On Friday, the Conservative government staged the first National Day of Honour to commemorate the soldiers and civilians who served in Afghanistan.
The last time a nationwide celebration of this sort was even proposed was at the conclusion of the Great War in 1918. The idea had been the brainchild of Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, but due to the lengthy logistics involved in shipping home the Canadian Expeditionary Force it was decided to keep individual parades and tributes on a local basis.
While it is true that no one could accurately predict Germany’s defeat and collapse in November 1918, the opposite was true for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. We knew months in advance that our combat role in Kandahar would conclude in the summer of 2011, and that we would withdraw from the extended training mission by the spring of 2014.
With so much lead time, many veterans groups, including the Royal Canadian Legion, wondered why the Prime Minister’s Office waited until the last troops were homeward bound in March before announcing this precedent-setting day of honour. Many veterans voiced their opinion that Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 is already dedicated to honouring those individuals who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country in all previous wars and conflicts.
So why single out Afghanistan?
The answer lies in the fact that the Harper government staged an elaborate victory parade on Nov. 24, 2011, to commemorate the leading role Canada played in toppling Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya. This triumphant display included a parade, a flypast and a special recognition for Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, who was dubbed the “hero” of the campaign to effect regime change in Libya.
The ceremony cost taxpayers more than the admitted amount of $850,000, and it was held less than a month after Gadhafi was brutally murdered in the streets of Sirte by Libyan rebels. The staging of a victory parade for Libya outside Remembrance Day could be explained by the fact that there were no Canadian casualties in that campaign. In fact, not a single NATO casualty was suffered during the 10 months it took for a sophisticated and powerful air force to pummel a third-rate African nation’s defences.
There was no sacrifice to be remembered. Afghanistan, as Canadians know all too well, was a completely different kettle of fish.
With violence in that war-torn country at the highest level since the American intervention in 2001, the withdrawal of Canadian troops cannot be hailed as a victory. Our soldiers proved their mettle and courage time after time, never losing a battle or skirmish, yet we — along with the rest of NATO — failed to provide a secure environment.
Therefore, regardless of how many schoolhouses we built or irrigation canals we cleaned out, or who wins the ongoing presidential election, most, if not all, will have been for naught when Afghanistan inevitably descends, once again, into civil war.
As no one in their right mind would ever conclude Afghanistan to be a military “victory,” Stephen Harper was wise to choose the day of honour title. While many Canadians questioned the mission and its objectives, the soldiers who served our nation’s interests and put themselves in harm’s way were universally heralded for their selflessness.
That said, ongoing events and the passage of time have made a mockery of Harper’s use of the word “victory” to celebrate what was achieved in Libya. In the wake of Gadhafi, Libya has been consumed by violence and anarchy. The tribal militias who fought Gadhafi loyalists committed horrific atrocities against sub-Saharan Libyans, refused all demands for them to disarm and continue to fight among themselves.
As of October, the new rebel movement in the city of Benghazi seized all oil export facilities. With no oil being sold, the Libyan treasury is empty and the central authorities in Tripoli are impotent. Even Libyan diplomatic envoys admit Libya is a failed state. And chaos has led to the brazen killing of an American ambassador, the export of weapons and Jihadist fighters to the conflict in Syria and the empowerment of al-Qaida forces in Mali.
One can only pray that the term “honour” for our Afghanistan veterans does not prove to be as hollow as the “victory” we celebrated for Libya.