shed the blood of oneself or one’s children. I would also bet that those who have spouses, siblings, or parents fighting over there would be glad to have them home tomorrow, even if it means that Afghanistan will likely sink back into the shapeless anarchy that is its historical default position. Most people, when they think of Afghanistan at all, probably think of it in the way that Tacitus thought of the lands of the German tribes: informem terris, asperam caelo, tristem cultu aspectuque, nisi si patria sit (“with its wild terrain and harsh skies it is pleasant neither to live in nor look upon unless it be one’s fatherland”).

Such maudlin gushing, whether for the troops or for the people of Afghanistan, is really just the small change of politics, easily given away and quickly spent. Meanwhile, we don’t hear about the real money. Here’s a challenge: Without having to Google it, can you tell me roughly, even to the nearest billion dollars, how much the war in Afghanistan has cost so far? Or what it costs each day? If you cannot, don’t feel too bad. This seems to me a simple and pertinent question, and yet it is rarely answered in the mainstream media.

(The answer? It depends on who you ask. The government tends to low-ball the cost of the war, while other credible sources put it significantly higher. For example, according to the government, as of March 2008 ― already over two years ago ― the war had cost $5 billion. An Ottawa Citizen article of September 18, 2008 put the then-total at $22 billion. The Department of Defense itself estimates the cost of the Afghanistan mission for fiscal year 2010-11 to be $1.468 billion. A safe bet is that the war is costing about $100 million a month.)

I know that I’ve made a similar point before, but I wonder if the sentiments of all the flag-wavers and tear-jerkers would turn on a dime if they were presented with the bill for their share of the costs so far. Let’s put it this way: Would you be willing to make a one-time-only donation of $645 to a charity providing Afghan relief? Well, if the war has cost $22 billion, then effectively you already have.

Again, it’s not the monetary cost I object to. Nor is it the cost in human lives per se, as lamentable as that is. Sometimes war may be necessary, and it is never cheap. What I object to is the damage the war is doing to the fabric of our nation. It is a loss I’m sure we’ll end up regretting more than the $645 it has cost each of us.


  1. A good take, Jamie. I don't know what has happened to Canadian sensibilities since I first visited Ontario in the 80s. Canada used to be a beacon of reason and compassion. Where did the pseudo-neocolonialists come from? Come to think of it where did they come from here in the UK or Australia? Anyone following in the footsteps of US foreign policy, as your and my government are, is on the road to perdition (moral as well as financial)as you point out.

  2. Thanks Tony. I agree with you. The resurgence of neo-colonialism is disturbing. You rightly ask where the pseudo-neocolonialists come from? I think that, like the proverbial poor, they're always with us. There is always a significant base in the population whose default instincts are broadly fascist. The pertinent question to ask ourselves, here in Canada at least, is "How did they manage to seize power?" We're still wrestling with that one in the wake of our recent federal election.