As the Canadian government plays at fighting wars in Iraq/Syria and in eastern Europe, we see daily examples of how militarism ultimately degrades, disrupts and destroys democracy. Indeed, we are subjected to a gravitational pull of obedience to martial values that blinds us to a series of uncomfortable realities that are visible in plain sight but unmentionable in mainstream discourse. While a slavish media hangs on every General's word, Ottawa refuses to release the costs of its overseas adventures. Politicians who voted against the Middle East mission now say we must rally around the troops.
It is instructive that Generals speak of modern warfare as taking place "in theatre." It reminds those who are watching the government-supplied videos of aircraft taking off and bombs being dropped that, like audience members at the local movie house or attending a live performance, we must be quiet for the duration of the performance. We cannot stop it midway through and ask questions or protest without the risk of being booed. As in the neighbourhood multiplex films, the wars are all pretty much built on the same good guys versus evil script that has not changed for centuries. Indeed, as Ottawa author Stephen Dale points out in his excellent new book Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War, an examination of the propaganda used to indoctrinate young men to join the ranks of the First World War, militarist tactics stay pretty much the same over time, with only changes in the casting.
The main movie Canadians are now seeing, in limited release, is the ISIL/ISIS charade, which, according to latest figures, has included over 100 "sorties," delivery of close to 1 million pounds of air fuel, and overall operational "success," as described at occasional War Department briefings featuring costumed characters wearing medals and epaulets. Like reasonably trained actors, the commanders spout a script of euphemisms straight out of a video game, recalling with fondness their various operations over the past few years. For example, recent briefings reminisced about Operations Odyssey Dawn and Op Unified Protector in Libya, human rights disasters supported by Canada's three major parties which unleashed the chaos of sectarian violence that has ruined the country and destabilized the region. No one points out that some members of ISIS were in fact allies of Canadians during the Libyan campaign. During these "technical briefings," reporters fall over themselves to thank the Generals for taking the time to speak their well-studied lines, and even when a serious question is asked, it is batted away with the bafflegab that earns military-speak the deserved title of Orwellian.
Canada kills civilians
Indeed, Colonel Daniel Constable, Commander of Joint Task Force–Iraq, told reporters November 13 that "I'm very confident to report that we have no reports on any civilian casualties, no collateral damage" (a dissimulation that means any reports that DO confirm such casualties don't make it on his reading list). Yet a mere 30 seconds later, he contradicted himself by stating, "as we've talked about in previous briefings of this nature, we're not really doing a casualty count at all." In this movie, the civilian deaths are lowly extras who don't get named when the final credits roll. As General Tom Lawson also stated in various media interviews, Canada WILL be killing civilians, but just not at an "unreasonable" level. Media have failed to ask what constitutes "unreasonable," and the Generals likely would not respond even if they were challenged, probably falling back on the claim that revealing such details would aid the enemy by getting into operational procedures.
The role of the media, especially Postmedia's Matthew Fisher, is to write love letters to the military that link the current bombing campaigns to the alleged glory days of prior wars. Media gushed over Canada's first air strikes against ISIS like fathers chortling with cigars over their newborns. Fisher calls the CF-18 bombers "venerable" and then quoted a military source: "We are all proud of the first [bombing] strike."
The Canadian military has over the past two decades dropped bombs on human beings in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Libya. It has directly and indirectly tortured human beings in Somalia and Afghanistan. It has continued to scoop up the largest annual share of discretionary federal spending at the expense of veterans, the homeless, the mentally ill, children without child care, women without shelter from male violence, First Nations on boil water alerts, and so many other vulnerable populations. But it always gets a free pass. That slavish devotion to the men and women in uniform (the latter a group that is also subject to an epidemic of sexual assault from their male comrades in arms) perhaps explains why it was so easy for an imposter to dress up in war regalia and play a role inside the heavily guarded Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. Moving freely amongst the dignitaries and sharing sound bites with the media was easy for this individual because, unlike those who wanted to lay a white poppy peace wreath, he would not have been the subject of state security surveillance that day. He appeared to be a soldier, and that was good enough for Ottawa police and the RCMP.
In a society that increasingly glorifies martial values -- sales of the first-person combat video game Call of Duty top $10 billion, with Quebec's Assassin's Creed creeping up in sales -- those who carry a gun can do no wrong, from the police who get off easy after beating up arrestees to the Mounties who racially profile and trade with torturers. Those at the top needn't be accountable to anyone. The Canadian War Dept. is the only federal institution that can start a new war without having to go to Parliament to approve the open-ended spending spree. Costs of the Ukraine mission are secret and, we are led to believe, will not be released until the end of March 2015. The cost of bombing Iraq/Syria is similarly being withheld.
Radicalized Canadian veterans
Meantime, a handful of Canada's Afghanistan veterans who appear to have become "radicalized" are heading overseas to fight on the ground against ISIS independent of the Canadian military. Although these men will be working alongside forces that have also committed human rights abuses, it does not appear that their passports are being seized or that they will face charges should they return to Canada. No, they get interviews on the CBC and admiring profiles in the print media. They are "our" soldiers.
Indeed, the fact that he made no apparent reference to Islam perhaps explains why one Canadian Forces veteran did not make national headlines when he pleaded guilty to firearms and explosives offences after allegedly planning a major attack against a Calgary office building that housed a Veterans Affairs office. When the vet was arrested last January, RCMP found on his premises tactical equipment, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bomb-making materials, and a variety of deadly chemicals. The man, whose identity is protected by publication ban to protect his wife and child (a courtesy never extended to Muslim suspects), was apparently planning an assault on the building. Unsurprisingly, the cause of his anger was mistreatment as a veteran. The case came to authorities' attention when the man's wife called for help when he appeared to be suicidal. The Calgary Herald reported that officers found the man's car "was packed with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, seven loaded magazines (five of which had been illegally modified to hold 20 rounds), night-vision binoculars, body armour, a range-finder for long-distance shooting and a laser sight for close-range targets."
While it is a possibility that angry veterans will take up arms against their government when they are refused the benefits they deserve, this potential threat does not appear to be high on the federal government's list of safety priorities. (Notably, we learned last week that Veterans Affairs has also held back over a billion dollars worth of funding for vets' services). Rather, they continue to hope veterans will give up and just disappear. The idea of the wounded and disturbed returning soldier does not fit with the script of glory and honour. That is why the Harper government, like Liberal governments before it and, in fact, all governments throughout history that have sent soldiers off to kill and be killed, mistreats veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder and similar "readjustment" problems. Their frail humanity does not match the recruiting poster of the happy soldier who bravely goes overseas and commits heroic acts while vanquishing the "enemy." We don't want to know that, as former Canadian General (and current Justin Trudeau adviser) Andrew Leslie recently pointed out, a quarter of Ottawa's homeless are military veterans, and some no doubt sleep underneath the War Department near the Rideau Canal.
A silence on Ukraine
Meanwhile, one of the war films that has escaped multiplex distribution is the one in Ukraine, where thousands have been killed by both sides in the conflict. It has served as a convenient excuse for Canada to deploy over 1,000 troops in eastern Europe, where they fly sorties and take part in war games near the Russian border. Postmedia's Fisher excitedly (and without irony) reported on one sortie in which Canadian bombers -- flying over 7,500 km from their home -- target Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea as "intruders." Interestingly, this deployment seems not to have raised a peep from opposition parties nor peace groups across Canada, even though the implications have global ramifications. The Harper government's obsession with supporting the post-coup government of Ukraine is one that is embraced by those who fondly recall the overseas stationing of Canadian troops in Germany during the Cold War. It also conveniently ignores the disturbing role of neo-Nazis in the Kiev government and crimes that the regime is committing. Human Rights Watch reported that the Ukrainian government has been firing rockets into populated areas, indiscriminate attacks that kill civilians. Hamas justifiably catches hell when it launches indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel, but Harper allies have free reign.
Indeed, as renowned Russia scholar Stephen Cohen wrote recently in The Nation, the Canadian-backed regime in Kiev "has been committing atrocities against its own citizens in southeastern Ukraine." Cohen says Kiev's "anti-terror" tactics "have created a reign of terror in targeted cities," including a May 2 attack in which a pro-Kiev mob chased anti-government protesters into a building, set it on fire, and tried to block the exits, killing some 40 people. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, recently serenaded in Canada's Parliament, speaks of those who resist his bombardment of their cities as "gangs of animals" and, in a collective punishment approach in clear violation of all known laws and human decency, has declared that he will take "hundreds of their lives for each life of our servicemen." The neo-fascist Svoboda party (which glorifies its Nazi-collaborationist ancestors, refers to gays, Jews, feminists, and leftists as scum, and was called "neo-Nazi" by the World Jewish Congress in 2013) plays a key role in the coalition government. Far-right nationalist militias constitute a foundation of the country's National Guard, one which Cohen notes is escalating "ethnic warfare and killing of innocent civilians."
Representatives of Poroshenko's National Guard were in Ottawa recently to seek out weapons deals in a visit arranged by Arthur Andersen Defence Consulting (the same company responsible for the implementation of massive welfare cutting in Ontario, among other crimes). It is not clear who would pay for such weapons, but if Canadian government policy with other NATO members is any example, it is likely Canadians who will foot the bill. For example, Canada will pay the $30-million cost for Hungarian fighter pilot training on behalf of their far-right wing government in a country where the Roma continue to face severe persecution.
"Standing with" the right-nationalist government of Ukraine means Canada must not do anything to upset its special relationship, which includes being one of only three countries on the face of the planet to vote against a November 17 UN resolution called "Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance." Yes, Canada joined the U.S. and Ukraine in voting against a resolution that also condemned Holocaust denial. Some 55 nations (many of which are NATO members) abstained on the vote, no doubt because they want Ukraine as part of the military alliance. So much for Harper's calls of "never again" when he spoke in Israel. This is not to whitewash the Russian annexation of Crimea nor to dismiss those voices for democracy that were supportive of the Maidan movement, many of whom face a difficult road ahead trying to navigate the many political strands that make up the Ukrainian mosaic. Indeed, Harper and NATO seem not to care whether the government in Kiev is democratic or authoritarian, as long as it accepts EU dictates and joins NATO.
Opening the vaults
While Harper plans to campaign on a balanced budget, the vaults are continuing to open for outrageous military spending. In the same month that national reports were produced on millions of hungry Canadians and hundreds of thousands of homeless, the focus has remained on how we can be a glorious nation at war against barbaric cultural practices. With the backdrop of an isolated shooting of a reservist in Ottawa and the sad killing of a soldier in Quebec, the military and its industry partners smell blood, and blood means big bucks. Canada's special forces are seeking some $350 million in new war materiel and Harper quietly approved an $800-million purchase of Sea Sparrow Missiles (part of a $26-billion rebuild of the Canadian navy). Meanwhile, the CF-18 bombing campaign is proving a useful trailer for the next movie Harper hopes to produce, the F-35 stealth fighter jet show that will cost over $50 billion. Indeed, as the Ottawa Citizen reported November 4, the Canadian government is planning to tell the U.S. Congress (but not its own Parliament) about those intentions to purchase four jets in 2017. The cost of celebrating war continues to pile up as well, with over $2 million spent earlier this year for a one-day commemoration of the Afghanistan occupation and over a decade of bombings, night raids, and transfers to torture.
The real Canadian crisis
Meanwhile, as the hypocrites on the Hill paid solemn tribute to Canada's soldiers earlier this month, Canadian psychologist Antoon Leenars told a group of veterans Nov. 7 in Ottawa that military suicides are at "epidemic proportions," adding that the Canadian War Dept. has done "no credible, peer-reviewed research into suicide." More vets have committed suicide in the past decade than were killed in Afghanistan. Like the civilians who make up the majority of war's victims, countless Canadian vets continue to suffer the ill effects of militarism, as do their loved ones. They represent those inconvenient realities we would prefer not to notice because as with all systems of sanctified reverence, with militarism, we only wish to see the façade of glory and heroism. Anything else would cut down on recruitment into what always has been and remains a barbaric cultural practice: developing newer and more refined ways of murdering people.
Perhaps the most eloquent recent expression of distaste for the militarist wave in Canada comes from someone who knows at the most visceral level both loss of a loved one in the military and the manner in which the government misuses their memory. Hamilton, Ontario's Andrea Palko, whose beloved boyfriend Nathan Cirillo was killed at the war memorial in Ottawa last month, wrote in a little publicized Facebook posting that, "I loved him deeply, as did all of the family and friends who knew him and we all still mourn him every day. That being said, I feel I should weigh in on this ridiculous 'was he a hero or was he not' debate. My response is this: WAKE UP CANADA. What we SHOULD be talking about is the dismal state of mental healthcare in our country.
"What that deeply disturbed man killing my boyfriend SHOULD make Canadians focus on is how we can PREVENT another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the REAL source of this tragedy.
"Stop tearing apart the honour and love bestowed upon a wonderful man who deserves every bit of it and start taking a good hard look at the awful, dysfunctional systems in our nation that this has shown us NEED TO CHANGE.
"FOCUS ON WHAT REALLY MATTERS HERE AND WHAT WE CAN GAIN AS EXPERIENCE FROM THIS, AS A COUNTRY.
"I am a very proud Canadian, but the fact that this hero/not business is what the media here and the general public has chosen to talk about, I must say I am very disappointed.
"WE CAN DO, AND ARE, BETTER THAN THIS, CANADA.
"For those of you who would like to share my words, please do so. I feel as though this is an important discussion that needs to continue happening."
An example of courage that matches any mustered up on November 11.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.