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Worth Repeating: The Gulf War and the Shaping of National Character

By August 12, 2011 No Comments

So it has finally happened. After nearly forty years the myth of Canada as an unmilitary nation has finally fallen apart. The country which grew out of French-English colonial wars, the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and which became a nation by its brilliant exploits in two World Wars and then continued the tradition in Korea, has taken up arms again. Canadians were committed to combat roles against Saddam Hussein’s aggression.

The Gulf War divided Canadian opinion, but the dividing line was different from earlier debates about defence policy. The UN’s sanctioning of many liberal-minded opinion formers whose position over Cold War deterrence had been less than steadfast. Our Armed Forces enjoyed the support of the majority of influential editors and columnists, and at least some radio and TV talking heads. Politically, this translated into support from the governing party and – after an embarrassing about-face – the Liberals. In Parliament, only the NDP refused to support Canadian servicemen fighting against aggression, in striking contrast to their Social Democratic and Labour colleagues among European coalition partners.

Relative isolation increased the bitterness of the rump of anti-defence activists. There were reports of uniformed members of the Armed Forces being assaulted, and the media carried stories of the families of servicemen serving in the Gulf being terrorized. Imitation body bags were left on their lawns’ phone-calls told of deaths in action. In one case, never made public because the defenceless parent preferred silence, a third-grade student was ruthlessly tormented by her teacher in class, for having a father who was serving in the Gulf.

Such extremism was condemned by responsible activists, but one wonders if these worthies ever analyzed their own motivations. They didn’t criticize teachers who sent their students into the streets chanting the insulting slogans their minders taught them. They did nothing when a Public School principal forbad her students to send Valentines to servicemen in the Gulf. They found no fault with spattering blood on buildings, nor did they mind the foul language of many demonstrators. All of these acts were expressions of hate. The Left-organized opposition to the war was founded solely upon hatred of America. The distinction between acts which were condemned and all others was merely one of style. Where hate is the driving force, the term “peace movement” is a fraud.

Yet, there were others who opposed the war for better reasons – a belief in the efficacy of sanctions, or true pacifism, or a conviction that the UN ought not to become involved in any actual fighting. And some, it seems, simply could not comprehend a world beyond Canada’s relatively peaceful borders where things are sadly different.

The wife of an Air Force major serving in the Gulf wrote an emotional article for the Globe and Mail in which she expressed her apparent inability to accept that war is the contingency against which armed forces are raised, trained and held in readiness. “Our [married] union that has always been bound by love and harmony now seems split into diverging paths”, she wrote. For a quarter century Canadians have lived in an artificial igloo where the nation’s history was suppressed, and in its place a fiction remained unchallenged. As the igloo melted, many people were exposed for the first time to cruel realities for which they were unprepared. The question is: Will Canada now revert to wishful thinking or be strong enough to live in the adult world?

The collapsing economy and the political turbulence this is causing is coinciding with Quebec’s demands for sovereignty and First Nations claims to self-government, create conditions that demand realistic responses. In the igloo, everything came free and the day of reckoning never came. That too is over. Politicians are blamed for letting the igloo melt, but we should do better to blame ourselves for an orgy of mindless self-indulgence. The Canadian national character that brought us to maturity would never have tolerated our subsequent humiliation – can we rediscover it in our moment of need?

So far as national defence is concerned, the test will be our commitment to sovereignty and peace. Nothing has done more to undermine Canada’s reputation abroad that our repeated failures to back defence commitments with the necessary personnel and machines. The role of the defence forces is obviously changing, but present indications are that our government has learned nothing. Although Admiral Thomas [who resigned in protest in 1991 over Canada’s defence failures] may have opened his mouth too wide, his principal message was important: Our forces are going to get new tasks, but still lack the means to accomplish them.

Former senior UN official Brian Urquhart has predicted that “We are entering a period of great instability, characterized by long standing international rivalries and resentments, intense ethnic and religious turmoil, a vast flow of arms and military technology, domestic disintegration, poverty and deep economic inequalities, instant communication throughout the world, population pressures, natural and ecological disasters, the scarcity of vital resources and huge movements of population.” It is not difficult to conclude that the defence of sovereignty, which we cannot accomplish at present, becomes vital.]

Many also think that, just as we relied upon alliances in the Cold War to control threats, we could contribute in future to UN peace-making forces in the Post Cold War era. The idea of deliberately standing ready to deter war by deliberate military action is a major departure from the peacekeeping of the past and will call for fully equipped forces – just the sort that Canada is proposing to give up.

Yes, we are strapped for money at present (so is the USSR, which has increased military spending in 1991). The important thing here is to get rid of the enormous bureaucratic overheads, reorganize along functional lines, and build forces that can accomplish necessary tasks. A willingness to defend sovereignty and peace the first test of national character. Will Canada make the grade?

20 Years On: This essay was about 90% Maurice Tugwell and 10% John Thompson; and it has stood the test of time. Canada was slow and reluctant to get serious about defence and the pruning and paring continued all through the 1990s (although it was driven more by the Government’s need to get the deficit under control than anything else). However, at length after 9/11 and years of intermittent involvement in sundry wars, it seems that Ottawa and most of the Canadian public have finally realized why we have a military and started to understand some fundamentals about their use. Let’s see how long this lasts after the withdrawal from Kandahar.