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Three More Deaths, One Grim Milestone

December 8, 2008

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?


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    December 12, 2008 1:28 pm

    Renee — You’ve obviously been doing a better job of staying on top of the NIE than I have. I know better than to put TOO much trust in intelligence from America or anywhere else, but I wouldn’t deny that the NIE is probably well worth paying attention to. However, I thought the “estimate” was definitely not slated for public release. How much do we know, at this point, about what it actually says?

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    December 10, 2008 10:50 am

    Hi Cor – another thought-provoking post – Scott, good to see you back here…my two bits per my earlier post on A-Stan and “assessing changing conditions”:

    “Hopefully, those of us who espouse both “democracy and peace building” and it seems continuing “military intervention” are also reading up on what we can find regarding the expected National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the United States, public accountings of which are due this November. The NY Times, The Nation, and McClatchy news services have begun tracking the release of the NIE, probably the most thorough situational analysis of “what’s going on” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, Canadian news sources have not been as diligent in parsing through American wire reports nor as entrepreneurial in sourcing contacts who will talk about what is always stamped “Top Secret.”

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    December 9, 2008 2:17 pm

    Scott — I hope your exams went well, and thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. There’s already talk of shifting US marines from Iraq to Afghanistan, so we may be getting reinforcements in the near future. However, I suspect any meaningful changes in the character of the mission will take place slowly and incrementally, rather than happening all at once in January. I don’t like the fixed withdrawal date either, but I do think the process of reassessment needs to be more or less constant. It’s just a matter of being prepared to adjust to changing circumstances, and in a place like Afghanistan circumstances are ALWAYS changing.

  4. Scott Y permalink
    December 8, 2008 10:36 pm

    Its been a while since I’ve posted (courtesy of exams), but I thought this was a good post Corwin.

    I do recall a little anecdote in an article I read when we passed the ’50th death’ milestone. The G&M article I was reading quoted a Pakistani senior general who scoffed at the national soul-searching crisis that 50 military deaths prompted in Canada. The general didn’t quite trivialize the deaths of our soldiers, but rather mentioned that those sort of numbers were all part of a good week on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I thought his comment was illuminating in that it illustrate the difference in perceptions of the notion of military deaths in combat.

    I’m still conditionally supportive of Canada’s participation in Afghanistan, and I scorn the concept of a pre-determined pullout date (2011). But I would like to wait until after January 20 to see whether there is any meaningful changes to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Then, and only then, should we reassess our role in Afghanistan, not at the passing of some arbitrary ‘milestone’.

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