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Leaving Afghanistan: Was it All or Nothing?

Posted: 04/19/2012 8:38 am

This is the fourth of five excerpts from Noah Richler's new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Noah has personally chosen the excerpts and written a short introduction to each, exclusively for Huffpost readers. You can read the first excerpt here, and the second excerpt here, and the third excerpt here. Tomorrow: When a "war" becomes a "mission."

As the Taliban mounts a resurgence again; as Australia quits and Canada prepares to, as Afghanistan is abandoned to itself -- the point of NATO countries and their partners having fought in the country for quite so long, and the validity of the claims that were made about the mission, will come under scrutiny again. This will happen, however, without the intensity and obfuscation that the language of heroism previously provided the conflict. We have lost interest. We are not, any more, suffering deaths and instead turn to the ghoulish entertainment of Norway's Andres Behring Brevik trial. Even April's remembrance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge has ceased to be about Canadian Forces defending our present freedoms. Last year, the Kandahar memorial to Canada's Afghanistan dead was packed up and shipped home; now, too, the language of heroism can be crated and put away for another day, to some other less impassioned use. The fact of the 158 Canadian soldiers and four civilians who died in Afghanistan having changed not one bit; but we ask ourselves few questions. If leaving was so easy now, could we have done so earlier, and saved lives? If leaving, or staying on, makes so little difference -- if, in fact, we are ready to lose the war, then is it the truth that Canadians did "die in vain?"

* * *

RITUAL BREEDS CONSOLATION but also distance. It substitutes public for private feeling by conflating the mourning of a community of strangers with the more personal devastation that immediate kin will naturally feel. Ritual encourages the public to count itself among the bereaved in the epic story of the fight of good against evil being played out at a national level. By putting these two different kinds of grief on an equivalent, the greater pain that the smaller number of family and friends feel is elevated onto the more public but also abstract plane. On the one hand, genuine succour is derived there from the sympathy of the masses, but, on the other, the singularity of the family's pain is subsumed to the needs of the state and the greater population as the point of the ritual is diverted toward other ends. Death is an occasion of mourning but also a galvanizing public relations opportunity.

The anger and existential outrage that loved ones are likely to feel are seconded to public and political interests and, to that more tried, enduring and appropriating narrative. Death becomes Duty; Pain becomes Patriotism. Funeral ceremonies make their point by relying immeasurably upon the lexicon of the hero -- of courage, bravery, selflessness, "making a difference" and not "dying in vain."

If, after Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, or, due to any other military action, the war in Afghanistan can meaningfully be said to be over  (as opposed to over for us),  its mandates fulfilled and the mission achieved, then the 158 Canadian soldiers and four civilians who lost their lives in Afghanistan by the end of 2011 can rightly be said not to have "died in vain." But if, however, some other path -- of diplomacy, say, or of massive aid and reconstruction such as Germany knew during the years of the Marshall Plan -- might credibly have brought Afghanistan and even the state of international "security" to the same level; if Canadians fought in Afghanistan for a decade to be noticed on the international stage and the country was no differently viewed, or to maintain a trade relationship with the United States that was mostly unaffected, or to bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan and permanently improve the lives of schoolgirls there, and these objectives were not achieved, then regardless of the nature of the brave act, the argument can be made that these soldiers really did "die in vain."

They become martyrs to a political cause that may be viewed as misconstrued, and even cynical or whimsical, rather than deaths that came about as part of the profoundly regrettable but necessary cost of a better social outcome that could not have come to pass without their lamented deaths. So, in the King James Bible -- a source of literary precedent, not incontrovertible truth -- Paul says of Christ's crucifixion, that "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." What Paul is saying is that were humankind to reach that point of emancipation anyway, there would have been no need for Christ's death.

 
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