The militarization of Canadian culture


It is stunning how quickly the Canadian military can be recast as a key part of Canadian culture, especially now that we have abandoned our historic peacekeeping role. With no public debate, we now have a war-fighting military taking up more and more political space in Canada’s constellation of defining institutions. The military and the Harper government are trying to make “the mission” in Afghanistan a defining characteristic of who we are.

The militarization of Canadian culture reflects the spread of “deep integration”—the Bay Street initiative whose aim is to see Canada effectively assimilated into its behemoth neighbour. Harper and others on the right know that in order for Canada to adopt policies similar to those of the United States, we have to make the cultural changes that will provide the ideological base for those policies.

When we first sent some 2,000 troops to Afghanistan, it was a major assignment—not strictly peace-keeping, but not war-fighting either—and yet it rarely made the news. But ever since we took on the war-fighting role in Southern Afghanistan, our mission has become a major part of our daily cultural consumption. And our approach in the country apes the Americans’—witness our government’s cavalier attitude toward the routine torture of Taliban prisoners seized by Canada and turned over to the Afghan government.

Which brings us to a crucial point—this deliberate attempt to shift our cultural landscape could not be happening without the complicity of the media, who have become willing partners in this remaking of Canada.

Regarding the prisoner scandal, the Canadian media might never have dealt with the issue at all were it not for Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor, who exposed the issue of Canadian abuse of detainees in a letter of complaint he sent to the Military Police Complaints Commission. He obtained information about three detainees via a freedom of information request. (Shouldn’t it be the media who chase down these stories?) When the commission tried to find the detainees in question, they had disappeared.

The media rarely expose what goes on in Afghan detention centres. One story in a major daily newspaper dared to talk about what torture and human rights abuses actually entail by referring to a U.S. State Department assessment. That report stated: “Security and factional forces committed extrajudicial killings and torture … [including] pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy.”

Why is there is no comparable Canadian report? Because the Canadian government knows that if it acknowledged the crisis in governance in Afghanistan, Canadians would realize that the whole effort in that country is doomed to failure and built on a foundation of lies.

The media are virtually silent on the issue—and worse. In late fall of 2006, the CBC began implementing what seemed to be an explicit policy shift to build up the image of the military and downplay any negative aspects of the war. Peter Mansbridge hosted several newscasts directly from military bases in Canada that were nothing more than public relations boosts for “our troops.”And although the CBC has dedicated considerable resources to covering Afghanistan, it rarely acknowledges that its reporters are “embedded” with the Canadian military, and that what they report, in my opinion, seems largely spoon-fed by military public relations officers.

What happened to the CBC mandate to provide Canadians with genuine debate about critical national issues? Where are the stories about corrupt and brutal Afghan police? About internal refugee camps with no facilities or medical care? About foreign aid disappearing into the pockets of officials? About the fact that we can no longer fund other foreign aid projects because Afghanistan absorbs it all so we can support U.S. foreign policy?

This situation reveals how naive we are as a nation. That old adage—the first casualty of war is truth—applies here in spades because this war is based on lies, including:

• This has nothing to do with oil and gas pipelines.

• This is a fight against terrorism. (The truth: It’s an occupation being resisted by indigenous militants.)

• The current Afghan government is democratic. (The truth: Many senior figures should be tried for war crimes, and others are drug lords.)

• Girls are now going to school. (Really? How many?)

• Bombing villages will provide them with security.

• We can “win.”

What we are doing in Afghanistan is unsupportable. But what we are doing to ourselves is not so obvious. We are corrupting Canada’s own institutions, including our military, our foreign service, our foreign aide program, and our public broadcaster. Worst of all, as long as we stay in Afghanistan, we are corrupting our political culture.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver-based author, and a senior advisor to the Rideau Institute. This article appeared in the Hill Times on April 9, 2007.

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy