We in North America are currently engaged in two hostile invasions of foreign countries and many of us could successfully go weeks on end without discussing these events. My goal here is not to argue over the morality of these invasions, but rather to uncover the root source of the shortage of civilian evaluation.
In the conflicts of past generations, such as World War II, citizens who were not actively engaged in combat were called upon to forfeit their self-interests and endure significant material sacrifices to help in the war effort, in effect investing in the mission. Furthermore, with almost 10% of Canadians serving militarily throughout the war, every Canadian had close friends or family members in the line of fire. The result was a home front where individuals were required to consistently confront the reasoning behind Canada’s involvement and the accompanying ethical concerns that inevitably arise when one ponders supporting the killing of strangers on foreign soil. Our forces killed mercilessly, but did so with the knowledge that there was a nation behind them. A nation who, by agreeing to ration food and fuel, had agreed with our government that the past actions and future ambitions of the Third Reich warranted our full display of force. Do our forces enjoy a similar mandate and clarity of purpose today?
While we like to hold up our nonparticipation in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a distinctly Canadian rebuke of that invasion, Canada is certainly not in any coalition of the un-willing. Paul Cellucci, the former US ambassador to Canada, admitted in 2003 that “Ironically, the Canadians indirectly provide more support for us in Iraq than most of those 46 countries that are fully supporting us.” Besides the indirect assistance we have provided in forms such as Persian Gulf naval blockades and military planning consultants (best to leave that off one’s résumé), some of our most cherished icons have sided with violence. How could we forget the unflinching support that esteemed international relations experts Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky offered for the operation in 2003? After all, they represent a majority of the living members of the CBC’s Ten Greatest Canadians, which Canadians voted for in 2004. In a sense, that could be spun as a form of democratic Canadian approval for the invasion of Iraq. In case you are wondering, David Suzuki is the only other living member, but since when have we cared what he has to say. But celebrity opinions aside, Canadians have cooperated in the invasions of Iraq, and indeed Afghanistan, through our silence.
So, it follows that if Canadians are not crashing down the doors of parliament to put a stop to these campaigns then they must be supportive of them. Could there be another explanation for the indifference the average Canadian shows toward our involvement? I believe there is. We could learn a lot about our apathetic approach to Canada’s involvement in these wars by comparing the discrepancies between generations. War today is fought in a much different fashion than it was back in the 1940s. In sharp contrast to the Canada of WWII there is no longer such a thing as a war at home. Our lives continue undeterred by the acts of violence that are being carried out under a blood-red maple leaf. Furthermore, just under 10,000 Canadian troops have made the ominous trip overseas since the first wave of troops landed back in February of 2002. This represents roughly 0.0003% of our current population meaning that most Canadians do not have a close relationship with anyone in combat. This is in stark contrast to the 10% participation observed in WWII. Modern warfare is not troop-intensive in the way it used to be, nor does it demand sacrifices from the remaining civilian population like it once did, and I am not here criticizing these developments. However, the price that the targeted country pays has not been reduced in turn. Civilian casualties have become far more common than enemy combatant casualties, bringing the use of euphemisms like ‘pacification’ and ‘collateral damage’ to the brink of redundancy. In Iraq, civilian casualties are now estimated to be in the neighbourhood of 700,000. Furthermore, the destruction of civilian infrastructure remains a central tactic of any invading force, helping to incite civil war like the one being waged in Iraq today. All this means that although modern engagement has made war relatively unnoticeable from the home front, it is still just as horrific for those whose homes happen to lie on the battlefield.
My point here is not that our government should return to food rationing or bring back the draft in order to reengage our individual self-interest in war. I am arguing that since the repercussions of our contribution are as ghastly as ever, our obligation to remain informed has remained equally consistent. While it is disheartening to force oneself to read statistics and personal accounts that attempt to reflect the bleak reality on the ground, we must do so. If we woke up every morning under the specter of possible Nazi Germany rule, it would be much easier to support an inevitable military campaign to stop that from materializing. However, neither the governments of Iraq or Afghanistan, despite their clear flaws, had imperialist ambitions. In fact, the Taliban never even secured control of all of Afghanistan. If every Canadian routinely evaluated the consequences of our acquiescence to these campaigns, one wonders if the door to parliament would be strong enough to withstand the pressure.