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Like most nations, whenever Canada trains for and goes to war, it’s all about those nice window-dressing items of values, democracy, selfless honour, women’s rights, saving cute puppies, and that old chestnut, tradition. We’ve always done it, we always will, end of story. Never do you hear a Canadian leader being upfront about why we have a military in the first place: to protect our economic investments abroad, to dole out massive corporate welfare to multinational war profiteers, and to repress the population at home — especially Indigenous nations — should we ever become too restless.

It’s pretty much heresy among people of all political stripes to write and say these things in a country that so idolizes its institutions of violence, from the Canadian Forces and the RCMP to CSIS and the highly paid police officer on the beat, none of whom make the lists of most dangerous jobs in Canada.

But every once in a while, the myth is slightly punctured, eliciting a river of bile and shock that someone could be so impertinent. Such it was that Canada’s newest prime minister makes for such an interesting and insidious case of the self-deluded Canadian, one who knows better but plays the game because, well, it’s tradition. Indeed, one of Justin Trudeau’s most incisive comments of the past year came with his unscripted yet truthful explanation for why the Harper government was bombing Iraq and Syria: “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show how big they are.”

Trudeau was accused of insulting the military (a fate which did not befall former General Rick Hillier’s similarly truthful, unvarnished comments: “We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.”).

Masculinity in the military

Yet Trudeau was simply reflecting what has been revealed in the many studies equating militarism with hypersexualized notions of masculinity. It’s no secret that the armed forces themselves are rife with a terminology that is all about the “wargasm” (deep penetration, missile erections, our mission makes us “stand tall,” etc.). The confused, violence-soaked sexuality that underlies the masculinist culture of the military and other institutions of violence is also revealed in the epidemic of violence against women in those same organizations. As the Royal Military College (RMC) cadets gathered in Ottawa for Remembrance Day this year, one couldn’t help but think that a mere year ago, many of these young men were heckling, hooting and threatening sexual assault educator Julie Lalonde when she spent the day with them trying to explain why rape was not acceptable.

As the tired rhetoric was repeated at this year’s Remembrance ceremonies, we did not hear praise for the heroic women of the armed forces and RCMP who have shown what true courage is all about. These are the women who have spoken up about what makes their jobs so dangerous: not foreign enemies or domestic “radicals,” but their fellow male officers and soldiers. Yes, the same institutions which enjoy carte blanche appreciation in Canada’s national mythology are among the nation’s most toxic, dangerous workplaces for women. Two recent examples of the epidemic of violence facing women in the Mounties and the military are the class-action lawsuit of some 400 current and former RCMP officers that is once again in a Vancouver courtroom this month, and the report on violence against women in the military by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps. The military’s response to the Deschamps report, Operation Honour (Op Honour in warrior lingo), has already become an object of derision by soldiers at RMC, the War Dept. HQ, and other bases who have renamed it “Hop on Her.” Perhaps this is no surprise given that former top dog at the War Dept., General Tom Lawson, told CBC earlier this year that sexual assault exists because men are “biologically wired in a certain way.”

Canadian bombing creates refugees

Difficult as this discussion may be for many Canadians who grew up believing the misguided idea that Canada is a peacekeeping nation and an honest broker on the world stage (despite evidence to the contrary), it’s an important one to have as the military is about to enjoy a burst of glory for helping to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees. This is not to downplay the fact that many people join the military (along with the Mounties) out of a sense of wanting to do good, to contribute, to improve the safety of their fellow citizens. And no doubt, many soldiers will be kind and caring as they welcome the refugees. But ultimately, welcoming refugees — like true peacekeeping and humanitarian work from flood relief to ice storm assistance — is not a job that requires a gun and camouflage outfits.

Lost amidst the congratulations that will soon start flowing to a Canadian military desperate to avoid a potential public inquiry into its role in the torture of Afghan detainees is a simple, incontrovertible fact. This is the same Canadian military that is currently contributing to the refugee crisis by whipping out their CF-18s on a daily basis over Iraq and Syria (despite Trudeau’s promise to end the bombing). Indeed, the bombing campaign’s Operation Impact boasts that its scorecard keeps getting bigger and bigger (as of November 18, “CF-188 Hornet fighters conducted 1,127 sorties; CC-150T Polaris aerial refueller conducted 305 sorties, delivering some 18,024,000 pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft”). It seems every time Trudeau says the bombing mission will end, the website for Operation Impact is updated with news of a new bombing run. And as CBC reports, the carnage continues tp pile up, with at least 10 Iraqi civilians were killed in a November 19 Canadian bombing run over Mosul.

Needless to say, the human cost grows on the ground with no real concern at War Dept. HQ about civilian casualties. Those casualties are documented by the likes of Airwars, while CBC reported on an internal Pentagon document that shows a Canadian strike near Mosul last January killed as many as 27 civilians. And while bellyaching about the cost of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees fills the Facebook pages of far too many uninformed Canadians, that investment is a mere pittance compared to the monies Canada has spent in perpetuating the refugees crisis with the bombing campaign. The Conservatives’ low-ball estimate as of April 1 was “at least $528 million,” and so the cost of bombing and creating more refugees by now must be well over $1 billion. (In addition, the Canadian Navy spent over $1 billion enforcing genocidal sanctions against the Iraqi people during the 1990s).

While some Canadians will warm their hearts knowing their military is hosting refugees (which of course it should do), one question unaddressed is where the Canadian military — the one that projects Canadian “values” and exists to make the world a better place — has been throughout the refugee crisis. As the waters of the Mediterranean became choppier this month with the coming of winter and scores of refugees were lost to the swirling seas near Greece, Canadian military priorities were very clear. Six Canadian warships that could have been rescuing such refugees were instead playing NATO war games in the Mediterranean in a pissing match designed to show Russian President Vladimir Putin who was standing taller. (In yet another example of machismo on display, the war games were not only much celebrated by participating countries’ media, Russia was invited to attend as an observer as well to see just how big our bombers were. It’s another sign of the geopolitical confusion inspired by the brutal war waged by the Assad regime against the Syrian people: Trudeau has been silent on Putin’s interference in Syria while condemning Putin as a bully for doing the same thing in Ukraine.)

Canadian warships could be rescuing refugees

Earlier this month, NATO undertook Operation Trident Juncture, the largest NATO war game in over a decade, with over 1,200 Canadian soldiers, pilots, and sailors joining 35,000 NATO troops, 200 aircraft, 50 warships and, shamefully, the Red Cross, in practicing at war. Also present were war profiteers; as NATO publicly admitted in a pre-game press release, “The military industries of 15 countries will also participate to assess what other weapons and technology NATO needs in the future.”

“The theme of Operation Trident Juncture is speed, the speed with which NATO forces can respond to a crisis,” NATO proclaimed. “German General Hans-Lothar Domrose who [led] the exercise said that ‘speed matters — you will see it in the air, at sea, and on land.'” The ones who could have most benefitted from such speedy response — refugees just a few hundred kilometres away who are part of the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War — were left to drown.

Canadian Commodore Chris Baines told Postmedia that the purpose of the war games was simple, using thinly coded language that referred to Russia in Ukraine: “One country is trying to impose itself on the other and we are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Those who believe irony is dead could take great pleasure from the comment, for the Commodore’s NATO brothers-in-arms were at the very moment continuing to occupy parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and a series of African countries all in the name of stopping such interference in the affairs of other nations.

Meanwhile, three other Canadian warships that could have been helping escort refugees across the dangerous Mediterranean were instead playing another series of war games off the coast of Southern California “in order to continue to build our proficiency as allies.”

As those war games came to a close, Trudeau’s Representative to the United Nations voted against the same resolution that Harper vetoed last year at this same time, one that condemned glorification of Nazism.

Canadian bombing continues

Back at home, as the brilliant fall colours made for a picture-perfect swearing-in of the new Liberal government on October 22, Trudeau met the press and informed Canadians that his first official call on the job was to inform President Obama that, in fulfilling a campaign promise, the Canadian bombing campaign over Syria and Iraq would end. As many applauded Trudeau’s statement, few were following the daily tally of bombing runs recorded on the War Department’s page, which to this day continues to grow, not wind down.

Trudeau could have grounded the CF-18s the day he was sworn in. While it will take time to strike the base Canada is operating from in Kuwait, no harm would have come from keeping the CF-18s out of the skies. It’s not as if the military did not know this was coming, but they have been behaving like a drunk on a bender, hoping to get in as many shots as possible before going sober. As the Ottawa Citizen reported October 29, “Some federal bodies or agencies have been starting to shift their actions in areas where Liberal policies are publicly known,” such as the long-form census and Canada Post community mailboxes. Trudeau made no secret of his desire to end the bombing, but no apparent plans to comply with this policy and immediately stop the bombing seem to have emanated from the War Dept.

Trudeau’s prescription for replacing the bombing, however — more military trainers — is no better, and reflects the utter failure of imagination that underlies warrior thinking: that the only way to solve a crisis is to impose superior firepower and grind one’s opponent to dust. How is it that a war-torn country that has known nothing but 30 years of invasion, war, occupation, deprivation and repression (often at the hands of Canadian, American and British armed forces), really needs practice in killing people?

Instead of teaching Iraqis to kill in better ways, why not a massive investment in a civil society skills-building program that would drain away potential ISIS soldiers (a pool of whom are available because they cannot feed their families in a country utterly devastated by decades of American/Canadian/British bombing)? Why not funding for groups seeking non-violent solutions to the conflict? There are numerous examples of (largely women-led) non-violent resistance to ISIS which, like any power, ultimately cannot govern without a certain degree of consent. Why not send in engineering trainers to fix up the still unstable and unreliable water and electrical systems deliberately targeted (a war crime) by Canadian and allied bombers in 1991? Why not fund Iraqi women’s shelters, overflowing with the members of a nation suffering a deeply rooted PTSD? Why not dispatch conflict resolution specialists to help bring together the warring parties within Iraq?

The naysayers claim that we have to train people to kill terrorists who threaten us, but again, let us return to the unscripted Trudeau who, in one of his finest campaign moments, skewered Harper’s fear-mongering by claiming the former PM wanted us all to think “a terrorist is hiding behind every rock and tree.” Even new War Minister Harjit Sajjan commented that Canadians need not fear ISIS. But then came the Paris attacks, a gift for the world’s leading weapons-makers, whose stocks took sky-high jumps. Like the militaries who win prestige by bombing people, these industries would see their fortunes fall if peace were to suddenly break out. ISIS thus plays a very valuable role, one that serves as justification for high levels of war spending as well as repressive pieces of legislation such as C-51.

Trudeau’s wartime economy

Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed that a nation which continually spends more and more of its funds on war than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. For those concerned with the gross amounts of money wasted on warfare by successive Canadian governments, the problem with the 2015 federal election was that all the major parties supported spiritual death. Indeed, neither the Liberals or the NDP vowed to cut Harper’s military spending, only to shift it around to different “priorities.” No one was so bold as to suggest that the $15-billion Canadian weapons contract to supply the beheading regime of Saudi Arabia should be cancelled (Trudeau only said he would make the contract more transparent). No one went beyond cancellation of an F-35 warplane contract to suggest we don’t need new warplanes (and Trudeau is committed to pouring countless billions into “new generation fighter aircraft” instead of putting those desperately needed funds into social spending). 

In an election where each federal party boasted about their respective fiscal responsibility, they all supported maintaining and increasing historically high levels of Canadian war spending, despite the fact that the War Dept. is the single largest beneficiary of discretionary federal spending. What Canada spends in one day on war could provide: 3,000 students with four years of post-secondary education for free; 1,100 affordable housing units; and 4,466 free, subsidized child-care spaces for one year. A government truly concerned about waste would look to the $3.1 billion of so-called “anti-terror” funding (including to the War Dept.) that went missing. It would also have regard to the findings of the Office of the Ombudsman for National Defence and the Canadian Forces, who earlier this year “found that an inadequate system of internal financial controls and the overriding of existing controls by management led to non-compliance” of spending rules: “In many cases between 2009 and 2013, the Office did not follow rules related to the approval and disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses, and to the management of contracts.”

But because the military is a massive, unaccountable government recipient of welfare that hides behind its protective mythic barrier, it does not get condemned for such mismanagement in the same manner as a person trying to scrape by on $600 of social assistance who earns an extra bit of unreported cash on the side to keep a roof over their heads.

Clearly, political leaders cannot question these contradictions without puncturing the myths and questioning the ultimate need for the military: all the things many Canadians say they apparently want for their military, from search and rescue to disaster relief and peacekeeping do not require guns. So why not disarm our troops and put them into civilian operations that are equally well-funded?

Suicide in the military

The Canadian Forces are also reeling from the reports that 60 Afghan veterans have committed suicide (more than a third of the number killed in Afghanistan). Those numbers will grow as a PTSD-infused generation of soldiers continues to try and cope with what they saw and experienced overseas (not to mention the civilians of Afghanistan, a whole nation that, like Iraq, suffers collective PTSD but which has no funding for support services). Even internal military reports are beginning to conclude that exposure combat could increase the risk of suicide, which essentially undermines the whole macho rationale of the warrior culture: it goes against human nature to train for and to kill people, and for this institution to remain a valid, well-funded one, it must convince us otherwise.  

As the Trudeau government (along with the support of the Conservatives, Greens and NDP) promises to continue funding such an illogical, anti-human enterprise, the social costs of such massive investments in war continue to reveal themselves in high levels of domestic poverty and inequality, endless waiting lists for mental health services, and a vast array of other social challenges that are simply not being met because of such skewed funding priorities. A real change, it seems, would alter the paradigm built on violence as a solution, and stop training successive generations for a job in which to kill or be killed is a primary requirement.

With four years under Trudeau, and two-thirds of Parliamentarians new to the job and less likely to be completely hard-bitten and cynical, perhaps this is an opportunity to renew discussion on a culture of peace with justice, and to initiate a Department of Peace that sits not beside a War Department, but replaces it completely.

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.

Photo: Operation Trident Juncture. Credit: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum/flickr

rabble is expanding our Parliamentary Bureau and we need your help! Support us on Patreon today!

Keep Karl on Parl

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.