Remembrance Day generally hasn’t meant as much in Whistler as in some other places, Whistler being a town where people often come to escape the world’s problems, rather than remember them.
Armistice Day, a ceremony that began as a minute’s silence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I, became two minutes of silence on Nov. 11, 1945, following the Second World War. In Canada, the custom of honouring those who served in the two World Wars was expanded to include veterans of the Korean War, and then to all who have served in the military.
For that relatively small but tight-knit group of people connected to the armed forces, Remembrance Day has always been an important ceremony, as relevant today as it was in 1919. For many others, however, Remembrance Day had become an occasion to remember the sacrifices of previous generations, a noble custom but nearly as dated as trench warfare and Spitfires.
That’s all changed in the last five years.
Canada’s foray into the conflict in Afghanistan is a departure from its traditional role as international peacekeeper. What began in 2001 as part of a U.S.-led, United Nations-sanctioned campaign to oust a brutal regime and close down terrorist training camps in a desperate, far-off country has grown in size and scope. Since the summer, many of the nearly 2,500 Canadian troops in Afghanistan have been on the frontline and on the offensive in what is now called an International Stabilization Assistance Force. And Canadian soldiers are committed to Afghanistan until at least February, 2009.
The reality of this NATO-led offensive has struck Canadians this fall each time a flag-draped coffin has arrived back on Canadian soil. Forty-two Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan as of Wednesday morning, although the number could climb in an instant. Roadside bombs, rocket propelled grenades, ambushes, suicide bombers on bicycles, vehicle accidents and so-called “friendly fire” have all contributed to the toll.
The old notion that joining the armed forces was a way to get an education or learn a trade now seems like a quaint idea from a bygone era. Today, army recruiters are visiting high schools across the country, appealing to young people’s sense of duty and asking them to think about Canada’s role in the world.
Canada’s goal in Afghanistan, according to a government website, is to prevent the country from “relapsing into a failed state that provides a safe haven for terrorists and terrorist organizations. Canada remains committed to the campaign against terrorism and, with our allies, will make a major contribution to the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan.”
One glimpse of the scope of that mission came in a Canadian Press story this week. According to a British colonel involved in the training of the Afghan national army, it will take at least 10 years before Afghan troops can handle national security without help from foreign soldiers. Most Afghan recruits can’t read, write, or add, according to the story. The rate at which soldiers desert, go absent without leave, or decline to renew their volunteer contracts hovers between 20 and 50 per cent. Some Afghan soldiers go missing for days just trying to get money back to their remote villages. There is no reliable national banking system.
The reasons why things are still so desperate five years after troops went into Afghanistan are worth examining.
There are also lots of opinions about Canada’s new role in Afghanistan. Those opinions should be heard, and that debate should continue — in the full context of Canada’s place in world affairs in the 21 st century. That’s a debate that hasn’t taken place. Instead we’ve seen too many discussions about Canadian troops in Afghanistan descend into schoolyard name-calling where one side ends the debate by playing the trump card, “you don’t support our troops”.
Canadians, generally, support their troops, even if they have concerns about the mission they’ve been assigned by their political and military leaders.
But this Remembrance Day, after 42 Canadian soldiers have died doing their assigned duty, is a time to support Canadian troops unconditionally.