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Blogging about Canada in Afghanistan: discourse predictions for 2010

December 1, 2009
soldier in Afghanistan.

Lone soldier providing security in Zabul province, Afghanistan. Creative Commons image courtesy US Army account on Flickr.

Today President Obama will  act as The Decider regarding the lives of men and women serving in the U.S. military – 30,000 troops will be added into Afghanistan, for a total of 100,000. Who will do the new calculations for the ratio of soldiers to citizens in that war ravaged country?  Obama’s decision will sweep a curve throughout the world and already, Canada’s role is caught in it. The blog-o-sphere will hum with the day’s events.

Yesterday I attended an energetic and thought provoking conference on our nation’s role in Afghanistan. Today,  a few observations on language.  As Canada approaches our A/Stan withdrawal date in 2011 and another possible federal election looms, I predict we will see in our mainstream media and our blogging community, more instances of conjuring the ghost of Vietnam over Afghanistan.  This rhetorical device will grow more controversial as NATO troops on the ground dig in. In Canada  the role of women’s rights will continue to be a flash-point for how to determine the success of our mission in Afghanistan. The debate over Canada’s role in that country will increasingly reveal these discourse trends:

Lazy: Bloggers who don’t visit Afghanistan or don’t write as fans of those who do, will be criticized as lazy or worse, illegitimate. But the essence of blogging, like all writing is a kind laziness in the sense of say, writers compared to soldiers, those who do the living and dying, the hefting of many pounds of equipment under a 40 degree sun, who haul water to their comrades under the rat-tat-tat fire of weapons, the men and women who build things, who blow things up, who kill for us. To be the writer and not the soldier is to embody a certain kind of laziness. Plato understood this when he called poets, liars and enemies of the Republic. Canadians will hear more from “foreign returned” commentators.

Selective: In the coming year Canadians will see an intensification of commentators charging each other with “being selective.” Each “side” will marshal their arguments and herald “real” information – for full withdrawal, military withdrawal but continuing advisory and developmental aid, for “staying the course,” for increasing troops in response to a request from NATO & the U.S.

And “real-true-accurate” will increasingly mean data, experiences and commentary from those embedded in Afghanistan.

But all rhetoric, opinion, even knowledge and all writing, especially blogging, is inherently selective. We buttress our claims by pulling bits and pieces from the fabric of culture – from the culling of eye witness accounts,testimony, news,commentary,  and academic research;  from The Bible-Koran-HolyBook-Oracle ( an egregious practice!); from The Law (The Law is the Father), sometimes from poetry . This is the art of polemic, found now most often online, the new century’s discourse arena. Bloggers are pamphleteers; our market square, the internet.
Wrong Group: Your group is legitimate. My group is suspect. This rhetorical device: ancient and part of a grand tradition. Denigrate your opponent. Canadians will continue to label some groups as “not real, not worthy, not legitimate” – for instance, one Afghanistan woman’s group, RAWA will be pitted against Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.  The reference to Malalai Joya, as  a voice of her people, will continue, as will the denigration of Ms. Joya, as suspect.

This will arise out of a deeper collective sensation: confusion about what’s “really happening on the ground”. This confusion will transmogrify into wariness about supporting grassroots indigenous Afghan groups. In the lead up to 2011, Canadians will seek out the “real” in Afghanistan, and will want to know, who is worthy of our support, who is in the wrong or right group. Bloggers will get angry with each other, will rebut each other back and forth in posted comments, but will be linked like dance partners by technology.

The web as a place of dance – let us welcome a continuance and ask the gods to save us from lazy and selective writers. This last bit, irony; a rhetorical inflection which will increase as the US prosecuted war in Afghanistan deepens past Obama’s declaration of “over in three years.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill McMichael permalink
    December 17, 2009 12:39 pm

    Good stuff, Renee. I especially like the “danse polemic (macabre?)” metaphor.
    It seems to me the most common trope in the discourse of war is dramatic irony. The commentators all presume to know how a particular debacle will end. The principal actors, alas, do not.
    “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.”
(Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975)

  2. renee permalink
    December 4, 2009 3:59 pm

    An article by Michael Shanks recently returned from Kabul, which illustrates some of the points raised above; as well, interesting, to see the work of the Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan, praised. snippet:”Frankly, some of the only effective foreign development forces I encountered in the country were (1) the Aga Khan Foundation, which maintains a “no-security-personnel, no-armored-vehicle” policy and depends on community legitimacy, trust and acceptance for its security…”

  3. December 3, 2009 11:48 pm

    Dear Sandra and Shauna,

    My thanks to you both for honouring this space with your comments – thanks to for detailed and wise reflections. I’m privileged to be able to write here. I enter our winter season hoping and praying for a calm peaceful December in those parts of the world where Canadians serve – but if not that, then yes, some way of keeping on, however imperfectly – trying to do good.

  4. December 3, 2009 6:46 pm

    Both posts are beautifully written and nuanced. I’ve never been so challenged in my assumptions since I started working and following events in Afghanistan. It’s such a complex web we have woven – willingly and unwillingly. I hope that you will continue to give expression to that complexity – untangle the web – if you can, name the strands we can see, make reference to the ones we can’t. I’m not sure what more we can do except genuinely try and understand its intricacies.

  5. Sandra Chamberlain-Snider permalink
    December 3, 2009 9:20 am

    I think you are right Renee. The debate over Canada’s role in Afghanistan during the next year or so will be an exercise in language, its limits and possibilities. However, these limits and possibilities do not always directly connect to the reality of the situation. We may not be able, in a blog, to express the actual experience of living in Kabul or Kandahar, but language will always try. I think you are also right, that there will be parameters of legitimacy concerning debate. Who has the right to speak for the Canadian soldier or the Afghani mother? Only they have any real “truth” about their lives, and yet, they have no actual voice in these discussions. Their experience is mediated by superiors (military or masculine), politicians and pundits who then decide what gets aired/printed.
    I think it’s the responsibility of language to bring all the multiple views forward and let the average Canadian disseminate them. Unfortunately most Canadians do not and will not care too much, unless they know a soldier or reservist. Will there be economic consequences for looking after the helpless in Afghanistan? Will it cut into health care and increase taxes? If these issues are pressing, then the average Canadian will side with whoever is writing with their needs and desires in mind.
    Also, denigrating “other” opinions only supplies fodder for the spin. Ultimately the Canadian government will protect Canada’s interests first and Afghanistan second. No matter the ideology of the current party or future one, the myth of Canada as peacekeepers is over and we as a country need to decide how much we will continue to invest in the outside world. Instead of imperialist or colonist descriptors, we now operate as global citizens/players and language still manages to inadequately express the truth about what we really do and accomplish around the world.

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