Last August, Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance first announced that Canada would soon embark on a peacekeeping mission to Africa, and Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan then confirmed it. They explained that this venture would involve about 600 troops and cost an estimated $450 million.
To date, despite multiple fact-finding trips to various hotspots on the African continent, the Liberal government has yet to determine to which conflict we will be committing our soldiers. Perhaps before deploying these 600 soldiers into the midst of a foreign war, we should re-examine our recent past.
For 12 long, bloody years — from 2002 until 2014 — some 40,000 Canadian troops deployed as part of the U.S.-led allied military intervention in Afghanistan. During that time 158 soldiers came home in a flag-draped coffin, with another 2,000 suffering from physical wounds or injury.
Not as easily calculated is the untold number of Afghanistan veterans who are coping with the unseen mental wounds suffered as a result of the horrors they witnessed while deployed. Commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder and as operational stress injuries by the Canadian military, the mental toll suffered continues to result in additional fatalities directly linked to the Afghan conflict.
In a recent series of investigative reports, the Globe and Mail revealed that at least 70 Canadian soldiers have taken their own lives after returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan. That suicide rate has led many to criticize the military’s apparent lack of proper psychological support facilities for our broken soldiers. The fact is that, while they may still face a steep learning curve, today’s Canadian Armed Forces and Department of Veterans Affairs have a far better understanding of PTSD and OSI than any previous generation.
In the First World War the military labelled it shell-shock and in the Second World War it was called battle fatigue; both monikers implied that the suffering soldier was lacking in moral fibre or, simply put, a coward. Thanks to a far better understanding of human psychiatry, the Canadian military now recognizes that PTSD and OSI are actually mental wounds, and therefore every bit as self-sacrificing as the visible physical scars borne by veterans.
What is not often discussed is the root cause for the preponderance of mental wounds among modern veterans. The simple explanation for this is that Afghanistan was Canada’s first lost war. While our soldiers never actually lost a battle nor were they driven out of Afghanistan by superior forces, the truth is that we lost that war.
The First World War was horrific, yet Canada’s scarred survivors came home believing they had just fought “the war to end all wars.” The Allies had won; Germany was bled white and forced to sue for peace.
Ditto for the Second World War, wherein the tragic losses and terror of the battlefield were offset by the liberation parades through Europe and the eradication of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Those who returned to Canada were even more succinct in their summary of their experience: The War Amps of Canada adopted the motto “Never Again.”
For the 25,000 Canadians who deployed to Korea between 1950 and 1953, and the 516 who were killed in the “Forgotten War,” their sacrifice ensured that South Korea remained an independent nation.
However, for those soldiers that we deployed to Afghanistan, it was not always a one-off lifetime experience, as many soldiers served on multiple six-month tours. Unlike the French and Dutch populations of the Second World War who welcomed our troops as liberators, Canadians in Kandahar province faced an extremely hostile citizenry.
When the Harper Conservatives finally pulled the plug on the Afghanistan mission, the best they could dub the ceremony recognizing the event was a National Day of Honour. The veterans of Afghanistan experienced all the tragedy without the joyous relief of a victory parade.
While it is important to remember the sacrifices made in Canada’s glorious victories, it is even more important for us to fully recognize the continued suffering and dying of our Afghanistan veterans. We sent them off to fight a war without a clear objective, a war they could not win.
Let’s not make the same mistake in Africa.