Afghanada on Remembrance Day

Sunday, November 18, 2007

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  • Anatomy of an Opium Poppy

    Anatomy of an Opium Poppy

Written by andrea k. bennett

Last Sunday, November 11th, I heard the bugle on the CBC, followed by the moment of silence. Then, driving to my mum's, I listened to Afghanada. I watched a mixture of Canada news coverage and crappy American television while doing my laundry. Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out how Canada's current stint in Afghanistan changes our perception of Remembrance Day, and what, if any, cultural differences remain in the Canadian and American responses to war, and remembering war.

The special Remembrance Day airing of Afghanada provides for an interesting case study. The CBC shifted its production of the show to the Canadian War Museum; as the show opened, an announcer emphasized the fact that the actors stood in front of microphones without the benefit of costumes and a set. The sound effects table, from my understanding, was also in plain view. The program itself focused on the post-traumatic stress of Sgt. Pat Kinsella. She is up for an award after exhibiting bravery during the course of a firefight - unfortunately, during that same firefight, she lost a young ANA recruit. Wahid, out on his first mission, freezes with fear as the rest of the group flees the area. Kinsella can't deal with the guilt of leaving Wahid behind.

The focus on the lack of artifice surrounding the production immediately caught my attention. Mainstream news and opinion tends towards narrow debates about a timeframe for leaving Afghanistan; focus is placed on improving Afghan social conditions (including education), and the humanity of the Canadians soldiers in the field. Sometimes "flash-in-the-pan" issues like the unconstitutional use of Security Certificates or the torturing of war prisoners will surface, but these incidents are usually glossed over as unfortunate mistakes instead of part of a larger patchwork that would really explain our involvement.

Which brings us back to Kinsella's feelings about Wahid's death. Kinsella's actions are glorified, yet she can't get over her guilt; she feels as if she's thrown Wahid to the wolves. Is this metaphor meant to stir support for Canadian presence in Afganistan (we can't leave until the work is done) - or does it bring up larger questions about the motivations for Canada's presence in Afghanistan in the first place?

The typical conception of Remembrance Day involves greatfulness for preservation of our way of life. Veterans Affairs Canada quotes Heather Robinson: "They died for us, for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in; they died for Canada. The meaning of their sacrifice rests with our collective national consciousness; our future is their monument."

In order for Remembrance Day to work, participation in war has to have the goal of a future that we believe in. It's true that some social change has taken place since the Taliban was ousted, but it's also true that Western countries supported and sustained the Taliban regime for quite some time before the relationship soured. Supporting groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) might go further to create lasting social change than any change imposed from the outside. Furthermore, it's difficult to brush off the lingering suspicion that the decision to send troops to Afghanistan might have stemmed from a much more tradition reason to go to war: political leverage and desire for resources. I don't doubt that individual soldiers and Canadians care deeply about the welfare of Afghan citizens, but I'm also not sure that we wholeheartedly believe that our presence is entirely altruistic.

At 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month, listening to the Last Post, I was reminded about another important aspect of Remembrance Day. The Last Post commemorates the war dead; it conjures images of lives lost, of the prematurely broken bodies of young, physically healthy men and women. Before Afghanistan, the Last Post might have conjured black-and-white photos, stiffly sculpted short hair. Today, the Last Post reminds us of the 73 Canadian soliders that have died in Afghanistan so far. It also reminds us - or it should - of the Afghan citizens killed, maimed, and displaced since the beginning of the invasion. The figure for the number of dead Afghan citizens is far more difficult to suss out. Since careful figures concerning civilian deaths haven't been kept, interested parties have been forced to aggregate data themselves, which has led to widespread debate about the real numbers. The number has been estimated as high as 49,600 by Jonathan Steele of the Guardian - and that was in 2002. Millions of Afghanistans have fled Afghanistan over the past two decades.

As I mentioned, I watched a lot of television on Remembrance Day. Glued to the screen, I flicked between Canadian news coverage and sugary American confection; I also caught the tail end of a CNN documentary on Iraq. "It's like Groundhog Day," said the combat medic, "every day is the same."

The footage was gruesome and I didn't envy the job of the combat medic - in fact, I felt compassion and empathy. Then the documentary ended, cutting to a commercial for a Veterans Day Sale at Zales.

Is buying a diamond journey pendant really the appropriate thing to do on Veterans Day? Is there that much of a cultural difference between Canada's Remembrance Day and the States' Veterans Day?

I'll credit Zales for prompting me to stop watching television and start researching instead. I thought about entry points for mainstream critique of the war in the US, and came up with two price tags. A combined total of 4310 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Further, the US has funneled trillions of dollars into the war amidst concerns about the housing market bust and a credit-reliant populace.

If the Canadian media response is tailored to bolster or question our altruistic nature, is the American media response tailored to entice consumers into doing what they do best? It's certainly a more direct connection if the object of the war is to maintain our (unsustainable) way of life. A small excerpt from Bush's post-9/11 speech encourages Americans to keep spending the way they always have:

"I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity. They did not touch its source. America is successful because of the hard work, and creativity, and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11th, and they are our strengths today. (Applause)" ("Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People" September 20, 2001).

And I remember my Drama teacher showing up a few days after the speech with new shoes, saying something about the importance of "supporting the US" in their time of need.

Like any earnest, self-righteous Canadian, I felt slightly nauseous. But then, maybe Canadians are just a bit better at self-deception.

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  1. Posted by: Frank Sukhu on Dec 22, 2007 @ 9:37am

    Good piece of writing Andrea.


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