Noah Richler can write. And I suspect that a few Canadians are glad he does: his recent studies of Canada and the country’s thoughts on war are becoming as much his own as they are “our” own. (In Canada, when, your father’s name is Mordecai, that’s quite a compliment.)
Richler’s recent musings on War and Canada paint a picture not of what Canadians think of their Forces, but how they think it. A key excerpt from his new book serves as Richler’s entry to the pesky question of how – once proud to don the blue helmet, and stand right on the line in the sand as Peacekeepers – Canada as an international force, and as a country, has moved on. Although magnificently descriptive, the cause and effect implied beneath Richler’s prose might be confused.
The claim is that “after 9/11” changed Canada’s course, leading us to extol our warriors, forget our generosity, and value the epic theatres of war over the messy realities of our character. Surely, the national imperatives represented in Afghanistan, related security threats of terrorism, and the prosecution of what our neighbors called the GWOT would take precedence over our Peacekeeping past; the message of government just had to meet the challenge.
But I’d disagree that it was 9/11 that turned this corner for Canada. Canadians who bother to read more than the scroll at the bottom of the TV screen were acutely aware by the new millennium that any national myth of Peacekeeper (complete with its aging red-bricked fortress where Foreign Affairs protects the peace prize won by Lester B. Pearson) was over. The lack of paying forward our peacekeeping myth was both appalling and inevitable as conflicts became more complex, and state sovereignty less apparent in the 21st Century. In this new world – after both the Cold War and post-Twin Towers – the route to revitalize the Canadian story, and the story of our Forces in the public’s eye was in need of a new script.
At the time Canada was deciding what path to take, a little red book was circulating among desks at DFAIT, written by the Rhodes Scholar Jen Welsh. For a time, it was influential. It argued that values and interests were the same. The halls of DFAIT were abuzz with the idea that, although no longer a middle power “punching above its weight,” there was an available script that allowed Canada to be “at home in the world.” Walsh’s 2004 book outlined a confident Canada that should act as a model citizen of the world, contributing to multilateral systems of governance and their institutions, set an example of balancing liberty and security, and reverse the slide of overseas development funding, while working with the Americans on security of the continent. On this last point it was least clear.
Regardless, Canadians seemed to agree. A report prepared for the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute suggested that Canadians liked the ideas of Welsh’s book. The same survey showed that more Canadians perceived global warming (52 percent) and potential epidemics like AIDS and SARS (60 percent) as threats than international terrorism (49 percent) and Islamic fundamentalism (22 percent). This compared to 75 percent of Americans answering that terrorism was a threat when asked the same question.
Key though, was that over 80 percent of Canadians surveyed would not contribute internationally if that meant sacrificing at home.
A statistic like that is partly a feature of the rabble of democracy and poor question design. However it also speaks to the lack of a clear engagement strategy in the complex “post” 9/11 world, opposed to the clarity living and a world of action “after 9/11.” Canadians weren’t thinking what to do after 9/11, they were thinking of what they were post-9/11, post-peacekeeping, post-middle power, post-mattering. Add to this the continuing spiral of defense spending; that bastion of acting abroad through explicit sacrifice of those from home.
From a perspective of national security that implies a sustainable Armed Forces, something that had gone wrong had come to a head. In the mid 2000s it wasn’t that for Canada to fight in Afghanistan it needed to increase military expenditure. It was that if there was going to be a Military expenditure, Canada needed to fight in Afghanistan. This reversal of cause and effect is missed in Richler’s take of the “wholesale revision” of Canada’s defining narratives.
It’s easy to place a party-political bias on what happened. Anecdotes of the Harper Government’s Treasury Minister at first refusing to sign-off on any funding for the “corrupt” UN, or the Minister of Foreign Affairs removing “Lester B. Pearson” from the address line of his business card, before removing “Canada” altogether, are indicative.
However, to assure a growing place in the world from fair-weather domestic support, the brave but battered story of model peacekeeper was not tenable. Canada would have to (literally) fight for it. Richler paints a sufficiently primal picture when he reminds us that “The enemy wore a kaffiyeh and a black beard and, like the monster Grendel in the story Beowulf, lived in a cave; ‘good’ was the property of a country rushing back into a majestically unsubtle narrative of the frontier.” Afghanistan was chosen for virtuous reasons. It wasn’t Iraq. It wasn’t back to Africa, or Serbia. It was a hunt in the mountains. We found the heroes. Richler suggests we lost humans.
With the creation of an enemy, the void from the story was filled in and the myth of peacekeeper gone. Afghanistan, and the Grendel of the sands, provided a distinct actionable thing to do, and build a new story around. Afghanistan didn’t force, but allowed the story of warrior to be heard and then written into Canada’s (revised) History. How long the humanitarian generosity myth is left fallow, and what that means for Canada, might again divide value and interest.
And what about, “after” Afghanistan? The new jets, of course. We’re told they will let Canada’s narrative fly to new heights.
(Luke J. Heemsbergen joins Sovereign Complexities. Luke is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne. He hails from Canada. Luke’s research hopes to build bridges and light fires for new modes of democratic governance and to help steer the emerging policy implications within and without the state.)