Thursday, April 2, 2015

The convenience of perpetual war

It is ironic that, as we near our 150th anniversary as a country, we have become one of the world's warmongers.

Gar Pardy: Wednesday, 04/01/2015


There is a deadly sense of deja vu as leaders go about extending and expanding the Canadian military presence in Iraq and now into Syria. There is considerable passion and there are few aspects of the decision that have not been spun for an interested public.

"Deter," "degrade" and "defeat" flow from our leaders' tongues with the ease of salesman selling a new mouthwash; "precision" bombing is discussed as if this was equivalent to tossing curling stones in downtown Moose Jaw; training by foreign troops of local forces is accepted as if this was a woodworking class in the local trades school; recovery of downed pilots from ISIS-controlled territory is glossed over with the suggestion that the Americans will handle this nasty possibility; and the legality of extending the war to Syria is justified by parsing sections of the United Nations Charter by the chief lawyer for the Canadian military, hardly an unbiased observer.

And now the philosophers of our military mission have weighed in. The foreign minister has concluded the whole operation is a matter of "moral clarity," words not dissimilar to those said to the medieval public for the crusades; the defence minister, on the other hand, sees the war as an enormous humanitarian exercise, leaving many scratching their heads. The cartoons will be underway soon; a large bomb falls on Tikrit and a child says to another, "don't worry, it's a Canadian humanitarian bomb."

Unfortunately there is one aspect of the war that is being ignored, and as with most modern wars it is the most important. No one, especially the militaries involved, has offered any assessment of success in understandable terms of what this war will achieve. Most will only say that a conclusion is years away, which in today's world is no answer whatsoever.

We have dressed for a ball that we do not understand, and invited ourselves, knowing we have no capability of influencing the outcome. Instead, leaders who should know better see the war as a means of scratching a small itch in the national body politic-fear of an imprecise national security threat. In response, they send our soldiers into harm's way, and this even before they have satisfactorily dealt with the wounded from the last war.

We do not have to go back to Vietnam for a detailed understanding of the futility of fighting forces on their own land. Eleven years of fighting the Afghans with overwhelming force and money, the creation of comprehensive new security and military forces, the fostering of civilian political measures of electoral politics and the holding of elections and the creation of a hothouse corrupt economy based on foreign money have done absolutely nothing to change anything of any significance in that ancient land.

The Afghans are just not interested in, nor amenable to, Western forces that invaded with one purpose in mind-getting rid of a non-indigenous terrorist organization-and then, carried away with the early ease, decided that ancient ways of government be updated as if they were dealing with a mechanistic complex. The bones of others who tried whiten the sands. Today Afghanistan resembles a three-legged camel trying to climb a mountain.

And this failure led to others. Iraq, where most of the current war is being fought, is a classic example of going to war for the wrong reasons and then leaving knowing that the place had been damaged beyond redemption.

And then there was Libya, a post-colonial patchwork of a country held together by a man who talked to the stars and beguiled Western leaders with the enormity of his wealth. He died in a sewer and his country died with him. Today we have to go back to the Punic Wars to understand the forces that now contend there.

And we are now on the edge of another disaster in Yemen. There, another post-colonial patchwork of a country has lived longer than its religious and regional divides could sustain. As many have suggested, Yemen may be the most dangerous of all the wars, as it may well engage the forces of the Sunni majority of the Middle East against those of the Shia and their main protector, Iran. Already the Sunni forces are coalescing around Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both countries lacking a cohesive national purpose beyond the end of a gun.

It is not alarmist to suggest that while Western forces have large interests at stake in these modern wars, they have no hope of protecting those interests through the use of incapable and limited military forces. They are in fact making matters worse, and in doing so, ensuring that their own interests will be trampled in the process.

War is not diplomacy through other means. In today's world it has become a convenient policy option for political leaders who are not willing to invest in actions that attempt to build down the contending forces.

The inclination to send in the troops-or if these matters were not so dire, send in the clowns-reflects a nasty streak in our body politic. It is ironic that, as we near our 150th anniversary as a country, we have become one of the world's warmongers.

And all for the edification of a small group of leaders including the prime minister who, for the past 10 years, have more than any other government in the history of the country decided that the tearing down of what has gone before is more important than building for the future.

Gar Pardy is retired from the foreign service and comments on public policy from Ottawa.