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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Honoring Canada's Military Past

Written by Mathew Fisher, National Post 

Amid the acrimonious debate over the competing Liberal and Conservative visions about where and how Canadian Armed Forces members should be remembered for their heroic service in Afghanistan, there has been no public discussion about the fate of the poignant, wood-framed, grey-granite memorial depicting the 190 Canadians and American soldiers and civilians who died while working with Task Force Kandahar.

There has been no discussion about the fate of the grey-granite memorial depicting the fallen 190 Canadian and American soldiers and civilians who died while working with Task Force Kandahar, Matthew Fisher writes.

That solemn cenotaph remembers, among others, my friend, Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang, my old roommate, Glyn Berry, and many soldiers I knew personally. The monument, which arguably means far more to those who served in Afghanistan than any other, stood for years as a place of quiet remembrance in a gravel courtyard behind task force headquarters at Kandahar Airfield.

When the combat mission ended there in 2011, the tribute was taken apart, flown home at considerable expense and taken on a cross-country vigil. Canadian Joint Operations Command has confirmed it is languishing in a warehouse in a Canadian military compound in Ottawa while the government and the Department of National Defence decide what to do with it.,

Because it is too brittle to withstand Canadian winters, the monument must find a permanent indoor home. Suggestions have included putting it in the Canadian War Museum or in the main lobby of the new National Defence Headquarters.

That memorial and others that recall Canada’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan are a potential political minefield for the government, judging by the emotional Internet response to an article Friday by Postmedia’s Lee Berthiaume. My colleague revealed the government is ending a well-regarded Community War Memorial Program to build modest local cenotaphs that would remember Afghanistan and other wars where Canadians have fought.

That decision, and dithering by the new government about whether it intends to proceed with a National Memorial to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan, approved by the Harper regime in 2014, dovetails with its oft-stated intention to promote the narrative that ours is a country of principled peacekeepers, rather than a nation of principled warriors.

Little consideration has apparently been given to how it would not be a contradiction to honour Canada’s distinguished history of peacekeeping and its far longer, equally noble history as peacemaking because both have been about making the world a safer place.

Senators on the national security and defence committee will have a chance Tuesday to ask Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on the government’s plans.

It is a tricky file for Sajjan, who served three tours as a senior military intelligence gatherer in Kandahar, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has publicly sought to downplay what he regards as the militarism of the Harper government.

It is a fact that the United Nations peacekeeping missions Trudeau greatly admires and talks about Canada being part in future no longer exist. Almost every UN sponsored military mission now is extremely dangerous. Today’s blue berets are, in reality, blue helmets and must be prepared to fight at a moment’s notice.

Sajjan is not the only respected Liberal Afghan vet who should publicly state where he stands on how Canada should remember its long military engagement in Afghanistan. Liberal Party whip Andrew Leslie was deputy commander of the international mission in Afghanistan in 2003, before returning home to eventually run the Canadian Army. Another Afghan veteran is retired RCAF Lt. Col. Karen McCrimmon, now Liberal MP for Kanata—Carleton.

As diplomats were also to be honoured for their brave service by the Afghan national memorial, it would be worthwhile for senators, MPs and the media to seek out the opinions of ambassadors such as Bill Crosbie, Elissa Goldberg and Ben Rowswell, and former ambassador and Conservative cabinet minister Chris Alexander who all led teams of diplomats who engaged in “combat diplomacy” in Afghanistan.

Walt Natynczyk, who ran the Canadian Armed Forces for much of the Afghan campaign, now deputy minister of Veterans Affairs, would have a highly informed opinion too. So would Canada’s best-known Kandahar vet, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who now sits in Natynczyk’s old chair as chief of defence staff.

But most of all, it is the voices of the battalions of soldiers, aviators and sailors who served in often harrowing situations in Afghanistan that must be heard. A few Afghan vets generated a lot of noise about alleged shortcomings in the treatment of veterans who served there. Judging by my email and social media streams, many vets of the war against al- Qaida and the Taliban are furious that their service and the sacrifices of their fallen comrades in Afghanistan have been turned into yet another hot potato where politicians can score partisan points.

The families of the 158 Canadians who died in that bleak, hot, distant land and the thousands more who returned home with severe physical injuries and mental trauma deserve much better than that.