"We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people" -- General Rick Hillier, July 13, 2005.
With these words, the head of the Canadian Forces opened what has become a sustained campaign to transform the nature of this country's army. Hillier's statement was also a very public salvo in the ongoing effort to put Canada's foreign policy on a permanently more aggressive footing.
The former Liberal government -- Paul Martin and company quietly and without parliamentary debate announced the Canadian mission to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May 2005 -- seemed to endorse the outspoken general's views. Stephen Harper, since winning a minority government in January 2006, has acted like he has a majority, at least on the international scene, pushing an extension of the Kandahar operation until February 2009 through parliament on short notice.
Top officials with the Canadian Forces have acknowledged that the deployment to Kandahar, where Canada is engaged in a violent counter-insurgency, requires an increase in recruiting. They have set out to draw more young people to the Forces in a variety of ways, aided by substantial budget increases for their efforts.
A recent Canadian Forces Personnel Newsletter outlined Hillier's vision: "Recruiting is everybody's business. I expect every sailor, soldier, airman and airwoman to recognize their role as a potential CF recruiter..."
The newsletter instructs local recruiters to meet the public wherever they are, prioritizing festivals and events where young people congregate. The language is replete with buzzwords, and could well be PR notes for most any profession:
"To connect with all Canadians, the CF has to be present at events throughout the country, and the CF is you. With your help and support, the "connecting with Canadians" blanket can be stretched to cover the country.
"We also need you to provide the best possible representation of the CF -- yourself. Wearing your uniform to work is good; wearing your uniform to work on the bus is great. Tell people what you do for a living, and that you enjoy it, and that it's exciting and challenging and rewarding."
This year alone, in Vancouver, for instance, the CF has been present at the Sikh Vaisakhi parade, the Dragon Boat Festival, Aboriginal Day festivities and the Pacific National Exhibition, in addition to the usual Canada Day events, and campus and public school career fairs. The army has also been openly targeting increasing the number of immigrants enlisted, even considering allowing landed immigrants to sign up -- perhaps with a fast track to citizenship as a reward. Hillier, in his distinct, colourful style, explained the significance of the whole effort while commenting on the recruiting of immigrants: "We've thrown, if you will, a transformational grenade in the middle of our recruiting process."
Most recently, the pin has been pulled on rather stark -- perhaps even frightening -- TV ads urging young people to sign up. In all, an additional $15 million has been allotted for recruiting efforts this year alone.
Although all this recruiting coincides with a long-term project to transform the Canadian Forces, the immediate urgency is due to the increasingly deadly situation in Afghanistan. As of the end of October, 43 Canadians have died, with scores more wounded. Reinforcements of additional troops have been deployed, along with tanks and other heavy weaponry; there is also speculation that CF-18 fighter jets could soon be sent to Afghanistan. NATO bombing raids have routinely claimed the lives of a significant number of Afghan civilians.
The army's glossy recruiting campaign doesn't necessarily make the connection between a young person's decision to enlist and the war in Afghanistan, and it certainly doesn't highlight critical points of view on matters like the connections between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and empire-building and its concomitant drive for control of energy resources. This is where the concept of counter-recruiting comes in.
Like any profession, the army as an employer highlights the benefits of working for them, giving minimal emphasis to personal risk and moral or political ramifications. Operation Objection is an effort that has been launched to balance the information being provided to young people about the army and our foreign policy. Initiated by the organization Act for the Earth, and supported by a number of peace groups across the country, it seeks to dispel myths and to provide information about the reality of Canadian policy. This brand new campaign's website already has a wealth of important resources, including introductory booklets on the issue.
Educators in the public school system, where the military regularly participates at career fairs and other special events, have a responsibility to seek out and make available information about potential hazards and the political issues surrounding enlisting, including vital context about Canada's current role in Afghanistan.
Former soldiers, families speak out
One way that educators and others who work with youth can bring a critical perspective to this issue is by making available dissenting voices from within the military community itself. This past summer, for instance, Francisco Juarez, an officer in training who had intended to one day serve in Afghanistan, resigned from the army in order to be able to publicly speak out against the war-making operation in Kandahar.
In another recent development, military family members from across the country have begun to voice criticisms of the Afghan mission. Victoria's Chris Craig, father of a CF active member, explained his concerns:
"I am completely opposed to my son being used as ground fodder for an undisclosed reason. I want to know why we're there. The arguments that have been thus far presented don't do it for me. They do not explain why my son and his friends should be maimed or killed in a far-away country."
Before more young people are signed up as "ground fodder," they at a minimum deserve to be presented with some critical analysis of the country's military and foreign policy. Operation Objection and efforts like it are emerging along with a sizeable movement across the country to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. On Oct. 28, for instance, 37 Canadian cities and towns held rallies with that demand.
Debate on this key issue should not be shunned, but rather fostered and encouraged, especially in our public schools. After all, our middle-aged politicians and generals, like Harper and Hillier, may send the troops to war, but it is overwhelmingly the young and the economically less advantaged that have to kill and die on the battlefield.
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