Support our troops. Bring them home.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Do you support our troops? That’s a pretty simple question, but it demands a complicated answer. Unfortunately, more often than not, those who pose it aren’t looking for much more than a straight “yes” or “no” (and they’ll likely read far more into either answer than it was meant to convey).

But, instead of having a real discussion about whether it makes sense to leave our men and women in Afghanistan to fight a battle that likely can never be won (not to mention whether this is the best use of our limited military or financial resources), we keep hearing variations on the same simple-minded “support our troops” mantra. Here are just a few examples from the mouth of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (though he is not the only guilty party):

On March 7, he told reporters that “Canadians don't cut and run at the first sign of trouble. That's the nature of this country, and when we send troops into the field, I expect Canadians to support those troops.”
On the same day, he rejected calls for a Parliamentary debate. “This government has no intention of questioning this mission while our troops are in danger. In such a debate, such a lack of strength by any Canadian party would weaken our troops, and possibly place our troops in more danger.”
During the May 17 debate (which he eventually agreed to, while specifying that he would ignore the result if he didn’t like it), he explained that “This government wants strong support for our troops in Afghanistan. This is why we responded to calls from the parties to have a vote.”
Most recently, on August 3, he said Canadian troops “need to know that their country supports them.”

The repetition of this refrain is really just an attempt to short circuit debate. After all, how could you not support the men and women who volunteer to put their lives on the line in defense of… in defense of… well, that’s really the big question.

Canada’s role in Afghanistan has never been properly defined and its objectives remain murky. The only Parliamentary debate on the subject has been either poorly attended (in the case of a “take note” debate in the fall of 2005) or cynically manipulative (in the case of the 149-145 vote held on May 17). Moreover, the Harper government has itself repeatedly tried to limit the public relations fallout of the growing disaster in Afghanistan, first by refusing to lower the flag on the peace tower in honour of fallen soldiers, and then by attempting to ban the media from covering the return of their bodies.

Since our soldiers first set foot on Afghan soil, 27 of them have been killed, and another 85 of them have been wounded (if patterns persist, those numbers may very well change before this column is published). As Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor noted in June “military sources have quietly been telling those who cover such situations [that] this taming of Afghanistan – something that has already eluded Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire and the Soviet Union – will soon get even messier.”

With every poll that is released on the subject, public support for the mission has fallen. MacGregor suggests that “Canada is already well into that grey area so much of the United States is entering with Iraq – support the troops, question the war – and the reality of 16 Canadian deaths in that difficult country is only beginning to have its effect on the population at large.”

As the need for a serious debate on the mission grows with every body bag, the likelihood of it actually occurring remains distant. How can we have a real debate if every discussion gets reduced to whether we “support the troops” or not? It’s a dichotomy which Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert called “one of Stephen Harper's most demagogic arguments” and NDP Leader Jack Layton labelled “a false trap created by the Prime Minister’s borrowed sloganeering.”

In the United States, where the level of debate has sunk even lower, there are people willing to challenge the ‘support our troops’ rhetoric. In the January edition of The Monthly Review, Michael Steinberg asked, “Does ‘I support our troops’ mean ‘I support the war’? Does it mean ‘I want the soldiers home safely’?... Does it mean, ‘I oppose the war but want American soldiers to face no more risks than are absolutely necessary’? Or, ‘I think the war in Iraq was a mistake but now it's better for our soldiers that they manage something that can be passed off as a victory so their psychological state after their return will be less troubled’?

“You don't need to answer,” suggests Steinberg. “Nobody's going to ask you what you mean by the phrase. The important thing is that you repeat it. It's an example of the performative use of language. Shouting it or sticking a yellow or red-white-and-blue magnetic ribbon on your car shows that you are regular folks… The phrase is its use as a mark of belonging, nothing more. This is nothing extraordinary… Today's public life is a series of greeting-card debates. What counts is that the responses sound like responses. Their effectiveness is the same even if they turn out to be meaningless.”

Well, alright then. If we must communicate in sound bites that can be reduced to greeting card (or bumper stickers), let me offer a suggestion: Support our troops. Bring them home.

Thanks to my readers: This column is the last in a series of viewpoints that I have written each week since 1993. For thirteen years, I have carefully balanced – sometimes more successfully than others – my role as a commentator on events with my desire to affect those events (there are no parallels here to Clark Kent and Superman, since few would describe my reporting as “mild-mannered” and no one has ever suggested that I have any superpowers). Now, having launched my campaign for a seat on Kitchener City Council, it is necessary for me to concentrate on the latter of those identities. Of course, I won’t be completely abandoning the written word. You can read all about my adventures here .
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