The Silence of War Veterans.

11 November 2012

Two things struck me during the past eleven days of November. First of all, I was struck by the realization that what is known as Remembrance Day here in Canada, and Poppy Day, Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day elsewhere, has, during the recent years of the Global War on/of Terror, been stretched into eleven days of remembrance.

Throughout these eleven days of seemingly endless radio and television documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and personal tributes to veterans posted on social media sites, a common theme stood out to me – the silence of veterans.

I was struck by the large number of close relatives of veterans who express mystification at the reticence of their loved ones to talk about their war experiences. Most of these relatives of veterans surmise their husband, son, brother, father, or grandfather (I haven’t seen any comments in this context about female combat veterans) is a stoic and taciturn hero.

But let’s also consider how difficult it is to honestly talk about war.

First of all, it’s impossible to adequately describe the sights, the sounds, the smells of warfare. How can one describe the sensation of a large explosive impact, or a tiny projectile flying past one’s head to someone who has never experienced these sensations? Physical pain cannot be described! It is an impossibility to translate the sensory experiences of war let alone the emotional feelings of having to kill while fearing being killed.

I have observed war zones up close as a non-combatant observer in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and most recently in Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I have never felt I possess the capacity to adequately describe my experiences – and I’m a writer. I also never had to kill a person or watch helplessly as a friend died a horrific death. Many veterans, I suppose, feel as I have, that they do not have the capacity to describe their experiences.

Do we really want to hear true war stories, or just the ones about heroes?

Do most people really want to hear what all veterans have to say? Listening to the truth can be painful. We prefer to hear stories of heroes vanquishing evildoers. Are we prepared to listen even when a veteran does not have a heroic story to tell?

I frequently spoke at public events after my trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan and I have written numerous articles regarding the Global War on/of Terror. A few veterans of this war have sought me out to relate their experiences to me – perhaps because I seem like someone who would listen and have some empathetic understanding of their experiences.

A young man, who I’ll call Johnny, told one of the more notable stories I can recount. Johnny joined the Canadian Forces because it was the best job, really the only job, he could hope for – he was a victim of the “economic draft” that compels so many women and men to join the military.

The army assigned Johnny a job as a truck-driver. Johnny was happy with his assignment, because even though he had to carry a gun and had been trained well in how to use it, he fervently hoped he would never actually have to kill someone.

Unfortunately, although Johnny never did have to fire his gun in battle, he thinks he probably did kill several Afghan children – he doesn’t know for sure.

On not just one, but two occasions, Johnny struck children on the road while he drove his truck at high speed. The rules of engagement dictated that Johnny had to always drive at high speed and not stop under any circumstances. Both times he hit children on the road, Johnny was forced to leave the scene of the accident – a serious crime here in Canada, but a crime he was ordered to commit to fulfil his duty as a soldier. All he could do, as he sped away, was to stare helplessly in his rear-view mirror hoping the lifeless bodies of children he had just hit would somehow miraculously spring back to life.

Everyday, Johnny has wished that he had disobeyed his orders and stopped to see if those children were still alive and done something to help them if he could have.

Most of us really don’t want to hear Johnny’s story and he sensed that. Besides, he had been advised to never talk about what happened.

As any sentient human might imagine, this young man is broken, but few people really care about the non-heroes like Johnny. This is not a story Johnny is likely to tell his children and grandchildren – that is if he survives depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts long enough to maintain a relationship and start a family. This is not a story Johnny was ever able to bring himself to tell his parents or his now ex-girlfriend.

War is purposefully traumatic, which is why state leaders purposefully use it. Yet we unquestionably accept that the reaction to this trauma is a “disorder” rather than a natural human reaction. Court-jester George Carlin points out the government’s use of euphemisms to hide this truth is getting worse in every generation: during WWI, the natural reaction to war was called “shell shock”; during WWII, “battle fatigue”; during the Korean War, “operational exhaustion”; and since the war in Vietnam, “post-traumatic stress disorder”, or just PTSD.

Do we really want to hear the stories of veterans destroyed by war? John Bell is one of the few relatives of veterans who can honestly tell the story of how his father’s experiences during WWII “tore at [his] father’s soul”.

I have listened to the war stories from Canadian Forces artillery officers who were ordered to lob shells from their huge Howitzer field guns into Afghan villages they couldn’t even see 20 kilometres away. I have listened to the war stories of Afghans who lived in those villages and watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed and family and friends killed.

These are not the stories most Canadians want to hear, so why would we expect those veterans would want to tell them.

Do we really want to hear the true story of why we fight?

What about those war veterans who too late realize they were duped by their government to fight futile wars, illegal wars, immoral wars, wars of imperial conquest? Do we really want to listen to their stories?

What about war veterans who want to talk about how to avoid war in future – war veterans who want to remind us of the legal imperative that war must be an absolute last resort after all other means of self-defence have been exhausted?

Do we really want to hear the stories of war veterans who do not ever want to see another war again? How un-heroic is that?

What about the war veterans who want to tell stories about war crimes they have seen committed, or that their military and political leaders have forced them to commit?  Do we really want to hear what they have to say? It’s most likely they will be labelled traitors.

Do we really want to hear the stories of the brave veterans who at great risk to themselves and their families refuse to fight an illegal/immoral war any longer?

The Canadian government did not listen to Kimberly Rivera, the first female US soldier known to have fled to Canada to avoid fighting in Iraq. The Canadian government recently deported Kimberly to face detention in a US military prison.

I certainly can’t speak for veterans, but I do know a few who don’t want to talk about their war experiences, because they know full well, we really don’t want to listen to what they have to say.  We prefer to hear mythic stories of heroism rather than hear the painful truths of war.

© Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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NATO Reality Check: Protestors in Chicago can fatally fracture NATO.

Michael Skinner 19 May 2012

Protestors in Chicago before NATO Summit begins

[Published in Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 638 May 20, 2012]  

The NATO summit in Chicago, on 20-21 May, will be a lightening-rod for protest. This is a historical moment when peace activists have an opportunity to deflect NATO’s current trajectory toward expanding and intensifying global warfare.

NATO is the most powerful military alliance ever devised in human history.

However, the alliance is unstable. NATO is wrought with fractures, which protestors in Chicago could break open, if they act thoughtfully.

Among the thousands of protestors expected in Chicago will be a group of veterans of the Global War on (of) Terror who will attempt to return their war medals to NATO generals.

The war vets state: “We were awarded these medals for serving in the Global War on Terror, a war based on lies and failed polices. This endless war has killed hundreds of thousands, stripped the humanity of all involved, and drained our communities of trillions of dollars, diverting funds from schools, clinics, libraries, and other public goods”.

Like many people in the NATO states, these veterans were initially duped by the myths that support war. But myths can be debunked.

Let’s look at some of the mythical representations of NATO countered by the factual realities that are of use to those in Chicago and around the world protesting against NATO’s destructive power.

Myth #1: NATO is controlled by the United States.

Reality #1: NATO is not controlled by the United States.

NATO is certainly dominated by the United States. America’s close ties with Britain and Canada make domination by the Anglo trio within NATO even more powerful, but not omnipotent.

NATO North Atlantic Council

The US cannot control NATO, because the NATO decision-makers must reach a consensus within the North Atlantic Council (NAC) before taking action. Consensus can constrain the power of any one state or group of states.

American decision-makers and their closest allies, who bristle at the constraint of consensus, wish to streamline the NATO decision-making process.

Any reform that reduces decision-making authority to less than consensus would afford the US and its closest allies greater power. But, thus far, the consensus model remains in place.

Which leads us to …

Myth #2: NATO sanctioned the invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the invasion alongside the United States and United Kingdom and their closest allies.

Reality #2: The invasion of Afghanistan like the invasion of Iraq was a unilateral US-UK led action that lacked either UN or NATO sanction. NATO operations in Afghanistan began in 2003 when the alliance assumed command of the UN sanctioned International Security Assistance Force.

The US and its closest allies have failed on numerous occasions to achieve consensus within NATO forcing them to either backtrack or proceed unilaterally without official NATO support. The unilateral US-UK led invasion of Iraq is a well-known case in point.

Nonetheless, the US-UK led invasion of Afghanistan, on 7 October 2001, which proponents and opponents alike often portray as either a multilateral United Nations or multinational NATO mission, was neither. The decision to invade Afghanistan was made unilaterally by the leaders of the US and the UK and the decision was implemented by a very small coalition of states.

Canadian JTF2 Special Operations Forces transport detainees during Operation Enduring Freedom invasion of Afghanistan

The invasion, codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom, was led by the US and UK and supported in combat only by Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander Special Operations Forces, and briefly by the French and German Air Forces.

The French and German air forces were soon withdrawn from combat in Afghanistan at least in part due to the protests of activists in those states who successfully demonstrated that their governments lacked popular support for an illegal military action.

Of the seven states that attacked Afghanistan, only four – the US, the UK, Canada, and Germany – were NATO members (France was not a member in 2001).

The US and UK had failed to obtain a consensus to invade Afghanistan in both the United Nations Security Council and the NATO North Atlantic Council.

The resolution (1373), which the UN did produce, called on all states to “work together urgently to prevent and suppress terrorist acts” and it proposed numerous means, within the bounds of international law, by which states could do so. The UN resolution did not propose an invasion of Afghanistan and indeed the word Afghanistan does not appear in the document.

NATO decision-makers did not sanction the invasion of Afghanistan by invoking article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty; they did pledge to mutually defend the United States against further attack.

The NATO ambassadors did, however, release a press statement endorsing the unilateral invasion of Afghanistan, on the day after the US and the UK launched Operation Enduring Freedom.

The only concrete support NATO could muster following the illegal invasion, however, was extremely limited. NATO did not send a military force to support the invasion of Afghanistan. Nor did NATO ever dedicate forces to any direct support role in the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom.

After the invasion of Afghanistan, NATO did send “NATO aircraft, manned by multinational crews from 12 NATO nations” to North America to provide “critical air surveillance and early warning capabilities … under the command of NORAD”.

NATO also re-assigned “naval assets” to “provide an allied military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and to demonstrate our resolve”.

In their 2008 book, The Unexpected War, Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang claim Canada was “legally committed and obligated” as a member of NATO to join the Operation Enduring Freedom invasion of Afghanistan alongside American forces. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Canada was the only NATO state other than the US and UK that sent military ground forces into Afghanistan as part of the US-UK led Operation Enduring Freedom invasion force, in 2001.

It was not until 2003 that NATO sent forces to Afghanistan, but not to support the aggressive Operation Enduring Freedom mission. NATO agreed to send forces to assume command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Following the invasion of Afghanistan, the negotiators of the problematic UN Bonn Convention initiated the creation of the ISAF, in December 2001, as a complex peace operation with a mandate to clean up the mess left in the wake of the invasion and previous decades of turmoil.

Throughout the prolonged occupation of Afghanistan, the aggressive OEF and complex peace operation ISAF missions gradually merged. In 2009, the Obama administration made the parallel missions nearly indistinguishable by placing both under the joint command of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It might seem a niggling detail to highlight the fact that, in 2001, NATO did not invade Afghanistan, and did not directly support the invasion forces. Or that after NATO forces finally did enter Afghanistan to lead ISAF, in 2003, most NATO member states were reluctant to engage in the same aggressive and illegal tactics employed by their American, British, and Canadian comrades engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The differences between the unilaterally declared US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and multilaterally UN-sanctioned NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were only marginal at best during the Bush administration and of diminishing difference since the Obama administration.

Nonetheless, the reluctance of most European members of NATO to engage in the illegal invasion of Afghanistan, as well as to engage in the illegal tactics employed throughout the decade long occupation by the members of the Operation Enduring Freedom coalition demonstrates an important fracture within NATO.

From the outset of the Global War on (of) Terror, American, British, and Canadian political and military leaders attempted to goad the Europeans into engaging in more aggressive warfare.

Canadian officials in NATO, formerly perceived as diplomatic multilateral bridge-builders, are now recognized within NATO as North American badgers who berate their European counterparts for not following in lockstep behind the US.

Which leads us to …

Myth #3: European NATO leaders were too cheap to spend their resources and too afraid of combat to fight on the overt battlefronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the many other covert battlefronts of the Global War on (of) Terror.

Reality #3: European political and military leaders did not have enough popular domestic support to fight an illegal war.

European generals may have been as eager as their Anglo comrades to put their weapons and training to the fight in Afghanistan and beyond. European political leaders may have recognized they would need to invest in President Bush’s Global War on (of) Terror to realize potential gains in geopolitical and economic advantages.

Nevertheless, European politicians recognized they could not fight an illegal war, not necessarily because they had any less desire to pursue the same geopolitical and economic interests the US-UK led Operation Enduring Freedom coalition pursued, but because they recognized the domestic political consequences they might suffer for fighting an illegal war of aggression.

Make no mistake, the US-UK led invasion of Afghanistan launched in retaliation for the terrorist attack, on 11 September 2001, which began the Global War on (of) Terror was as much an act of illegal aggression as the Austria-Hungary led invasion of Serbia launched in retaliation for the terrorist attack, on 28 June 1914, which began World War One.

Despite the many faults of international law and despite the attempts by the United States and its closest allies to pretend they are exempt from international law, it remains relevant.

European leaders, who most likely were as eager as their Anglo-American counterparts to fully participate in the Global War on (of) Terror, were constrained both by popular power and the power of international law.

Instead of joining the illegal invasion, European leaders eased their militaries into Afghanistan via the UN sanctioned International Security and Assistance Force, which then metamorphosed from a complex peace operation into an aggressive occupation force.

NATO leaders learned their lesson and were more politically savvy when the opportunity to invade Libya arose, in 2011. This time, politicians enlisted various nongovernmental organizations and the media to carefully portray the military mission as a moral and legal humanitarian duty framed within the new Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which, coincidentally, was published, on 10 September 2001.

Yet the façade of humanitarian intervention in Libya did little to conceal the agenda for forceful regime change – an illegal act of aggression.

The ultimate myth: According to NATO’s strategic concept, NATO “thrives as a source of hope because it is based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and because our common essential and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members. These values and objectives are universal and perpetual, and we are determined to defend them through unity, solidarity, strength and resolve”.

Reality: NATO is a war machine that exacerbated the US-USSR arms race during the Cold War and is again exacerbating a new east-west arms race potentially more disastrous than its predecessor. Reflecting the shared overarching strategic interest of its member states, NATO forcefully pursues the freedom for investors to expand free trade and secure their interests.

Protestors in Chicago prior to NATO Summit

In the current historical conjuncture, during which the American empire appears to be metamorphosing, as Ellen Meiksins Wood theorizes, into an American led Empire of Capital, the US desperately needs more than ever to exercise its power through like-minded multinational organizations with memberships that tend to share mutual geopolitical and economic interests. NATO is the military arm of this system.

Clearly the United States does not control NATO. History and the few examples cited above show that when the pursuit of an American interest conflicts with the interests of too many other NATO member states, the US does not get its way within NATO.

When US and other NATO members’ interests do intersect, however, the alliance is extremely dangerous.

Some strategic policy documents of the US and NATO are publicly available and reveal intersecting interests.

A thin veneer of diplomatic language and rhetoric about human rights, freedom, and democracy barely conceals the classist and racist-nationalist underpinnings of US foreign policy regarding the use of force. This is evident throughout the National Security Strategy 2010, the National Defense Strategy 2008, and National Military Strategy 2011.

The National Defense Strategy identifies the expected threats to the United States of “violent extremist movements” and “rogue states”, but also resurrects the Cold War era existential fear of Russia and China. A fear NATO members share perhaps even more viscerally for some.

The National Defense Strategy among other strategic documents indicates the United States has instituted a two-track engagement-containment policy towards Russia and China. The US clearly prefers economic engagement with both. The Cold War strategy of military containment remains in reserve, however, if either Russia or China fails to play by the free trade rules of economic engagement set by the US and its allies.

The US and NATO reliance on military containment is rejuvenating opposing institutions and reviving an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia has instituted the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a counter to NATO power.

Most Western strategists downplay the CSTO as a mere shadow of the former Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, the perceived need for Russians to invent the CSTO indicates their fears of NATO power.

Earlier this month, Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov threatened to pre-emptively attack NATO missile sites in Europe, if NATO proceeds with deployment of its missile-defence shield. The general’s threat indicates the level of threat NATO represents for Russians.

The China-Russia Strategic Partnership was also invented to counter US and NATO power.

The economic union of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian equivalent of the NAFTA, challenges Western penetration into Eurasia.

Beginning with the Bush administration, United States strategic documents identify China as America’s greatest existential threat. Despite the fact China’s military spending is a small fraction of US military spending, recent increases in Chinese military spending have whipped the US media into a fear mongering frenzy.

Hilary Clinton’s recent declaration of “America’s Pacific Century” describing a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region has undoubtedly increased Chinese and Russian fears of US expansion.

As at the beginning of the Cold War, fear mongers within the US-NATO block seem to be intentionally instigating a new arms race.

Who wins an arms race? The investors in arms manufacturing win of course.

Real freedom = free trade?

One overarching strategic interest – the pursuit of free markets and free trade – unites the Atlantic alliance, despite the tactical disagreements that fracture and could pull NATO apart.

The National Security Strategy 2002, also known as the Bush Doctrine, is a revealing document.

Critics focussed on the Bush Doctrine, because in it the Bush administration attempted to legitimize pre-emptive warfare. Pre-emptive warfare is a tactical concept contrary to international law, which Europeans were reticent to embrace before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the Bush Doctrine should be most notable for its chapter titled, “Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth Through Free Markets and Free Trade”. In this chapter, the Bush Doctrine defines “real freedom” as free markets and free trade and clearly identifies the pursuit of this freedom for the investors of capital as the overarching strategic objective of the United States.

Pre-emptive warfare is merely one of many tactics that can be used to achieve this strategic objective of pursuing free markets and free trade.

The identification of this overarching strategic objective within the Bush Doctrine received little criticism, because it is the liberal economic doctrine that defines the state policies of all NATO member states.

The Obama administration’s policy documents exhibit less incendiary language than those of the Bush administration, but they do not differ in substance. When President Obama speaks of securing freedom and America’s interests he is invoking the same policies as the Bush administration and all the policies of preceding administrations that led to the Bush Doctrine.

NATO leaders proclaim their “common essential and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members”. We can assume their definition of freedom and security does not differ from the Bush Doctrine definition – “real freedom” is free trade and security secures the interests of the investors of capital more so than the interests of anyone else.

The lesson for peace activists is not only that we need more activism and more people involved in activism, but we need more strategically thoughtful activism. We need to mobilize every resource to constrain our less-than-democratic governments from pursuing more aggressive warfare. These goals are difficult, but not impossible.

Debunking the many myths that empower and perpetuate NATO is a tactical tool.

The fractures between the NATO member states are points where peace activists can pressure their respective governments to reject warfare and disassemble the institutions of war including NATO.

NATO is mortally susceptible to peace activists prying its interstate fractures open.

International law and the multilateral institutions that enshrine it are highly problematic, but they at least provide a minimal base to legitimize peace activism, and delegitimize the aggressive force states employ internationally and domestically to pursue state interests. Peace activists can use these resources without reifying them in their current contradictory forms.

As we can see in the cases of many of the European NATO member states, peace activists can thoughtfully use international law to constrain political and military leaders aggressive pursuit of state interests.

International law can be one of the levers peace activists use to pry open NATO and the aggressive Empire of Capital it serves until both fatally fracture under the weight of their own contradictions.

Michael Skinner is an independent researcher, human rights and peace activist, musician and composer. For a decade he was a National Education Facilitator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Since 2006, he has been a Researcher and Graduate Fellow at the York Centre for International and Security Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Read Michael Skinner’s academic papers and journalism at: http://yorku.academia.edu/MichaelSkinner/About and his blog at: https://michaelskinnerresearch.wordpress.com/

© Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Skinner and Michael Skinner Research with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“The Understandable National Allergy to Foreign Occupation.”

Michael Skinner 12 March 2012

The story that a lone “rogue” American soldier murdered sixteen Afghan civilians, including nine children and three women, dominates headlines around the world.

Some news sources report a group of laughing and apparently drunken American soldiers were the murderers

Most news reports agree the murderer(s) set fire to eleven of the bodies including four girls younger than six.

Few if any journalists, however, observe that burning the bodies of most of the massacre victims compounds the humiliation of Afghans, because Moslems consider burning a body is harama – it’s a sacrilegious desecration.

Blood stains and charred remains inside a home where US soldier murdered Afghans. Photo: Allauddin Khan / AP

New York Times journalist David Sanger predicts this horrific massacre might embolden Taliban leaders to end peace negotiations.

After all, Sanger argues the Taliban have few reasons to negotiate with an occupying force they know is leaving in 2014 anyway. He suggests that after every atrocity committed by the occupiers, the Taliban increase their capacity to “appeal to the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation”.

The fact that a New York Times reporter writes a phrase like “the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation” is itself remarkable. Military oversight of media is so complete that the words “invasion” and “occupation” are verboten for any journalist who hopes to maintain relationships with official sources. “International intervention” is the euphemism military spin-doctors invented to describe the battlefront of the Global War on/of Terror in Afghanistan.

The “national allergy to foreign occupation” is hardly surprising considering Afghan history and the past decade plus of occupation. After listening to Afghans during my visits to Afghanistan, I think it’s a good bet that many are equally allergic to the Taliban, the Karzai government, and the foreign occupation forces.

What is lacking, however, are viable alternatives to both the Talban and Karzai regimes. While resistance organisations including Maoists and women’s groups exist, these organisations lack sufficient resources and influence to counter the power of either the Western backed Karzai regime or the Taliban.

Is the massacre the product of an insane murderer, or systemic insanity?

Many journalists echo the ideas New York Times journalist William Yardley wrote yesterday. Yardley acknowledges that individuals within the US military have committed war crimes throughout the occupation. But he contends individual war criminals are merely a few bad apples.

Among the worst of the bad apples is Sgt Calvin Gibbs, the ringleader of a “rogue” Army unit. In November, the US Army convicted Gibbs of murder and other crimes.

The evidence military prosecutors used to convict Gibbs showed that he and a dozen members of the unit he led, staged combat situations so they could kill Afghan civilians for sport. Some of the soldiers photographed grisly trophy pictures using the murder victims as props. They also removed victims’ body parts to keep as souvenirs.

The horrific murders that Gibbs and the men of his unit committed, and the latest massacre, as well as a video of US soldiers urinating on dead Afghans, and the recent burning of Qur’ans are the most notorious stories of late.

Nonetheless, officially sanctioned attacks cause “collateral damage” that kills and maims civilians, and destroys homes, farms, other property, and the means for Afghans to make their livelihood. No one officially recorded Afghan civilian deaths before 2007; almost 12,000 civilians were killed between 2007 and the end of 2011.

Afghans are displaced from their homes at an average of 400 people per day. 730,000 Afghans have been internally displaced, since 2006, and foreign forces military offensives caused most of the displacements.

Night-raids of private homes, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and torture of detainees are ongoing problems.

As justifiably angry Afghans are with the supposed bad apples, it is not merely a few bad apples who turned Afghans against the foreign occupation.

The systemically induced insanity of war.

Yardley’s article, among many other commentaries, suggests the few bad apples in the military may be victims of battle-induced traumatic stress. There might be a grain of truth to this assessment.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illness is a growing problem for military personnel. Substance abuse as well as domestic abuse and other social problems are on the rise among military personnel and their families.

One report claims an American veteran attempts suicide every 80 minutes, a current service member attempts suicide every 36 hours, and successful suicides among serving US personnel have increased from 160 per year in 2001 to 309 in 2009. [see the full report here]

The psychological stress military personnel suffer during their tours of duty is an indisputable fact.

However, few writers acknowledge the never-ending stress suffered by Afghans who have lived in an incredibly stressful state of perpetual war, since 1978.[i]

Numerous journalists and commentators criticize the lack of sufficient PTSD treatment for military veterans here in Canada and elsewhere. But no one wants to imagine an entire nation of Afghans traumatised by war for generations. Is it possible to treat an entire nation for PTSD? Can we even call it PTSD when what we are seeing is ongoing traumatic stress disorder with no foreseeable end to the trauma?

Misplaced faith in the mythology of the “Good War”

The Sunday morning killing spree began in Belanday a village in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.

Belanday is one of several communities Canadian Forces Major-General Jon Vance chose, in 2009, to serve as a so-called “model village”. Vance hoped that if he could win the hearts and minds of the residents in the “model villages”, he could spread this successful model throughout Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, what is most likely to spread from Belanday is more bloody warfare

Postmedia News journalist Matthew Fisher quotes Canadian Forces Maj-Gen Vance’s reaction to the massacre in Belanday:

If it happened there, this will be shocking to the people of Belanday, as you can imagine, but I think that they can recover. One bad actor cannot spoil the reputation of the whole. I believe that to be true.

It may be wishful thinking on the part of the general to hope Afghans will buy the “one bad actor” story, but Jon Vance seems regularly prone to wishful thinking.

The one time I met the general was at York University during one of Vance’s cross-Canada propaganda tours promoted by the Canadian Forces. To introduce his talk, to a small group of academics, Vance played an overly long feel-good video composed primarily of photographs depicting smiling Afghan children posed with Canadian soldiers. The video was set to the music of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me”.

I told the general it was ironic he chose “Have a Little Faith in Me” as the soundtrack for his video. Those of us in his audience were sceptical academics who ask questions to which we seek answers based on evidence not faith. I asked why he thought the knowledgeable academics present, some of who had visited Afghanistan, should “have a little faith” in his fanciful story that all is well in Afghanistan and with Canada’s participation in the Global War on/of Terror. I asked the general whether he had any hard evidence to back his appeal for faith in his mission. The general appeared dumbfounded that anyone would question his authority and his appeal to faith. He was unable to back his appeal with significant evidence.

A concrete idea of what Major-General Vance believes is found in his writing.

In 2005, Vance wrote a chapter in the military textbook, The Operational Art: Context and Concepts. There he argues Canadian foreign policy is “more concerned with the political advantages of being seen to participate” in US-led missions, and that Canadian strategy centres upon “protecting Canadian interests rather than pursuing them.” In other words, according to Vance, the Canadian Forces purse Canada’s interests by supporting the pursuit of whatever interests American forces pursue.

Vance’s idea that Canada is subordinated to the US as it was subordinated to the UK in previous centuries, is highly problematic; indeed, his is a mythical account of the how Canadian Forces support Canadian foreign policy. This idea leads to the excuse that Canada must follow the US into its wars.

The reality is that Canada is a subdominant imperial state. The US is undeniably the dominant state in global affairs often acting as a bully to get its way. Canada plays a supporting subdominant role to the dominant bully not because Canadian decision-makers have no other choices, but instead because the US and Canada pursue mutual interests that revolve around globally expanding capitalist social relations and maintaining America’s “global primacy” .

Unfortunately, I have insufficient time or space to analyse Vance’s mythology in detail here. For counterarguments see Yves Engler’s, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt (with a foreword by Noam Chomsky), Todd Gordon’s, Imperialist Canada, and the chapters of various authors including myself collected by editors Greg Albo and Jerome Klassen in their upcoming book, Empire’s Ally: Canadian Foreign Policy and the War in Afghanistan.

It suffices to state the idea that the battlefront of the Global War on/of Terror in Afghanistan is somehow a better or more just war than the other battlefronts in Iraq and elsewhere is a myth.

I expect “the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation” in Afghanistan might soon become an epidemic.


[i] Since 1978, four periods of war blend into one:

1) The anti-socialist jihad, when American backed anti-socialist mujahedeen fought Soviet backed government forces, which, after Christmas Eve 1979, were directly supported by Soviet occupation forces (1978-1992).

2) The internecine first civil war, when after one mujahedeen force seized Kabul to institute the first Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, rival mujahedeen factions fight one another and the governing forces (1992-1996).

3) The second civil war is fought, between the Taliban, which emerged in 1994 and by 1996 governed most of Afghanistan, and several of the rival mujahedeen factions and the government, which during the fall of Kabul in 1996, joined forces to form the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan aka the Northern Alliance to govern parts of Northern Afghanistan (1996-2001).

4) The Global War on/of Terror, which began when US-UK led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) forces invade Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. After the Bonn Agreement of 20 December 2001, the occupation is administered by the combat forces of the US led OEF coalition and a UN led International Security Force (ISAF) initially conceived as a “complex peace operations” force. On 11 August 2003, NATO forces assumed command of ISAF. The Obama administration placed both the OEF and ISAF forces under the command of one American general, in 2009, eliminating any differences that might have still existed between the OEF and ISAF forces.

Michael Skinner is a researcher, human rights activist, musician and composer. For a decade he was a National Education Facilitator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Since 2006, he has been an Independent Researcher and Graduate Fellow at the York Centre for International and Security Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada. Skinner is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation titled, Peacebuilding, State-building, & Empire-building: The emerging Empire of Capital and its interventions from Central America to Central Asia. Michael Skinner recently returned from his second research trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Read Michael Skinner’s academic papers and journalism at: http://yorku.academia.edu/MichaelSkinner

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