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In Afghanistan, Poppies Have Become Problematic

November 11, 2008

I haven’t seen a single Remembrance Day poppy here in Beijing, possibly because I live well away from the expat-dominated parts of the city. Or possibly, in the spirit of doing as the Romans do, nobody bothers with poppies in these parts anyway. Perhaps it’s just as well. Nowadays there’s a certain irony to using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for our military dead.

In Afghanistan, the only place that’s killing our soldiers in significant numbers at the moment, poppies don’t wave serenely above the graves of the fallen. They grow in farmers’ fields in alarming profusion, forming the first link in a great chain that leads to dead junkies on the streets of European cities and fat profits in the hands of thugs, unfriendly warlords, and even the Taliban. Can we and our allies afford to leave this chain of destruction in place? Can we afford to shut it down, given that we would be destroying the livelihoods and earning the enmity not only of the thugs and warlords but also of the farmers and their families? Can we hope to neutralise the problem by helping Afghans set up facilities to convert the poppy crop into medical morphine, as advocated by the International Council on Security and Development (formerly called the Senlis Council)?

Such dilemmas are the curse of so many military adventures these days, contrasting to a degree with the past. There was a time in the history of the West when fighting took place mostly between professional armies, and stopped when one army was conclusively defeated or prepared to sue for peace. The winning country would then impose its will on the loser, often helping itself to loot and territory.

Germany suffered this humiliating ordeal in something like its traditional form with the Treaty of Versailles, which Canada helped formulate at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Second World War, however, ended differently. The Allies decided that helping the Axis powers rebuild themselves, on Allied terms, was a better long-term strategy than simply plundering and punishing them. Now such rebuilding is a normal part of the aftermath of our wars, and often gets underway long before the shooting has stopped. Fighting the armed enemy takes place simultaneously with fighting for the hearts and minds of the people. Purely strategic concerns inevitably get tangled up with political, economic, and even moral ones, as in the case of Afghanistan’s poppies.

Compared to this labyrinth of conflicting imperatives, the image of Canadian battle groups advancing on Vimy Ridge to tackle a well-defined enemy might seem refreshingly simple. But if complexity is the curse of Canadian wars present, the curse of Canadian wars past was their sheer lethality. In that four-day battle at Vimy, 3,598 of our soldiers were killed and about 7,000 wounded, and the German casualties were never even properly counted. Compared to our 98 dead (counting one diplomat) over years of fighting in Afghanistan, the numbers are staggering. Lest we forget, indeed.

Corwin

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    November 14, 2008 9:40 am

    I agree that Afghanistan will be important in the coming year, although you never know what unexpected crisis might supersede it. Eastern Europe and Somalia both seem like rather likely flashpoints. Now that we’re basically committed to withdrawing in 2011, I suppose our options are to gradually wind down, to push hard to achieve as much as possible in the time remaining, or to adopt a steady middle course.

    I’m no pacifist, but in this case I’m not sure that “more troops and more fighting” is really the way to go in this particular case. It’s probably better for our troops to behave defensively, most of the time, and concentrate on protecting people and infrastructure from the Taliban and other militant groups.

    Aggressively chasing down the “bad guys” at every turn may lead to short term victories, but it’s also practically guaranteed to inflict a lot of collateral damage and alienate large swathes of the population. It may not be possible to truly win hearts and minds as an occupying power, but it’s certainly possible to lose them.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    November 11, 2008 3:50 pm

    A fine piece for Remembrance Day…thanks, Cor. Interesting about the ritual of wearing a Poppy. I notice here in Vancouver, for some reason ( possible b/c it’s been an election year) people seem to be wearing their poppies earlier and earlier in advance of Nov.11 I’m one of the hapless “pin it on and it’s gone” crew – no matter what tips i get from street corner veterans, i seem to lose my poppy in minutes.

    As I’ve written, I think our involvement in Afghanistan will emerge as the single most important foreign policy issue in the coming year, particularly after Jan.20. Given that more troops and more fighting seems required, at least per US intel reports, what will the Canadian public demand of its new Tory government?

    Can a nation’s troops ever truly win the “hearts and minds” of a people whose country is occupied? The University of Manitoba Press has published journalist Larry Krotz new book, “The Uncertain Business of Doing Good” about foreign intervention in Africa. hmmm. Maybe i’ll write about that…

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