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The Ottawa Citizen

War? What War? Bland Words Feed Our Indifference

Janice Kennedy

Beach sands, piney cottages, hammocks in whispering breezes -- with summer on all sides, why would anyone pay attention to the empty clichés and euphemisms of politicians and talking military heads?

Surely it's Canadians' seasonal obsession that explains our apparent indifference to the worsening mess in Afghanistan. That, or a kind of cultural numbing that has set in since the affairs of that sad country stopped being dramatic front-page news.

In recent days, we heard about the deaths of two more Canadian soldiers -- Cpl. Brendan Anthony Downey (non-combat-related and at a support base) and Pte. Colin William Wilmot -- wearily adding numbers 86 and 87 to the bleak tally. We listened dutifully to the dutiful clichés from commanding officers about fallen comrades, about hearts and prayers going out to families, about carrying on with the mission and staying for as long as it takes. We read of ramp ceremonies with, according to one report, "the usual skirl of bagpipes."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave us what we've grown used to, an excerpt from the Politicians' Big Book of Useful Platitudes: Pte. Wilmot's "commitment will long be remembered by Canadians and Afghans alike. We mourn the loss of this exceptional Canadian." For the prime minister, our military losses last November were also "exceptional Canadians." In the same circumstances a year earlier, "their loss" was "also Canada's loss."

Has the PM taken to just phoning it in? Has his government? Last Tuesday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay dismissed the most recent violence in Afghanistan -- the combat death of another Canadian, the increase in suicide bombings (including the Indian Embassy attack that left 41 dead and hundreds injured), the two U.S. air strikes that killed 40 civilians, including members of a wedding party -- MacKay dismissed it all as related to "an uptick in insurgency attacks."

An uptick? Could he really have said that?

No one took him to task for it, though, just as no one seemed overly offended by the prime minister's one-size-fits-all eulogies.

It must be home-front battle fatigue. How else to explain our casual new indifference, our unprotesting acceptance of these banalities and lack of curiosity about what they're hiding? It's as if the country has given up. All decisions have been made, so we're stuck in this mess till -- well, whenever.

For most Canadians, Afghanistan is yesterday's news -- a bit stale, always roughly the same (even the tragedies), good for an inside page or halfway through the nightly newscast. It goes without saying that "most Canadians" does not include the families, friends and colleagues of the 87 young people whose lives have been tragically wasted. But our politicians and political military types seem to believe that the rest of us can be placated with a pious bromide or two.

What will it take to make Canadians sit up and take notice again?

Maybe we should be talking about the hemorrhage of money, appealing to the conservatives and neo-conservatives who generally support Canada's combat role. Since such folks usually reserve a place of special honour in their pantheon of values for the almighty dollar, it might be worth stressing that this country's current war is gouging the economy by billions of dollars at a time when skyrocketing oil prices are about to make the cost of life as we know it insupportable.

As incomes grow progressively more inadequate, the militaristic Harper government trumpets its 20-year "Canada First" defence strategy, transforming Canada's respected peacekeeping identity into something more aggressive -- at a $30-billion cost. More immediately, we're spending $90 million on new grenade launchers -- or more than five times the annual cost of food moved by the Canadian Association of Food Banks, nearly 40 per cent of it destined for hungry children.

(Unprecedented military spending while ordinary citizens find it increasingly tougher to make ends meet? Harper and his buddy U.S. President George Bush really do have a lot in common, don't they?)

Maybe we should be talking about the pointlessness of what we're doing, the obvious past failures and the predictions of failure. Each minuscule step forward, it seems, is followed by 25 giant leaps back -- things like last month's Kandahar prison escape, which set loose nearly 400 Taliban militants. Or the international coalition's unsolved problem of opium-production, which richly finances both the Taliban resurgence and al-Qaeda's reorganization. In Helmand province last year alone, opium production jumped 45 per cent.

Or maybe we should start recognizing our global marginality, the fact that in Afghanistan, there's the United States, there's Britain -- and then there are "coalition forces," including Canada. Since we've already paid a disproportionately higher price than most of our allies (not that most non-Canadians have noticed), maybe it's time we start participating to the same extent as some of our European NATO friends.

Finally, there's the death toll -- more than 800 coalition soldiers since 2002 and nearly 700 Afghan civilians in the first half of this year alone. That includes countless children, surely nobody's enemies. If, instead of using antiseptic words like "casualty" and "uptick," we start imagining their small, battered humanity, maybe that will do it for us.

Much as we would like to, ignoring Afghanistan -- the blood, the hopelessness, the unforgivable blunders -- is not an option.

Whatever we're doing in that desperately sad country, it's not working.

No cliché, euphemism or creeping indifference is going to change that.

Janice Kennedy's column appears in The Citizen weekly.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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