Christmas is not an easy season to write about. A lot of us in the media are conditioned to put aside efforts to save the world from itself during the Christmas season, and to ruminate about the foibles of the season, either in a positive, nostalgic way, or a grumbling Grinchy way. Take your choice.
I tend to the latter outlook, but am careful to subdue it at home. Periodically, I've recalled a memorable Christmas during the Korean war when the Chinese erected Christmas trees festooned with propaganda gifts in front the barbed wire of my platoon's trenches. My guys reciprocated that night with gifts of gallon cans of lima beans and ham chunks (disgusting food) in Chinese trenches. Maybe next Christmas I'll tell that story. Again.
One thing that distinguishes this Christmas is that it's the first one in almost a decade, that "fighting" soldiers haven't spent it in Afghanistan. That's a bit of a stretch, since we still have nearly 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, but now mostly moved from the battle lines of Kandahar to Kabul where they'll be involved in reconstruction and training the Afghan National Army.
In some ways - though the brass will never acknowledge this - life for our soldiers might be precarious in a non-fighting role during the next couple of years, if the Taliban reject overtures of peace and harmony. Personally, I doubt good intentions of the Taliban. There's a distinct possibility that our soldiers remaining there will be required to again defend themselves against an "enemy" that can't be trusted and a population that is routinely intimidated.
Those responsible for policy decisions - like quitting Afghanistan - tend to be more optimistic than troops on the ground. But our soldiers are conditioned over the years to do what's expected of them, even when they feel betrayed by their government. Training Afghans into a competent and functioning military is tough, when so much of soldiering today involves technology, literacy, and knowing how to count - all alien aspects for many young Afghans.
A warrior spirit exists in most Afghans, but map-reading, artillery collaboration, and tactical patience are more difficult to acquire. Still, the Canadian army is skilled at training and maybe they'll succeed better than most.
This Christmas, there's some apprehension among our military that Canada is in danger of reverting to the past, when peacekeeping was the prime role of our military. Now that the Afghanistan mission is closing, cutbacks inevitably will occur. We are bringing back our mechanized equipment from Afghanistan. No matter what is said, this equipment will be worn out: Afghanistan's environment is a graveyard of mechanized equipment.
Will Canada get new, updated, replacement equipment? Tanks, light armoured vehicles, trucks, and carriers? Unlikely. We never do. We make do with what we've got, and keep equipment running long after it's expiry date.
This will complicate the future, because after our military's superlative performance in Afghanistan, we are now widely acknowledged as having the best small army in the world that will be in demand next time the UN needs a military presence.
Canada's enhanced prestige in the world today owes much to the diplomatic skills, the professionalism, humanitarianism, and just plain competence of our soldiers in a nasty, unconventional, stress-related war against an oft-invisible enemy.
Who knows, but by next Christmas our military may well be immersed in another, as-yet-unknown mission. And here we go again!