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Support the Troops or Support the War?

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Issue: 42 Section: Accounts New Brunswick, Gagetown

February 5, 2007

Support the Troops or Support the War?

In Afghanistan, it might be difficult to do both

by Chris Arsenault

Sapper Bruce MacCleary with his wife and daughter in Gagetown.

Photo: Chris Arsenault

GAGETOWN, NB -- When some 2,500 people braved snow and ice to form a massive Canadian flag at CFB Gagetown as a part of an emotional farewell to soldiers departing for Afghanistan, it seemed like patriotism at its best.

There was only one problem: many attendees were forced to participate in the rally.

An email to base employees obtained by the Dominion states, “All military and civilian personnel not in an essential service position or undergoing training are required to attend the ceremonies.” On January 26, 708 soldiers from CFB Gagetown will start deploying for Afghanistan as part of Canada’s third rotation.

“I support the military 100 per cent, but when someone tells me I am required to do something, I get up in arms,” said one long-time base employee who didn’t want to be named for fear of professional reprisal. “I will not support our men going over to fight and die in a war we have nothing to do with,” added the employee.

“A lot of the time they [soldiers] don’t have a choice,” says 17-year-old Shayley Jestin as she volunteers at a table passing out yellow ribbons. “Supporting the troops is different from supporting the war,” says Jestin, whose father is in the military.

At the January 19 rally, scampering kids munched hot dogs and blue cotton candy, politicians made pro-war speeches and soldiers held their loved ones. For some families, this will be a last caress. Word around the base is that one in 10 soldiers will die in Afghanistan; media reports say one in six is expected to be injured.

“It’s like feeling every emotion at the same time,” says Sapper Bruce MacCleary who will be deployed to Kandahar in February. “Anyone who says they aren’t worried is lying,” says MacCleary while holding his 16-month-old daughter.

During my interview with MacCleary and his wife Samantha, public affairs officer Lieutenant Desmond James, a clean-cut navy man with sharp eyes, watches closely. After asking the standard questions about training, feelings and worries, I try something a little different.

“In 2005, Major General Andrew Leslie went on record saying ‘Afghanistan is a 20-year venture’, because ‘every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you’re creating 15 more who will come after you.’ By this logic, don’t you think the occupation is misguided?” I ask.

Sapper MacCleary answers the question.

We shake hands and walk our separate ways. MacCleary starts talking to public affairs officer Lieut. James. Moments later MacCleary returns and asks to withdraw his answer.

“Soldiers don’t comment on policy or rules,” said public affairs officer James when asked why MacClearly wasn’t allowed to give his opinion on the subject for which he’s risking his life.

It’s ironic that average soldiers, support staff and their families can’t talk about the politics behind the mission when at times they likely understand the situation better than politicians and generals.

Take this statement from Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s Gagetown speech, “The Afghan economy has tripled over the last five years.” This may be true, but only one domestic sector is growing: heroin. According to American government figures, last year Afghanistan produced more drugs than ever before.

According to The Washington Post, the country now supplies 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.

“The Taliban don’t want heroin production to be brought low,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson who took the stage after O’Connor. Thompson would do well to remember that the Taliban, while imposing fundamentalist religious law, were the ones who curtailed heroin production in the 1990s.

Western forces haven’t embarked on a Colombia-style aerial eradication campaign on heroin poppies for fear of crippling the Afghan economy and driving tens of thousands of average farmers towards the insurgency.

“It’s in our national interest to deal with terrorism where it is bred,” said Gordon O’Connor, as Canadian flags wave on tele-screens behind him.

The terrorists operating in Afghanistan were once part of this national interest: Osama Bin Laden and his mujahedeen were trained and armed by the CIA and its western proxies during the 1980s when they launched Jihad against Soviet occupiers.

“I believe the media has been emphasizing the negative stuff too much,” says Sapper MacCleary, as the public affairs officer nods in agreement.

“Families would like to see and hear more about the reconstruction,” said MacCleary.

Afghan families would also like to see more reconstruction.

But the money hasn’t been forthcoming to make this happen. According to the NDP’s Jack Layton, “For each $1 we’re spending in Afghanistan, only 10 cents goes to aid and reconstruction, while the other 90 cents goes into combat.”

“Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Kabul has only three hours of electricity per day and unsanitary and inadequate drinking water,” writes Christian Parenti, who reported from Afghanistan for The Nation in 2006.

Canada’s core strategy for subduing Afghanistan is based on the ‘three block war’: defence, diplomacy and development. However, according to NGOs working on the ground, the focus on defence is undermining the other aspects.

The fate of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the world’s most respected humanitarian groups who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, illustrates this situation perfectly. MSF assisted the people of Afghanistan from 1980 – 2004, until they were forced to pull out after five of their staff were murdered.

According to MSF, “The violence directed at humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan comes amid consistent efforts by the US-led coalition to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political aims... The organization has also spoken out against the military’s attempt to usurp humanitarian aid.”

Towards the end of the Gagetown event, I slip outside for a smoke and a coffee and start chatting with a mother whose son is going to Kandahar next week.

“There are a lot of sides to it,” she says, as the snow pelts down. The woman, who didn’t want to be named, drove up from Nova Scotia to attend the event. She’s worried about her son, but “it’s his job. We can’t be all doctors and lawyers.” When asked about the occupation itself, she takes a classic unassuming tone.

“I’m really not educated enough to say if I am for or against it,” she says, “but I wouldn’t want foreign soldiers coming here and telling us what to do.”

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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