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As the leaders of Canada’s major political parties descend on backyard barbecues, kiss babies, and glad-hand supporters, there appears to be little interest in addressing Canada’s role in war crimes and dangerous military escalations committed half a world away this summer.

Their names are not met with moments of respectful silence along the campaign trail, but among those killed earlier this year in a “Coalition” airstrike in Syria were a shepherd in his late 60s, Ibrahim al-Mussul, and his daughters Jozah (27) and Zahra (25). The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported: “Their bodies were shredded. We found Ibrahim’s hand next to his house, and we were still collecting bits of flesh and body parts into the early hours of the following morning.” 

They are among the thousands killed with Canadian military technology and CF-18 fighter jets. And they need to be remembered as lefty partisans dream of an NDP victory in October. Indeed, as many hope for that historic change in government, they need to prepare themselves for an unpleasant reality that will require a major effort in seeking accountability: absent a major grassroots push, a Mulcair government would be in charge of funding and employing — not dismantling — this nation’s tools of mass violence and terror.

Among those tools are Canadian fighter jets participating in a major bombing campaign of Iraq and Syria (which, to its credit, is a campaign that the NDP says it would end). Not so clear is the NDP’s position on the Canadian military readying itself to provoke Russia with October war “games” involving five Canadian warships, assorted bomber planes, and 1,600 ground troops, which will join some 36,000 of their NATO brethren.

Furthermore, the NDP will be faced with decisions about Canada’s close ally, Saudi Arabia, which is engaging in the same crimes committed by ISIS, from beheadings in the public square to destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition, the Saudi regime has been violating the sovereign nation of Yemen (with no comment from Harper, who accuses Russia of doing the same in Ukraine) with a horrific campaign of bombing that has created what the Red Cross has labelled a humanitarian catastrophe akin to the war in Syria.

Yemen looks like Syria

“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years,” says Peter Maurer, head of the International Red Cross. “The firepower with which this war is fought on the ground and in the air is causing more suffering than in other societies which are stronger and where infrastructure are better off and people are wealthier and have reserves and can escape.” Some 2,000 people have been killed in the Yemeni fighting, sparked in large measure by rebel Houthis ousting the U.S.-backed president earlier this year.

Part of the devastation in Yemen is the intentional targeting of cultural heritage sites by what archaeologist Lamya Khalidi recently identified as Saudi “aerial vandalism.”

“Since March, Saudi Arabia has conducted a large-scale campaign of air attacks on its neighbor with the stated purpose of driving back the Houthi rebels who have taken control of the capital Sana and large parts of the country,” Khalidi writes.

“These aerial bombardments have not managed to reverse the gains of the rebels, but have succeeded in devastating Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. Thousands of civilians have been killed or injured, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, amid severe shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies. Less reported is that these bombardments show a pattern of targeting cultural heritage sites in a country that has made extraordinary contributions to world civilization. Mohannad al-Sayani, director of Yemen’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums, confirmed to me by email that 25 sites and monuments have been severely damaged or destroyed since the beginning of the conflict.”

Sana itself — a World Heritage Site, inhabited continuously for 2,500 years — was intentionally targeted in air strikes on June 12. Khalidi writes that UNESCO and the State Department have provided the Saudis with specific lists of non-strategic heritage sites that should be respected, but that advice is being ignored, with no punishment. Indeed, the Saudis benefit from an ongoing military alliance that supplies them with the most sophisticated killing technology, courtesy of the U.S. and, more recently, Canada, which has made Saudis the recipient of the largest single weapons deal in Canadian history: over $15 billion worth of equipment that, at this very moment, continues to ride off the assembly line at London, Ontario’s General Dynamics weapon plant, with the support, according to the Conservatives, of a 500-firm supply chain across Canada.

Murder from on high

Meanwhile, the international monitoring group Airwars has been documenting civilian deaths from the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. As of this week, almost 20,000 bombs have been dropped and upwards of 1,240 civilians killed by the U.S.-led coalition, for which Canada plays a junior partner role under the moniker Operation Impact. In the bland language of lifeless mathematical militarism, Canada’s War Department boasts that its role in this murder from the air consists, as of August 22, of: CF-18 Hornet fighters conducting 889 “sorties”; CC-150T Polaris aerial refuellers conducting 237 sorties and delivering 14,352,000 pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft; and CP-140 Aurora aircraft conducting 257 reconnaissance (i.e., bomb spotting) missions.

In their August 2015 report, Cause for Concern, researchers at Airwars are astonished that the nations which are bombing human beings from the air are refusing to acknowledge any more than two “potential” civilian casualties — and these only seven months after the bombing incident — with one U.S. general naming this “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Estimates of Daesh (ISIS) fighters killed ranges from 10-13,000, though the term “fighter” does not mean a hardened, ideologically bound killing machine, but rather, many forced recruits, or those who have joined in economic desperation to feed their families.

Airwars researchers have found that, despite coalition claims of a “clean” war, “every week from both Iraq and Syria a steady flow of casualty claims emerges.” While Obama and his counterparts claim this bombing is to save Iraqi lives, that did not help eight-year-old Iraqi Danya Laith Hazem, killed with four family members by an April 4 airstrike. Last December, an air strike on a temporary prison being run by ISIS killed 58 people, including men who were imprisoned for the crimes of buying cigarettes as well as four women and numerous teenagers detained for similar misdemeanors.

“There is no evidence that the International Coalition exerted any effort to ensure that there were no civilians near the building nor to be certain that the building itself was not a secret detention centre for ISIL, as was widely known in town,” reported the Syrian Violations and Documentation Centre.

Then there’s the case of Ahmed Abdul Aqi, a mosque janitor who, critically ill and very poor, had to sell his wife’s jewellery to pay for a medical trip to Baghdad. During the journey by taxi with his wife and daughter, all three, along with the driver, Ahmed Azzawi, were killed in a coalition airstrike.

It is important to put names and faces to the victims of Canadian militarism, which shows its ugly face in the form of the Saudi weapons contract, annual weapons bazaars like the CANSEC exhibition each spring in Ottawa, as well as the rhetoric of all major political parties who refuse to acknowledge the need for a radically new approach to conflict resolution.

Will things change with NDP rule?

The historic opportunity for a federal NDP government, based on strong poll showings, is proving a hopeful sign for many that the long years of Stephen Harper’s mean-spirited Conservative reign may be coming to an end. While an NDP government would certainly be better on a number of fronts, the party’s slogan about change should not leave people with the misapprehension that a Mulcair government will dismantle or defang Canada’s bloated infrastructure of violence and terror.

One sign that a Mulcair government will continue such business as usual was the pandering political announcement that what Canada needs — despite continually falling crime figures — is 2,500 more police officers on the streets. Muclair did not address in his law-and-order announcement whether such armed men and women would be forbidden from “carding” young people (the standard operating procedure in most towns whereby police, acting as an occupying army, routinely stop and interrogate and file information on whole communities who do not enjoy the privilege of white skin).

Another is that, like the party led by the late Jack Layton into the last federal election, an NDP government would continue to rob the poor to pay for the bloated billions annually poured into the War Department. While Mulcair is hounded about how his government would pay for the $15-a-day child-care program, his bona fides on fiscal responsibility are never interrogated when it comes to the party’s plans to continue historically high levels of war spending.

Indeed, in a recent piece for Esprit de Corps magazine, NDP War Minister-in-Waiting Jack Harris does not suggest that the $67 million currently spent every day on war in Canada be redirected to, say, construction of 420 affordable housing units, 3,000 four-year tuition-free grants for post-secondary students, 4,466 free, fully subsidized one-year child-care spaces, or 2,454 full-time jobs at $15 per hour. Instead, he criticizes the Conservatives for relatively modest cuts and “the departmental spending freeze and other reductions that will see DND’s budget shrink by $2.7 billion this year compared to 2011.”

Of course, 2011 was the last federal election, when the NDP campaigned on a very clear refusal to cut the $23-billion Harper war budget (insisting instead it would simply reallocate the billions to different military projects). That was the latest in a long line of indications that the NDP was not a party of peace. Indeed, the party endorsed a 2002 Parliamentary Committee’s call for increasing military spending a full 50 per cent. That was the same year NDP MPs began joining their colleagues in a unique indoctrination program called the Canadian Forces Parliamentary Program, which “embeds” MPs in war training exercises where, according to a report in Canadian Parliamentary Review, they “learn how the equipment works, they train with the troops, and they deploy with their units on operations. Parliamentarians are integrated into the unit by wearing the same uniform, living on bases, eating in messes, using CF facilities and equipment.”

In May 2005, the NDP supported the Paul Martin 2005 Liberal budget. Hailed as Canada’s “First NDP budget,” it sported the largest military spending increase in 20 years, making Canada’s war budget higher than at any time since the end of the Second World War. When the infamous NDP-Liberal-Bloc coalition came together in December 2008, the issue of withdrawal from Afghanistan was suddenly “off the table.” And shortly before his untimely death, Layton’s NDP unanimously supported a continuation of the bombing of Libya, which led to much of the chaos currently afflicting the region.

In the 2015 election, the NDP’s Jack Harris is calling for a “new vision” for Canada’s war machine, complete with “an agile, well-equipped, world-class force,” an improved “procurement process” to purchase more machinery of murder, and a more “transparent” process to waste tens of billions of dollars on replacements for Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets. Criticizing the Harper move to cancel purchase of close combat vehicles, Harris calls for a “made-in Canada” military strategy that will keep the forces “well-equipped” for wherever they go on the world stage. Needless to say, there is nary a mention about Canada’s avid participation in nuclear weapons alliances NORAD and NATO (which insist on the right to use nuclear weapons in a first-strike).

To their credit, an NDP government says it would improve the desperate plight of Canada’s war veterans and live up to “a top-to-bottom commitment to eradicate sexual harassment and assault.” But even here, they would be tackling bureaucracies with firmly entrenched belief systems that will fight tooth and nail on both scores, and it is unclear if they are willing to risk losing political capital on either ground.

It is also unclear if an NDP government will cancel export permits to continue supplying billions in weapons to the Saudi regime (though its efforts to gain seats in vote-rich southern Ontario, home to many war industries, would likely negate that possibility). It is certainly unlikely they would put the kibosh on the CANSEC weapons fair or rein in the Canadian Commercial Corporation, which roams the globe to broker arms deals.

The party’s foreign policy plans will be similarly dictated by the robust militarism of its platform. Indeed, NDP candidates who have had the audacity to mention Israel war crimes against Palestinians (documented by the most respected human rights organizations on the planet) appear to be squelched and cast aside by the Mulcair machine.

With every election comes the despairing question about the least of the evils: who do I vote for? How do we get rid of Harper? Perhaps the better question is: how do we get rid of such policies, regardless of who is in power? Voting is a five-minute exercise that is a democratic right. The late, great writer and organizer Howard Zinn put it succinctly when he reminded us, “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Perhaps the hundreds of millions being raised and spent to support corporate media with political ads, and the endless hours volunteering for political parties, could be translated into the kind of grassroots base that doesn’t settle for “the least of the evils,” but instead insists on a truth-telling, social justice focus that demands the political process and public discourse not be dictated by the backroom boys in their respective war rooms.

Regardless of who forms the government in October, Zinn’s prescription needs to be applied: direct action will continue to be needed, even under a Mulcair government, to ensure positive change. In the meantime, don’t be shy about pressing your candidates to address these issues. At the very least, we owe it to the memory of the shepherd Ibrahim al-Mussul and his daughters, the family of Ahmed Abdul Aqi, and the countless unknown casualties not only of Canada’s very profitable war industry, but also the Canadians who, on the ground, in the air, and from the safety of sequestered bunkers, press the bomb-launch buttons.

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: Jamie McCaffrey/flickr

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Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...