It’s amazing how nations can put wars away neatly in the curio cabinet. That’s not always true, of course, especially if the victory won is convincing enough that it provides a sense of resolve and memory in a culture. The effects of World War Two, and the firm manner in which peace was secured, infused the victors, and even some of the defeated, with new mandates for a brighter future and more prosperous economies.
And then there are those conflicts in which no one is sure who won. Afghanistan’s war remains a confusing scenario for Canadians, just as it has been for Americans, Russians, the European Union, and even the Taliban. A conflict that just never lets up, it stands as Canada’s longest, reminding us of how true Plato’s observation has become: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” That is true for the 158 Canadians who died in service to their country in Afghanistan. But for the rest of us, it lingers, haunts, and, for some families, leaves a grief unhealed.
Canada’s Afghan combat role concluded in 2011, but some military personnel and development contingents remained to train Afghanistan’s army and police forces. The last Canadian service members returned home in March of 2014.
Most Canadians feel comfortable putting that conflict out of their minds, yet for many it remains something of an emotional Gordian Knot. They wonder whether all that effort, cost, and sacrifice were worth it. You can’t blame them, since there was no clear victor. We all know that it was 9/11 that put us there, but following that, nothing is all that clear.
I was a member of Parliament during some of those pivotal final years of the conflict. Involved in much of the discussions taking place in that troubled part of the world as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I was also fortunate enough to accompany the Defense Minister, Peter McKay, to two NATO meetings in Lithuania and Holland, and to visit the joint Canadian-American military hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where we met with some of the most severely wounded from both Iraq and Afghanistan. I still struggle in dealing with those memories.
The meeting with families who had lost loved ones to the conflict and the laying of the wreath at the local Cenotaph in memory of these war dead greatly assisted me in recognizing just how costly modern warfare can be. Most MPs would stand up in the House and honour those that had fallen from their respective ridings. Each time, a kind of sacred stillness infused what was normally a politically charged arena. Heads bowed, silent prayers were given, and the knowledge that not all was right with our world was acknowledged.
Those were confusing and stressful years, reminding us of what Mark Twain had once written about his country: “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” Well, the same things were happening to us, as media reports continued to come in from the region. We learned about various tribes, the importance of Pakistan, recruits coming from as far away as Saudi Arabia and northern Sudan, and UN Security Council resolutions. Much of this, perhaps most, was new to us, and we followed it in an odd mix of respect for our troops and confusion about much of the rest.
That respect for our military personnel was real and deep. I have spoken with many of the troops who returned to Canada and became increasingly confused as time wore on. All of them would agree with G.K. Chesterton’s observation: “The true soldier fights not because of what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Canadians understood that and respected the sacrifices paid to keep us safe.
And, to a large extent, it worked. Thanks to their dedicated efforts in partnership with others in the coalition, what we feared following 9/11 never came to fruition, save a few isolated incidents in Canada. And because we were safe, we moved on to other things, leaving the war in Afghanistan somewhere behind us.
As President Joe Biden raises the issue of Afghanistan in his first few months in office, the questions once again surface. Will there now be peace in that tormented nation? Do the people there still remember our Canadian forces and the sacrifices made for them? Can the Taliban now be trusted? Because of Biden’s efforts, Afghanistan is emerging from the mist once more, and we are reminded that valour isn’t about clarity of purpose or surety of victory. It is about the willingness of brave women and men to defend their own families and homeland. Our Canadian forces excelled in this regard. We remember them now and especially the families of those who gave their lives so that we can abide in safety and freedom.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.