Three More Deaths, One Grim Milestone
Canada recently passed one of those symbolic milestones that don’t mean much in themselves, but are nevertheless important because of how sharply they bring a larger phenomenon into focus. In this case, unfortunately, the phenomenon is the ongoing attrition of our soldiers in Afghanistan. Three more men are dead, and this brings our total military fatalities (not counting the diplomat Glyn Berry, who was of course a civilian) to an even 100. Hence the milestone.
The three men were Robert John Wilson, Demetrios Diplaros, and Mark Robert McLaren of the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. They died while patrolling the roads near Kandahar for the infamous “improvised explosive devices”, or IEDs, that have been such a thorn in the side of Canada and its allies. They had the rotten luck to find one the hard way, by getting caught in a blast that hurled their armoured vehicle into the air and killed them more or less instantly.
The symbolic hundredth death has sparked varying reactions. The pugnacious Christie Blatchford, in her Globe column, made the point that the supposed benchmark doesn’t matter very much to the troops themselves, who are more interested in mourning their dead comrades and then getting on with the job at hand. However, this admirable attitude can’t obviate the importance of body counts in both strategic and political terms, and I think the National Post was right to devote a longish article to the question of whether the war in Afghanistan is worth the sacrifice involved. (The article described this issue as being “as obvious as it is repugnant”, but I would consider it far more repugnant to swaddle our military deaths in platitudes and avoid considering their implications.)
The Post was careful to talk to people on both sides of the debate over our involvement in Afghanistan. Michael Byers, a professor of international law and politics at UBC, was quoted as saying that we should “pull our remaining soldiers out of this futile and failing mission”, and perhaps regroup for a better-conceived one either in Afghanistan or somewhere else. Military historian Jack Granatstein, by contrast, seemed to feel that our soldiers were making a positive difference, whereas casualties had been light by historical standards. He justified the Afghan mission in basically humanitarian terms, arguing that “the rights of men, women and children are as important there as anywhere else in the world.”
I’ve never had a strong opinion about whether or not we should be in Afghanistan. I’m certainly not indifferent to the issue, but I see the costs and benefits as being so finely balanced that a rational, honourable judgement could go either way. To some extent, discussion is moot given that Canada has officially decided to stay in Afghanistan until 2011 and then pull out. However, we can choose to either pursue the mission actively until our departure or hunker down and concentrate on “force protection”, so there are still important decisions to be made. Any thoughts?