Soldiering on? The human cost of war

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With the war in Iraq still ongoing and the conflict in Afghanistan going from bad to worse, who is paying the price? Can success be measured by piling the dead up against a wall – ours and theirs?  How high does the ladder to freedom and democracy have to be?

In Afghanistan:

-One hundred and thirty-two Canadians soldiers dead (also, one diplomat and two aid workers) since the 2002 invasion began. Twenty-six dead as of October 28, 2009.

-As of  July 7, the United Nations recorded over 1,000 deaths in the first six months of 2009 -- 24 per cent more than during the same period last year.  Total number of estimated civilian deaths -- direct and indirect deaths from Coalition-led military operations since 2001 -- are 8,436 - 28,028.

As another heavy November 11 approaches, how should we as a society reflect on the horror of war and its horrible consequences?

***

As the America government hides its military’s dead and abandoning its wounded, is Canada’s treatment of its dead and wounded soldiers any more honourable? Sure, we sometimes allow news broadcasts of ramp ceremonies and we do have public displays like the Highway of Heroes, but how are we as a society really honouring our heroes? Shouting “Support Our Troops!” during recruitment drives and yet not supporting them when they return home -- dead or alive -- is dishonourable, unpatriotic and a disgrace to any society.

Is a two minute pause one a year enough, if people even pause at all on November 11? Lest we forget?

Just yesterday, yet another Canadian forces member -- Lt. Justin Garrett Boyes, 26, of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who was only 10 days into his second tour in Afghanistan -- lost his life in Afghanistan, and two more were injured. Did anyone pause when they heard this news?

For Canadian civilians the concepts of honour, duty and sacrifice act as a shield keeping people from recognizing that active duty, reserve and retired soldiers are also casualties of war. For the anti-war community, it’s a hatred of the whole military complex that clouds the eye. Either way, it’s the dead and walking wounded who suffer.

The formula the military uses to dehumanize the enemy blows back on its own recruits, and the first people really dehumanized are the soldiers themselves. If they don’t come home in a box, they often come home broken. How the anti-war movement treats these men and women is a direct reflection on our ability to show concern for the ‘other’ who – for whatever reason -- chose to go to war.

The sooner we acknowledge and understand the true cost of war, the sooner we can take responsibility for our soldiers’ actions and our soldiers themselves.

Our peaceful Canadian society frankly does not want to truly acknowledge the impact and blow back combat has on all involved. Civilians and warriors alike. But this is the only way we as a society can truly heal from these scars and give peace to the victims of combat. Innocent and enlisted alike.

Hiding the dead

For all its love of military and patriotism, the United States is quick to hide its dead. There are no American Valkyries to gloriously carry dead soldiers to an anglo-Valhalla. Bodies are instead buried and forgotten under the dirt of censorship, with a state imposed silence like mist that hangs over the public and media.

Last month, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates had stern words for the Associated Press (AP) for publishing a photograph of a dying Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, who was killed in southern Afghanistan from wounds received from a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush on August 14, 2009.

In defending its decision to circulate the photograph -- an image of fellow Marines helping Bernard after he suffered severe leg injuries -- Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the Associated Press, said, "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."

Writing for Common Dreams, Dave Lindorff chastized the U.S. government for its censorship. “Enough with the censorship! If we are going to be a warlike nation, if we are going to have a public that cheers everytime the government ships off men and women to fight and kill overseas in countries that most Americans cannot even locate on a globe, then let's make sure that everyone at least gets to see the blood and gore in full, including our own, and of course, also the civilian casualties of our military.”

The Bush administration has an equally ugly legacy regarding how it treats its wounded. During the last presidential election, the Bush adminitration took a hit regarding the substandard care wounded soldiers were receiving at the Walter Reed Medical Centre. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and a call for a bipartisan commission to investigate.

Apparently, when an injured soldier salutes or an injured marine shouts “Semper Fi!,” the military doesn’t return the honour. The army marches on, leaving them behind. The wounded warrior project [[http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/]] describes the feeling in simple painful terms: “The Greatest Casualty is Being Forgotten.”

Honour and horror in Afghanistan

The situation isn’t looking much brighter for soldiers serving in Afghanistan. While foreign involvement in Afghanistan had been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, it is back now under the media’s glare.

Grievances concerning the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission keep rising to the surface. Most recently, Senator Colin Kenny stated he believes the war is doomed to fail unless NATO changes its tactics towards a more diplomatic and political angle. He also noted a Strategic Counsel poll taken July 13-16, 2009 showing that 56 per cent of Canadians opposed sending troops to Afghanistan.

Senator Kenny’s doubt concerning the Afghanistan mission mirrors concerns raised recently in the United States by the top U.S. and NATO commander, General McChrystal, who according to a 66-page document obtained by the Washington Post, which stated that situation is Afghanistan is grim and that without more boots on the ground, the mission, “will likely end in failure.”

Unfortunately, redacting an occupying army into a diplomatic mission is as impossible as magically turning a knife into a spoon.

Casualties of shame and censorship

Canadians, while always quick to criticize the U.S. government, have nothing to be proud of in regards to how we treat our casualties of war.

In his recently published autobiography, Former Chief of Defense, General Rick Hillier, outs the current Harper government for its own shameful, unpatriotic handling of Captain Nicola Goddard’s repatriation ceremony. Goddard died from wounds received from a rocket propelled grenade on May 17, 2009 in the dusty Panjwaii district of Afghanistan. 

Hillier had intended on a hero’s welcome for Goddard -- the first Canadian female combat death since WW2 and the first woman to die in front line combat in Afghanistan. (Lest we forget the Major Michelle Mendes, who committed suicide in April 2009 while stationed in Kandahar; she should also be considered a casualty of war.)

But in his autobiography, Hillier leveled harsh charges against former Defense Minister, Gordon O’Connor (himself a former military commander, thus adding insult to injury) and the Harper government of disgracing Goddard by attempting to hide her repatriation ceremony from the media and public -- at which the government had some success. This lead to a very public battle that pitted her grieving father against the governments’ recently enacted policy a month earlier of shielding the flag-draped coffins from public view by keeping journalists outside the fenced airfield at CFB Trenton.

He has gone on record, stating: “Officials in the Prime Minister's Office ordered the military to hide the return to Canada of the first female soldier killed in combat because they didn't want her flag-draped coffin seen on the news.”

Shame.

 

krystalline kraus is a Toronto-based writer.

Part II of this article next week will examine the treatment received by soldiers wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

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