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A Different Kind of Remembrance Day: Casualties of the Innocent

AFGHANISTAN | Monday, 17 November 2008 | Views [1240] | Comments [3]

I have not seen many over the years, but I always smile to myself when I see someone wearing a ‘peace poppy’ pin with a small dove in the center of the flower. It of course symbolizes the remembrance of soldiers who died to defend our nation’s sovereignty, but it also more importantly represents a poignant call for peace so that no more soldiers need to die in the future. In a region wracked by civil wars and international invasions, I can’t help but sense that the notions of remembrance and peace here in Central Asia and the nearby Middle East resonate much more clearly – or at least differently – than back in Canada…

Every time a member of the coalition forces is killed in Afghanistan, the Western world mourns, and understandably so. S/he was inevitably a valiant and patriotic soldier dedicated to the noble cause at hand (presumably the liberation of the Afghan people from an oppressive Taliban/Al-Qaeda regime). Since the start of the war in 2001, 96 Canadian troops have been killed. All of their families and friends have gone through unimaginable grief and hardship but somehow find the strength to rise above their pain and remember what their loved ones died for.

I’m sure I’m going to get bashed for my next point, but believe me when I say that I am in no way trying to detract from the efforts of the coalition forces or to tarnish the memories of our fallen brothers and sisters. However, I’m shocked by the inexcusable dearth of concern about the number of Afghan civilian casualties, particularly in comparison to the number of military casualties (the latter of which, unfortunately, are a part of war, whereas the former should never be). Although I much prefer something more humanistic than the cold, hard facts, they admittedly paint an appropriately grave picture.

As mentioned above, since the start of the war in 2001, 96 Canadian troops have been killed. During the same time frame, upwards of 7000 Afghan civilians have been killed at the hands of coalition military forces. SEVEN THOUSAND. If there were even a few Canadian civilian casualties, we would be up in arms and demanding swift retribution, legal or otherwise. There have been several coalition air strikes that have ‘mistakenly’ hit villages and killed sickeningly large numbers of Afghan civilians at a time. And where do these strikes typically occur?? At none other than such terrorist hotspots as weddings and family picnics. Disgusting. You’d think that with the trillions of dollars in annual military spending, the coalition forces would be able to recognize the difference between a field of playing children and armed Taliban insurgents.

I realize that the situation in Afghanistan is infinitely more complex than the straight-up numbers of casualties. Nevertheless, based on those alone, at what point do we acknowledge that we’re doing more harm than good? One of my friends here who worked in Kabul for 2 years never passes up the opportunity to remind me of all the innocent Afghans who are killed by coalition forces and not even mentioned in the news. It’s as if their deaths never happened – or as if they never even existed in the first place. It’s pretty easy to not care about people who don’t exist, isn’t it? Even if you are somehow able to brush this off as ‘part of war’ (which I hope you are not), you should at least be able to acknowledge the negative implications for our own troops: the more civilian casualties we inflict, the more the Afghan people harbour distrust and hatred towards us and retaliate. Wouldn’t you?

Some people have told me that before you have peace, you must have war. I could not disagree more. War does not have to be the default state of humanity; it only seems that way when we have world leaders who convince us that there is no other option. Okay, I can acknowledge from a pragmatic biological standpoint that homo sapiens are a rather opportunistic and exploitative species, but as compassionate people, not genetically programmed ants, we are capable of standing up to and condemning something that is indisputably wrong like innocent civilian casualties as an appalling, disgraceful excuse for humanity. With increasingly sophisticated weaponry and communications systems (guided by the strategic tunnel vision of many world leaders), the unambiguous rules of engagement of good old hand-to-hand combat are a thing of the past. A general now has the ability to sit in his command center and wipe out entire countries on the other side of the world with the mere press of a button; I suppose it is a whole lot easier to make such a decision when he doesn’t even have to see the faces or hear the screams of the resulting pain and grief. It’s no longer just the soldiers who feel the icy fingers of the grips of war around their necks, but also scores of innocent men, women, and children – the very people the coalition forces are supposedly there to protect – who are displaced, maimed, raped, and killed on the so-called path to freedom and peace.

Here’s to hoping that while we mourn our own fallen this and each subsequent November 11th, we also remember the casualties of the innocent – regardless of what ‘side’ they’re on – and contemplate the price of war we are willing to pay to uphold our ideals.

Comments

1

Holy crap are you naive. What do you think the Afghan civilian casualty count would be right now if NATO had not interceded? Over two days in Aug of 1988 the Taliban killed over 8000 non-combatants in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif, just north of Herat. Thats how they role and do look it up if you don't believe me.

Now I'm very much a live and let live soldier and as a Canadian, I have a healthy respect for other cultures and forms of government. I've learned to respect peoples right to choose. Knock yourself out if you're into banning kite flying, the education of women and even if you support some of the harsher forms of Sharia law. My moral values are not your moral values.

Its back in Canada where I get flustered by pseudo intellectuals who's believe they actually know whats going on. You haven't a clue what its like over there, you have no idea how much the Canadian soldiers value civilian lives and how often they put themselves in mortal danger in order to reduce or eliminate civilian casualties. Trust me when I tell you that we value the Afghan civilians life more than our counterparts do.

Lastly I have to reply to your comment that 'war does not need to be the default state of humanity'. That one really made me chuckle. I can assure you that it is not the default state but it is a transitional state. War and peace are subjective ideas and somewhat abstract (depending on where you live). But I could wax on about this all day. Nuff to say that you need to experience strife in order to understand it.

  Osoman Jan 3, 2009 10:38 AM

2

Dear Osoman,

Thanks for taking the time to comment - and although no words can do justice to your contribution to our country as a soldier, please accept my gratitude for that as well. Few people are willing to walk the talk and put their lives on the line for what they believe in.

I would like to reiterate that my criticisms are by no means aimed at individual soldiers and I sincerely apologize if that's how you interpreted them. I have friends and will soon have a brother in combat as well and they are surely just like you in their respect for other cultures and governments. I can appreciate how frustrating it must be as a soldier to hear criticisms of Canada and NATO's efforts in Afghanistan; the top-level decisions made are not your own, but as a soldier, it is your duty to carry them out. I trust that individual soldiers have the same compassion and respect for Afghan civilians that they would want in return.

Even though I am not on the ground in Kandahar, I am at least somewhat aware of "how the Taliban roll", and arguably much more so than your average Canadian. As heart-wrenching as it is, thank you for raising the example of the 1998 (not 1988, as you stated) Mazar-e-Sharif massacre; I am unfortunately familiar with it and I certainly hope that NATO's presence is better for Afghan civilians than the Taliban rule. However, the negative effects of NATO’s presence are not as well publicized and I feel very strongly that the Canadian public should be more aware of them in order to pressure our government to better represent our beliefs.

The 'problem' with the war in Afghanistan is that its alleged purposes are tangible and very marketable to the Canadian public; who would argue against women's education and liberation from a terrorist regime? I'm sure you can agree that the much-touted 'War on Terror' has had no difficulty mobilizing the support of the (North) American public in the wake of 9/11, what with the very clear and specific target of Bin Laden to aim at. I'm sure you can also agree that the vast majority of the (North) American public knows nothing about Afghanistan other than that Bin Laden might be hiding in a cave somewhere (though it's widely believed that he's actually in Pakistan). Whether it's 'catching' Bin Laden or 'bringing democracy' to South and West Asia, it's much easier to lead your country into war when there's something specific to pursue.

However, when looking at the bigger picture, such noble ideals become rhetoric in the quagmire of geopolitics. For example, Pakistan’s political alliance with the US is much better known than its historical support for Al-Qaeda and its strategic interests in an unstable Afghanistan. The Brits are notably leading the argument for negotiating with the Taliban for a form of shared government, upon realization that NATO’s past and current strategies are simply not working. It’s the Great Game of the 21st century – way more complex than the original – and Western ideals such as democracy and women’s education are the pawns used to mobilize public support.

Again, I trust that individual Canadian soldiers truly do believe in these ideals and I am not criticizing them in any way. I am, however, criticizing the strategic myopia of our world leaders and the apathy and ignorance of the North American public. So perhaps on that front, we can agree : )

I also could go on all day but these are just a couple of points off the top of my head. I invite you to continue with your comments! Thanks again and best wishes in the new year,

HS

  shrummer16 Jan 6, 2009 7:35 PM

3

Thank you so much for this article. You spoke the words many, like me haven't the balls to say. Memorial Day is tomorrow and the signs are everywhere....."Support Our Troops" "Remember those who died for our freedom." I have battled with this for so long in my own mind. How can I morally support an army that bombed innocent men, women and children in Iraq for supposed "nuclear weapons" that were never there to begin with. That'd be like supporting OJ Simpson for murdering his wife, Or the Ramsey family for murdering their daughter. I do feel empathy for those soldiers who have lost their lives but my heart aches for all the innocent people we have murdered. Then for people to sit and wonder why they attack our country.....the facts speak for themselves. It's like an endless circle. We kill their innocent loved ones, they plan for years and attack our innocent loved ones then we bomb theirs....and so on and so on. It's sickening and extremely sad. Thank you again for sharing.

  Anonymous May 27, 2012 1:27 PM

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