Friday, April 20, 2007


This post by Dave at the Galloping Beaver has finally prompted me to put down in pixels a post that's been bouncing around in my brain for a few months now. You should go read it now, and please come back.

While I find it regrettable, I think it's easily understood why we don't spend a lot of time pondering what, exactly, our wars do to the other side. The Americans seem to think that their soldiers, sailors, and airmen have the accuracy of cupid and the good intentions of St. Patrick. Even in Canada, we excuse with a wave of our hands all the collateral damage we do by simply stating, as if it were fact, that we're there to do a good thing -- ergo, the bad things we do are justified.

Like I said, I understand why we do this. If we spent a long time thinking about what we do to the browner places of the Earth, I suspect we'd just stop doing it. What really confuses me, though, is how little time we spend thinking about what we do to our own side -- most especially our own soldiers.

If you haven't read up on these matters, you might be surprised to find that, by far, the most common psychological ailment for soldiers who return from war -- more common even than the grief of watching friends die -- is the trauma of knowing you've killed another human being. Even those who never end up actually killing another man report being upset at the self-knowledge that they would follow an order to do so. Like I said, you might find this surprising, but only because in our society we've so devalued the act of killing another human being -- our heroes kill and torment without forethought or regret -- that the act of taking a human life seems to be worth about as much as the old Italian lira.

While every army inevitably employs some men who revel in killing, the vast majority of soldiers don't start off wanting to kill -- even raised in our society, most people don't have that kind of bloodlust. They have to be trained to kill, made to kill. The modern army breaks men like horses are broken to the saddle.

The word "break", in this context, actually implies far more violence than is actually the norm. For horses, one of the most effective ways of training the beast is to simply be around it for the first days of its life, holding it and controlling it while it's still young enough to be overpowered by a human. The impression this makes lasts for a lifetime.

Similarly, the modern army doesn't rely on ritual beatings for its discipline. Rather, a new recruit slowly has their ties to the outside world weakened, while the ties to the army and to their fellow soldiers are created and strengthened. The army becomes your family, and more than anything you want to make your family proud. (It's a cliché to say that most soldiers returning to Iraq are heading back for their brothers in the force. It is also true.)

The effect in both cases is the same. Neither a man nor a horse is robbed of their independence of mind or spirit -- as any rider who's been thrown will tell you -- but at the end of the day, the objective is to have a creature who obeys. An army is only as effective as its soldiers are obedient, and the armies of the west (with the full arsenal of modern psychology behind them) are very effective indeed.

Then comes the day when a soldier obeys the command that he's been trained for -- the command to kill. Here, a different kind of breakage occurs. Society, not the soldier, breaks a cardinal rule. We take the whole, and holy, rule that "Thou Shalt not kill" and split it in two pieces: Thou shalt not kill, until we tell you to. The effects of this betrayal by the state are profound, and can last a lifetime. We turn good men in to good men who kill. We inflict that trauma on them. Even those who come back blessedly unharmed in body will never be the same.

So you would think, before inflicting this kind of injury of the soul on our own brothers, fathers, sons, and more recently mothers, sisters, and daughters, we would make sure that they have have the whole of our community behind them, behind their objectives, and committed to their well-being when they return. Soldiers' lives shouldn't be ruined for a trifle. Instead, we have the Canadian army in a war where there's no consensus, no commitment to the stated objectives, and little enough clarity about those objectives, though we can at least hope their well-being at home will be assured.

Lest you think I'm about to scream "support the troops!" as I drive off in my yellow ribbon-festooned Hummer, I want to be clear: absent an open and honest debate about the role of our soldiers in Afghanistan -- a debate we've never had in this country, certainly not before Paul Martin's decision in 2005 -- they shouldn't have been put there in the first place.

I suspect this state of affairs is going to inevitably lead to yet another breakage -- the heartbreak of the soldiers who are removed from Afghanistan "before the job is done". It's only natural that soldiers on the ground will see the positive impacts they're having, and want to see those effects persist. But we know beyond any doubt that our current forces aren't enough, and we can say with near-certainty that reinforcements of the necessary volume simply aren't coming. Why would we stay, only to have more Canadians kill and be killed in return?

I read this morning that Conservative Whip Jay Hill seems to believe we're in a war "...on evil people, just as we were during the First and Second World Wars." What a curious war. No mobilization, no tax increases, not even delays in the government's precious tax cuts. The troop increases announced by Harper are pitifully small if we're actually at war. If Paul Martin or Stephen Harper had been PM during those previous wars Hill cites, I suspect that Hitler would have died peacefully in his sleep. In London.

I've said this before, so you'll pardon me for repeating myself, but we aren't committed to this war, and any politician who says we are should be ashamed of themselves. We're committed to the rhetoric of war, which is just another way of saying that Canadian soldiers in harm's way are useful props and rhetorical devices for the ruling party of the day.

That too is a break, the final one. A break with the past, with the notion that Canada could be something more than the larger powers, a nation committed to bringing peace and order to the dark, chaotic corners of the world. Prominent commentary has been ridiculing peacekeeping for years now, because only war-making is men's work. Whatever. I'm not a soldier, and don't feel like telling Canadian soldiers what is and is not their duty. It's clear, in any case, that Canada's leaders have given up on the idea of Canada as a true middle power, a country independent from the imperial games of the Great Powers, and this war is part of the reason for that.

1 comment:

aweb said...

I have nothing to add, but I just want to say that this is a great post.