Hundreds of people criticized NATO during a protest outside Victoria's Hotel Grand Pacific September 8, but it was the naked bike rider who led the television news and whose bare butt made the cover of the following day's newspaper.
The coverage was typical of the mainstream media, says Francisco Juarez, one of the founders of the new group Military Communities Speak Out (MCSO). Often the media is more interested in a chuckle, he says, than it is in communicating ideas. The impression one gets is "gosh darn, aren't these 'protesters' some silly folks," he says. Viewers and readers get a cheap laugh, but it's at the expense of a deeper understanding of the issues.
Says Juarez, "There's no moral weight given to the arguments. That's why controlling the medium of the message is so important. We can't rely on larger media organizations to communicate our arguments."
Juarez and his partner, Diane Bedard, launched MCSO in recent weeks with a website and an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org). It is aimed at "those unsatisfied by government policy and the bias of uncritical corporate media." But here's the twist: the organization is for current and former members of the military and their families. People like Juarez and Bedard.
Buffered from reality
They modelled the organization on the 3,000-plus member American group, Military Families Speak Out. Both groups are, says Juarez, "Places for people to share their stories, really, outside the military framework." Often, he says, military families get caught in the armed forces' and governments' efforts to control the message and end up feeling silenced. It's empowering, he says, to learn you're not alone. "To unite those voices is absolutely important."
Speaking on the phone from Massachusetts, MFSO co-founder Charley Richardson says he'd heard there were Canadians talking about starting a group, but didn't know they were organized yet. "We feel the voice of military families and those who are directly impacted are very important," he says. "I think the experience of MFSO in the United States is that we bring to the conversation what we sometimes call, 'skin in the game.'"
Despite the number of casualties in Iraq, most Americans are buffered from the reality of the war. People with military experience can give a clearer picture of what it is like, he says, and what it means to give a life for a cause of dubious worth. "It is frankly easy to send someone else's loved ones off to war, certainly than it is to send your own."
MFSO formed in November 2002 as America prepared to invade Iraq. It is opposed to that war, but has not yet taken a position on Afghanistan. There is debate on whether the war in Afghanistan is just, says Richardson, though it should be seen as connected to the Iraq war. He says, "Canada's role in Afghanistan has freed up U.S. troops to be in Iraq. In that way you can't entirely disconnect the two."
Shedding the uniform
Over the past year Juarez, who grew up on the Sunshine Coast and in Vancouver, has told his own story of leaving the Canadian army because of distaste for the direction of the country's mission in Afghanistan. He still feels stung by much of what reporters did with that story, especially a November 2006 piece that ran in Maclean's magazine with the headline "A resister without a war." The article argued that Juarez had portrayed himself as a "war resister" even though there was never any guarantee he would ever be sent to Afghanistan, and in fact he would have had to volunteer to go before that happened.
"I never claimed I was more than what I was," says Juarez. "It was a lot of journalists getting their facts wrong, which was disappointing, but I couldn't do anything about it." When he transferred from the navy to the army it was in hopes of going to Afghanistan, he says, but as he read more about Canada's role there he decided he wanted no part of it. He hadn't finished training yet and the army was not about to send him to Afghanistan. "I acknowledged and I said honestly during interviews that was my situation."
And yet the stories became very personal, he says, most of them attacking his character instead of engaging with what he had to say. Combined with a return to school, they contributed to a stressful year for him. "You can't fight that stuff all the time. I wanted to fight like a pit bull, but it ends up tiring you out."
So the subtleties of his story were generally missed. When he signed up, he says, the Liberals were in power and the war in Afghanistan was being spun as a humanitarian mission. "It was after 2001 and the Canadian government under the Liberals came to the understanding in the months after the attack there was going to be a seed change and they'd have to increase the number of people in the armed forces," he says. "I felt a three year commitment with the armed forces would allow me to serve my country, because I do believe in Canada very strongly."
'A good ally'
Juarez figured the armed forces would stand for the ideals Canadians believe in. He's proud, he says, that we are a multicultural society where people are respectful of differences. There is a way of doing things and a commitment to international cooperation that makes us distinct from the United States.
But soon conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister and it became clear the country and the armed forces were moving in a new direction. As Juarez sees it, Harper was much cozier with the United States. With the conflict last summer between Israel and Lebanon, Harper was unquestioningly pro-Israel, seemingly ignorant that there was more to the story. It was not a perspective that would lead to peace, says Juarez. "I saw the road ahead as being very problematic for Canada."
Victoria Peace Coalition activist Phil Lyons says Juarez is a welcome addition to the anti-war movement. "He's a good person to work with, a good ally," he says. "He learned some things in the army that are very useful to the movement." Skills like first aid are helpful at a rally, he says, but it's the perspective Juarez brings that's key. "What's really important is you're not going to get fundamental change in this society unless you can get members of the army and the police on your side.... It's a very important piece of the opposition to the Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan and to NATO's agenda."
Canada's mission shift
While the nature of our military has shifted, says Juarez, public opinion and governing legislation haven't kept up. "A lot of people identify them as peacekeepers," Juarez says. "In actuality an army has a whole set of beliefs and actions that are unrelated to peacekeeping." At its core, as taught in infantry school, the army's purpose is to "close with" and defeat an enemy. That makes it hard for the forces to do humanitarian work. Friends who went to Afghanistan said the "humanitarian mission" story was largely a lie, he says. There were no hospitals or schools being built. The support for strengthening the country was minimal.
Instead, whatever small aid the army offered became part of the military effort. "You get people who are very poor who'll respond to a private handing out a small package of medical equipment," he says. You generate good feelings in some people in the short term. But others will understand their land is being occupied by an invading force, he says. When the army leaves, how will those two groups of people get along? "What you're doing is sowing the seeds for the escalation of the conflict."
Canadians need to take a close look at what our army is doing in Afghanistan, he says, and whether it's likely to be successful. We also need a broader discussion on what our armed forces should be doing, what values they should be representing. "We need to look at what direction we want our armed forces to go."
Juarez says he hopes Military Communities Speak Out will encourage that debate, whether by participating in rallies like the one against NATO last weekend, or by connecting people. He says, "One should be an active member. One can be critical, certainly, but one should be critical and participatory."
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