|Lest we forget, peacekeepers are soldiers too
Canadians have been killed in the line of duty since the Korean War
23 Apr 02
I can only hope that the very appropriate and much appreciated reaction by the media, the public and, yes, our political leaders, to the recent loss of our four soldiers to "friendly" fire in Afghanistan was the beginning of a long overdue trend. In times of relative peace the death of a soldier abroad stands out in stark contrast to the comfort and security we enjoy within our own borders. Yet, for reasons I have never understood, the same groups mentioned above were surprisingly indifferent to the increasing number of deaths and serious injuries sustained by our soldiers overseas during the past decade.
Perhaps it's the oxymoronic and chronically misused term "peacekeeping" that confuses people. Perhaps the public and the media assumed that our soldiers, their remains arriving home for burial from places like Bosnia and Croatia and the Middle East, somehow met their demise from accidents unrelated to combat.
- Don't suggest that theory to the parents of the Canadian soldier whose body was torn in half by a rocket propelled anti-tank round when he was intentionally targeted by one of the belligerents during the war in the former Yugoslavia.
- Don't suggest it to the family of our young combat engineer blown to smithereens by a booby-trapped land mine in the same conflict.
- If you value your nose, don't suggest it to soldiers who survived snipers' bullets ripping through their bodies destroying vital organs or who lost both legs to land mines.
I was in the United States when the print media started to comment on the recent tragedy involving our soldiers in Afghanistan. I was shocked to read in more than one of their major newspapers that these were the first Canadian casualties "on the front line" since Korea. That evening, during the question and answer period following a speech I had given to the local community, I was asked what made Canada choose to participate in the Afghanistan mission considering the fact we hadn't dispatched our military abroad since Korea! Erroneously, I blamed the U.S. media for the misconception. So you can imagine my embarrassment the following day when I landed back in Canada and saw in our own papers that these were our first casualties in "offensive combat operations" since Korea. Who came up with this ridiculous category? Are we to await the first casualties in "defensive combat operations"? Is there to be a sub-category for victims of friendly fire? Give me a break. Let the record show that these fine young men were killed while serving their country and let the same record show that there have been 23 others laid to rest as a result of enemy action and accidents in the former Yugoslavia.
Canada is not just a "peacekeeping" nation as so often advertised by our leaders. The primary role of our military is to train for war. That's what we pay them for. Peacekeeping, as envisioned by its author Lester Pearson, has been pretty well relegated to the dusty pages of Cold War history, the recent mission between Eritrea and Ethiopia being a rare exception. The United Nations is dramatically reducing its military involvement in conflict resolution following its failures in Somalia, Srebrenica and Rwanda. When it does opt to get involved, as in Sierra Leone, the distinction between "combat" and "peacekeeping" is more than a little irrelevant to our soldiers under fire and even more so to the ones who are wounded or killed.
I believe our obligations as Canadians abroad are somewhat equivalent to our blessings at home. If I'm right, we have a large bill to pay. We might not always contribute our share to foreign aid and assistance; however, when it comes to blood, we sacrifice more than most in real terms, and, per capita, no other country comes close. I, for one, am pleased that at long last it seems the Canadian public, and those we elect to determine the employment of our military, finally recognize the price we demand on a regular basis from our sons and daughters in uniform. It serves no useful purpose to categorize deaths or injuries from enemy fire as combat, offensive combat, front-line, non-combat or accidental. There is no more honourable epitaph than: "He died for his country." Soldiers deserve and expect no more.