Hello Kandahar, Goodbye Frank Shuster

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Welcome to Kandahar: Nothing about sending Canadian forces to operate under U.S. control in Afghanistan makes sense. I don’t mean moral or strategic sense; I mean any sense. Canadians will not join the “international” force of “peacekeepers” in Kabul; instead, they will combine with U.S. “combat” troops in Kandahar. But those peacekeepers can’t really keep much peace anyway since they are confined to Kabul.

How come? The U.S. says it wanted it that way so they wouldn’t interfere with military operations. Huh? Just how would peacekeepers get in the way, especially since they would have been under overall U.S. command? As for combat in Kandahar, the U.S. is not sending any of its own troops into battle; they have hired the locals to do that. Or in a pinch would they send in Canadians like cannon fodder, instead of their own?

Sounds harsh, but it is the traditional role for colonial troops — think of Dieppe, or Gallipoli.

In the absence of an explanation, we’re entitled to speculate. The deal made by the U.S. with the warlords of the Northern Alliance seems to be: You guys provide the ground forces to mop up after our bombing, in return for lots of money and the right to run your areas when we’re done, where you can pillage and plunder, including aid convoys, or extort money and ransoms from foreign media crews, as has been happening.

At least that makes sense of why the U.S. vetoed any “peacekeepers” beyond Kabul, which serves as a kind of fig leaf of national government. (Though even in Kabul, long after Northern Alliance troops were supposed to leave, The Guardian quotes a police captain saying, “These people are looting and plundering the city ... from the highest commander to the very lowest ranks.”)

As for Canadians, they won’t even have their own transport over there, so the only role they seem ready for is airport security at Kandahar, where the main task is shipping prisoners to Cuba: shorn, shackled, hooded, sedated, and stripped of the standard rights, military or criminal.

But our Department of Defence has now said all captives will be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention — putting us in a potential conflict right there at Kandahar airport! Sounds crazy, yes? Somebody must have thought it through. Or were our politicians and generals just so chuffed at getting a “combat” role, that they plowed in brainlessly?

Bonus question: If the captives don’t count as prisoners of war, as the U.S. claims, then why have Americans been so insistent from the start on calling this a war, rather than a police action?

Farewell to Frank: There’s a line in the much-recalled 1950s Wayne and Shuster TV sketch about Julius Caesar in which actress Sylvia Lennick moans, “I told him, Julie don’t go.” It became a national watchword, like “He shoots, he scores,” in a way that can’t happen now, with so many media sources and pervasive American content. It was another time.

Someone at the CBC had to spell Shuster for a reporter writing an obituary this week. I liked being reminded that, at the University of Toronto, they edited the campus newspaper and directed a variety show. Having affordable higher education allowed students then the time to do things beyond what was essential to getting a degree. In the process, it helped build a national culture. Of course, Wayne and Shuster often sounded stodgy in recent decades, but we will all sound stodgy in the future, if we don’t already.

It’s been widely noted this week that they declined to move to the U.S., despite having great success there, and despite being courted. Others of their era went, and they were not hostile to the U.S. Frank Shuster glowed about a 1943 appearance by Jack Benny on their radio show, fifty years later! But they were happy in Canada. (“Boys, there’s more to life than happiness,” a Hollywood executive explained to them.) Perhaps the reluctance had something to do with being Jewish. They were of my parents’ generation, whose own parents usually migrated here from Eastern Europe.

So for them Canada was still a new place; they were still in some sense in transit, looking to make this home, especially if you include the anti-Semitism that was common in their youth. For them, succeeding in Canada, becoming its national comic voices, marked a heady arrival. Add in that historically the period between the World Wars, when they came of age, was a kind of interregnum here. The British imperial influence was in decline and the American version hadn’t yet taken firm hold; it looked for a time as if Canada might really become its own, separate place.

You could be strongly Canadian without having to fend off what was American. By the 1960s, it felt much more as if you had to either fight them or join them; and since then the pressures have kept increasing. After September 11, the issues are not just political, economic and cultural survival, but individual physical survival, too. That national question has become pretty existential.

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