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A Fair Country No More?

November 21, 2009

The always insightful Rick Salutin of the Globe and Mail has joined the chorus of criticism about our government’s response to Richard Colvin’s testimony this week. But he also goes a step further, drawing a rather uncomfortable line between our possible complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees, and the Americans’ behaviour at Abu Ghraib prison.

Abused prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Iraq (from Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, I know – stay with me.

While we might object (and rightly so) that our people didn’t torture anybody themselves, that distinction is likely to be lost on the streets of Kandahar. We may see ourselves as The Good Guys, but whether that perception is accurate or not is irrelevant – what matters is how the people of Afghanistan see us. We can help them and protect them, but only as long as the average Afghani trusts our soldiers to have their best interests at heart. As soon as they start seeing us as the enemy, or in collusion with the enemy, we may as well go home.

It’s important to remember just how much of Canada’s success as peacekeepers has been dependant on the reputation of our country and our military as fair and honest brokers on the world stage. Regardless of whether that reputation has always been truly justified or not, it has allowed both the governments and the people of the nations we enter to see us as, if not friends, then at least unbiased arbiters.

That reputation and that trust, built up so carefully over decades, may now be irreparably damaged. And just as it was with Abu Ghraib, the knowledge of what we have allowed to be done will only inspire more Afghanis to take up arms against us, thus putting our fighting men and women in even greater danger.

Some may be tempted to blame Mr. Colvin for this, but don’t – he is only stating aloud what everybody in Afghanistan apparently already knew.

The difference is that now we know it too, and are therefore compelled to act. If we do not, then the damage really will be irreversible.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2009 9:02 pm

    and yet more brooding about these comments from above posts; in particular,

    “I suppose the allegations might get us into trouble with our allies, especially the fastidious (squeamish?) Europeans”

    er, sort of like when “they” got all “squeamish” during the Napoleonic Wars, WW I & II ( my history is shaky and I’m no legal scholar – the red cross seems to have a good account, but then) and atrocities and torture so we got The Geneva Convention? And the Red Cross? even during the heyday of Empire, the colonization of India and Africa etc. Go figure.

    And then there’s this statement,”We Canadians seem to have an unfortunate habit of excessive self-flagellation on these occasions.”

    The issue of what we do to our prisoners surely goes to who we are as a people, goes to that quaint old absolutist phrase, “the soul of the nation.” Gee, I don’t even know if I believe in constructs such as, “nations” or the generic attributes of “peoples” and yet,

    I confess to much brooding over these comments, yea, even to point of wanting to quote scripture ( my father was a preacher man) cue song. But thankfully, resisting.

    And yes I’m squeamish, no doubt about it. Back to brooding and making vegan stew.

    disclaimer, the information at the following link is disturbing:

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 25, 2009 12:30 pm

      Renee–Sorry I’ve been responsible for so much brooding on your part – I’ll try to make sure my next couple of posts revolve around sunny and cheerful topics (I’m not promising, though). Anyway, I hope all the brooding didn’t put you off your vegan stew.

      I would say that European squeamishness – I honestly don’t know what else to call it – developed after the Second World War, admittedly with notable and sometimes extreme exceptions like the behaviour of the French during the Battle of Algiers. I hesitate to psychoanalyse an entire continent, but my impression is that Europe’s leaders generally responded to the horrors of the war and the holocaust by transforming humanitarian compassion into something approaching an absolute moral imperative, as opposed to one important consideration to be balanced against others. I’m sure some Canadians would regard this kind of thinking as virtuous, but to me it just seems overwrought and unbalanced. At the very least, something is definitely wrong when Swiss lawyers feel compelled to devote their time to investigating war crimes in bloody video games. Maybe Europe needs just a little bit more of the Napoleonic spirit.

      Your previous comment did prompt me to look at Greenwald’s articles over at Salon. He mostly seems concerned with making sure Guantanamo detainees get some semblance of due process, which is a perfectly reasonable argument to make. Guantanamo Bay has become the focal point for a very messy, very American collision of legal issues and national security imperatives, and handing our detainees over to the Afghans would seem like a good way of ensuring that a similar situation doesn’t develop in Canada. As for “Charlie K”, well, I certainly agree with some elements of his rather gritty worldview, although I certainly don’t share his avowed fondness for American hegemony.

      Your question about Japanese and German treatment of Canadian prisoners during the Second World War is a good one. Of course I feel sympathy for soldiers who were mistreated, but I honestly can’t muster much sense of visceral outrage – c’est la guerre, I suppose. It also helps that more than sixty years have gone by and that, well, we won. With that said, the Imperial Japanese Army in particular perpetrated atrocities far more brutal than anything that happened to the Afghan detainees; I recommend Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking” if you want to get a sense of how intense and almost gleeful their sadism could be. The contrast actually helps put the Afghan detainee affair in perspective, and makes the whole thing seem rather trivial by historical standards. Guantanamo Bay and even Abu Ghraib also pale according to this comparison. I wouldn’t necessarily want to trade places with the gentleman in the photo above, but I’d rather be in his shoes – if he were wearing any – than in Hong Kong at the end of 1941.

      Finally, I would note that Rosie DiManno, who knows something about Afghanistan, shares my view that the treatment of the detainees is unlikely to become much of an issue among the Afghan population. I have to admit that the Taliban’s latest statement does mention torture as a grievance, but it’s vaguely stated and not exactly given top billing.

  2. November 24, 2009 5:14 pm

    Thanks for this important and timely piece, J.
    Cor, as before, I brood over your comments. Guess you’ve not picked up on my many wishes that you read G.Greenwald’s blog over at Salon? Sounds like you’ve been sorta supping at the table of Charlie K over the New Republic. Gee, even Mr. K dinna say it quite like you, laddie. (with all due respect).
    I’ve been much encouraged by Canadians to read two books written by Canadians.
    Gen. Rick Hillier’s new book. Every time I go to buy the thing, my hand just won’t get the job done.
    Instead, I go to the library and get out books like Ryzard Kapuscinski’s The Other (referred to in one of my posts) and /or,
    Lessons in Disaster, McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War In Vietnam, Gordon M Goldstein.
    The second book, by Canadians Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lange, The Unexpected War, Canada in Kandahar I’ve not obtained, after a wait, from my local library.
    Today on CBC i noticed a time-line re this story of our treatment or lack of treatment of Afghan detainees. Interesting to compare Richard Colvin’s testimony, the CBC roll call of top Canadian bureaucrats named in Colvin’s testimony and Stein’s book , Chapter 14, “Those Vexatious Detainees.”
    I’m trying to read J.Krakauer’s book on A/Stan and the death of Pat Tillman as I read Stein’s book.

    I hope you will have time to do a follow up piece on this story. Thanks again.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    November 23, 2009 10:32 am

    I’m not inclined to be too worried about the torture allegations, for two main reasons. First, I don’t think you’re giving the people “on the streets of Kandahar” enough credit for being able to keep their facts straight. I suspect they’re perfectly capable of distinguishing between torture inflicted by Canadians and torture inflicted by Afghans, regardless of who originally captured the prisoners in question. Second, and more importantly, Afghanistan is a pretty rough place by Canadian standards. Torture has always been a part of the way wars are fought there, and I rather doubt that allegations of beatings and electric shocks really create the widespread outrage and resentment that commentators like Salutin seem to take for granted. Reading his piece, I noticed that he didn’t have any actual examples of Afghans who cited the use of torture as a reason to oppose Canada or other Western countries.

    I suppose the allegations might get us into trouble with our allies, especially the fastidious (squeamish?) Europeans, but the article about Sarpoza Prison that you linked to makes it pretty clear that torture no longer occurs there in any case. To the extent that a problem existed, it seems to have been quite effectively dealt with. In my opinion the whole fuss over Colvin’s reports is a mountain being made out of a very small molehill, rather like the equally overblown storm of outrage over the death of Shidane Arone in Somalia in the 1990s. We Canadians seem to have an unfortunate habit of excessive self-flagellation on these occasions.

    • November 24, 2009 5:35 pm

      More brooding on Cor’s response to torture allegations.

      There’s this from
      The blurb on the author says:
      Robin Rowland, a producer and photo editor with CBC News, has an interdisciplinary master’s degree in the law and history of war crimes from York University and Osgoode Hall Law School. His thesis was on command ability and command responsibility, and he is the author of A River Kwai Story – The Sonkrai Tribunal, a book on Japanese war crimes.

      Worth a read. Which got me to thinking. If we apply Cor’s reasoning as posted in above comments, does outrage re WWII Japanese treatment of our Canadian soliders as POWs, or WWII German treatment of our Canadian soldiers, change?

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