We have a problem with talking about war in this country.
That might be a strange sentiment to convey on Remembrance Day, but it is informed by so much history — recent and distant, on and off the battlefield.
That’s not to say that we should in any way grow accustomed to talking about war, or eagerly embrace such conversations.
But there’s a line in the recently published three-volume history of Canada’s war in Afghanistan that neatly captures this reluctance at the heart of our institutions and society.
“As a mature nation, we must take responsibility for our history,” wrote Sean Maloney, whose detailed, blunt, clear-eyed account of the Canadian Army in Afghanistan during the country’s longest war ruffled enough establishment feathers that it faced a decade of obstacles on the way to publication.
One volume of Canada’s official history of the First World War wasn’t completed until 1938 (20 years after the war) and wasn’t put into a final form until 1962 (44 years following the armistice). Compared to that, Maloney’s Afghan war history was delivered at light speed. The two volumes that made up Canada’s official Second World War history and its one-volume Korean War history also struggled to find their way to the printer.
Even with a limited print run (1,600 copies, English and French in total), Canada’s Afghan war history is largely shielded from public view, with only hazy aspirations of making it more widely available. There are no deals with Amazon or other mass distributors in the works.
Contrast that with the Department of Veterans Affairs-sponsored Canada Remembers Times, a publication aimed at schoolchildren aged 12 to 18 (the ideal demographic for Remembrance Day, or at least the audience you want to get) and used in schools throughout the country.
While the publication runs plenty of articles on wars long past and the important contributions made by women and 2SLGBTQI+ Canadians to peace and security, the latest edition is mostly a tribute to United Nations peacekeeping. There’s even a piece on the often-forgotten 1950s peacekeeping mission to Vietnam.
“You might have heard about the Vietnam War from Hollywood movies and TV shows,” the article reads. “Did you know that the Canadian government also sent our military to Vietnam? But they didn’t go there to fight.”
Nowhere in the online version of Canada Remembers Times is there a mention of the war in Afghanistan, a war with which some students would have a personal connection, through parents who might have served.
The battle no one talks about
Even when we talk about peacekeeping in this country, the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Medak Pocket, in the former Yugoslavia, a peacekeeping operation that saw Canadian troops fight to prevent ethnic cleansing, tends to be overlooked.
As a peacekeeping mission, Medak was far too close to actual combat — which explains why it’s often referred to as Canada’s “forgotten battle.” The Department of National Defence had an uphill fight to get official approval for the commemoration event in Ottawa last September, according to several sources.
Part of the reason, several historians have said, is that a bloody battle in Croatia doesn’t fit in with the feel-good narrative of peacekeeping.
It took years and parliamentary hearings in the 1990s to uncover the full story of what took place during the operation, during which Canadian troops documented war crimes committed by Croatian forces.
Nobody wanted to talk about it — then or now.
Speaking with CBC News about the anniversary of Medak Pocket last September, the country’s top military commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre — who fought in both the Krajine region of the former Yugoslavia and in Kandahar — reflected on the importance of both conflicts.
“Afghanistan is another one of those missions that just has taken part of our soul,” Eyre said. “And we’ve got to learn from it.”
One of the biggest lessons, he said, is that in war, “if the political conditions are not right, it doesn’t matter the amount of military support you put in there. You’re not going to have long-term success.”
Despite the noise and churn from some parliamentary committees that have looked at specific and narrow aspects of Canada’s role in Afghanistan, there has never been a deep public discussion — a reckoning, if you will — about the war in this country.
Recently, House of Commons committees have separately grappled with the machinations involved in erecting a memorial to those who fought in Afghanistan and the disastrous evacuation following the Taliban takeover in the summer of 2021 — an event that sealed the perception of the war as a failure.
It was in 2014, following the end of the training mission in Kabul, that Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa international policy expert and former adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, called on politicians to own up to history.
“For years, they have described Canada’s Afghanistan operation as a success — against considerable evidence to the contrary,” Paris wrote in Policy Options magazine.
“Their desire to cast the mission in a positive light may be understandable, but avoiding painful truths is not an effective way to learn — and Canada still has much to learn from its Afghan experience.
“Canadians deserve nothing less than an unvarnished presentation of the operation’s balance sheet, even if the bottom line is written in red, not black.”
Avoiding painful truths seems to be at the heart of the roadblocks thrown up ahead of the publication of Maloney’s Afghan history, and also a wider reluctance — political and social — to remember Canada’s wars as they were: ugly, messy, divisive, heartbreaking and tragic.
For decades before Afghanistan and the chaotic peacekeeping missions of the 1990s, Canadians were able to retreat into the safe, comfortable mythology of victory in two world wars, with well-worn ceremonies and rituals for conflicts that were far enough in the past to not strike any nerves.
History (like journalism), is supposed to challenge our perceptions of events and force us to look at ourselves, our decisions as a society and our values.
“I think history must be bold,” military historian Tim Cook told CBC Radio’s The House on Saturday. “History must tell the truth.”
‘We need to talk about why we were there’
Cook praised Maloney for delivering a clear-eyed account, especially in light of the fact that history now views Afghanistan as a defeat.
“There’s bravery, I think, from Sean Maloney in publishing this history,” Cook said.
For the soldiers who fought in the arid deserts half a world away, there’s a hope that Maloney’s comprehensive history will open the door for Canadians to actually talk about the war, what Canada was doing there, and how it acquitted itself.
A number of soldiers argued in online forums on Friday said that conversation is vitally important now, given how the world outside of our peaceful borders is on fire with multiple wars and the threat of even greater conflict.
“We need to talk about why we were there,” said retired master corporal Nathan Kehler. “We need to talk about whatever we did, the good or the bad. And we need to talk about the repercussions of sending soldiers to war.”
Which is, after all, what Remembrance Day is all about.