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Let's Talk about Creeping Canadian Militarism

We're signing on to a major shift, without much debate.

Michael Fellman 23 May

Michael Fellman is a professor of American history and director of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Simon Fraser University.

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PM Harper in Afghanistan

Militarism is seeping into Canadian ideological and institutional life, with highly dangerous short-term and long-term implications. Yet we hear precious little outcry from the public or in the media, and this relative silence only encourages those controlling the levers of power to continue this development.

One can date this departure from Paul Martin's commitment of 2500 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2004. At the time, it was as if no one noted that this deployment was in any way different from Canada's traditional peacekeeper role in various trouble spots around the globe under the auspices of the UN. This time, however, the counter-insurgency role called for front-line troops, fully equipped for war and ready for continuous military action. Peacekeeping this is not.

After Jean Chrétien had refused to send Canadian troops to Iraq, Canada came under intense American pressure to pull its weight in the global "war on terror." Obviously Martin agreed to send 2500 troops to one theatre of military action in part to relieve that many U.S. troops to fight in Iraq. This was an indirect but substantial contribution to the American's Iraq war, contracted in a way that would not alarm Canadian voters.

In far more overt ways, Stephen Harper (who almost certainly would have sent our troops to Iraq had he been prime minister at the time, as would have been the case with Michael Ignatieff), has used this dramatic shift in Canadian military posture to encourage the immediate and long-term growth of the Canadian armed forces.

The best way to increase military expenditures and to grow your army is to use it. Far from planning for an eventual end to Canada's role in Afghanistan, Harper is extending it into the uncharted future. Troops on the ground mean that opposing military growth means not "supporting our boys."

The prime minister said as much, once again, during his surprise visit to Afghanistan yesterday.

Where's the debate?

During decades of Liberal dominance, Canada cut the armed forces to the bare minimum that NATO would allow. After all, during the long Cold War, Canadians knew that the Americans would hardly permit an invasion of North America. So why not open Canadian air space to the Americans, build joint radar stations on Canadian soil, and spend money on universal health care instead of tanks and ships. If there was an element of cynicism in this strategy it saved money and Canadian lives. It almost amounted to unilateral disarmament.

2001 and the prospectively endless war of several theatres that has ensued undermined this anti-military strategy. Not only the government, but, judging from the polls, the majority of Canadians are now uncertain just what role Canada should play in the global "war on terror." Should we stay in Afghanistan? For how long? Should we grow our military for future conflicts? If so, to what degree?

But the most prescient question, and one that is not being widely raised concerns the long-term consequences of militarization. We are signing on to a carefully staged but major shift in Canadian life, without much awareness or debate.

Only the limited tactician Jack Layton is actively opposed to the current war, but even the NDP leadership, which rarely thinks strategically, has failed to raise the more fundamental and long-term issues in an articulate fashion.

As usual, the Liberals are all a muddle, wanting to support the war effort lest they be considered unpatriotic. Their reading of the polls tells them that calling for withdrawing the troops would lose them the next election.

Ramping up military spending

Only Stephen Harper has a clear long-term strategy -- an ever-increasing military and a far more "engaged" foreign policy, which means likely participation in more American-sponsored wars. And that likelihood in turn justifies enlarging the military.

On both the material and ideological fronts, this militarization is well under way. The overall Department of National Defense budget has increased from $13 billion to $15.1 billion in the past two years, with a $1.1 billion rise over the next two and $5.3 billion in the next five years. Additional security costs -- paramilitary border guards and increased internal counter-espionage, all elements of modern militarism -- will go up another $1.5 billion in the next two years.

The military has embarked on an expensive expenditure program for transport planes, helicopters, supply ships, tanks, trucks and missiles, as well as more troops.

Planning for the next two decades, the Canadian military command has called for more than doubling the military budget to $36 billion by 2025, not to mention attendant security add-ons, which could double that figure to $72 billion if accelerated at the current pace. General Rick Hillier frequently trumpets the need for massive increases to the Canadian military establishment, and he does this in a public and politically partisan way that is radically contrary to the traditional public stance of Canadian commanders in chief. He, not the Minister of National Defense, is the vocal point man for militarism.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper is really leading the charge. Not only is he tailoring his budgets to substantially increase the military each year, he is the chief ideologue of speeded up militarization.

Cheerleading for war

A notable example of Harper as military cheerleader was the speech he gave on April 7 commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. One hundred thousand "brave Canadians" fought there in 1917, Harper said, and 3598 died. "Every nation has a creation story. The First World War and the Battle of Vimy Ridge are central to the story of Canada." This was the "first time the entire [Canadian] army fought on the battlefield together," an effort that produced "a spectacular victory, a stunning breakthrough that helped turn the war in the Allies favour."

Even at the time of the battle, Brigadier Alexander Ross noted that looking out over the field of this battle, he was witnessing "the birth of a nation," Harper recalled in his speech.

Canadians today should honour this great sacrifice, the Prime Minister concluded. "We may hear them say softly: I love my family, I love my comrades, I love my country, and I will defend this freedom to the end."

The day before Harper gave this speech, six Canadian soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan, and at the Vimy Ridge commemoration, General Hillier drew the obvious links of that earlier struggle to today, saying that he could not really concentrate on the past when current sacrifices are so great.

One risks being labeled unpatriotic if one questions either the larger military program or the highly freighted patriotic rhetoric of such occasions. But was Canada really born at Vimy Ridge? I thought it was constructed in 1867 as an economic and political constitutional bargain to head off any potential American threat and serve larger British imperial aims, tied to the material aspirations of the dominant merchants in the Canadian colonies.

But of course, however historically inaccurate, Vimy Ridge makes for the heroic birth of a nation, in bloodshed. (So had the Plains of Abraham, but that was the English conquering the French, which is not a useful victory for purposes of Canadian unity.) National birth in blood sacrifice is important to emphasize when one wants to make the pitch for a current war and the re-militarization of a society.

American experiences

I am aware that I am particularly attuned to such ideological uses of heroic battles because I am an American-Canadian who specializes in the history of the American Civil War. The dominant writing about the Civil War is triumphalist. If the bloody American revolutionary war had commenced American freedom, this argument goes, the far more massive Civil War, by ending slavery, secured the nation for liberty, democracy and equality of opportunity.

Such arguments rarely emphasize the costs of the Civil War: 620,000 men killed in a nation of 36 million, and countless lives maimed and ruined, both civilian and military. Nor does this account focus on the century of brutal apartheid that followed the war, revamping white supremacy and undermining African-American freedom for generations to come, with consequences for the present and the foreseeable future of American race relations.

World War II was another "good war" which continues to provide ideological encouragement for the uses of military means. Thus was Fascism defeated and freedom saved, this story goes -- overlooking the Russian-based victory, with the immense costs to the Russian people, and the equivocal nature of western hegemony in our world since the war.

The immense American military budgets, the endless series of American wars, the never-ending ideological barrage supporting such militarism, all have had a deeply corrosive effect on American society.

And this militarism is relatively recent. Most Americans themselves do not know how resistant Americans were to the use of the military prior to World War II. Indeed the lack of a draft and the refusal to employ the army abroad were points of patriotic pride for Americans up until 1941, outlining their difference from those horrible European imperialists.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's dramatic presidential farewell address in 1960, when he warned of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex," stemmed from his youth when the American army he served was small and marginal. He alerted the public to the poison spread by permanent militarization, in a way that was both prophetic and a cry in the ideological wilderness (see sidebar).

After 1945, as Eisenhower stressed in 1960, and in the nearly five decades that have followed, there never has been a return to the American tradition of a non-militarized society: and the military has an enormous and permanent presence in American society and consciousness. To me it is no coincidence that the huge spread of personal weapons and the high rate of violent crime correlated to militarism. If military force was good for the nation in the Civil War and World War II, if the military and the warrior tradition are central to American society, why is armed force on the part of civilians not a generally legitimate means to deal with problems?

Armed civilians?

Even after Virginia Tech, the National Rifle Association types have continued to proclaim the virtues of arming the general populace on campus so that good people can shoot down bad ones when the need arises. Few liberal congressmen or journalists have taken on the NRA, which has an excellent record of destroying their opponents while calling for the arming of all honest civilians -- for society as a militia.

I cannot "prove" this theory of, as Eisenhower put it, the negative "spiritual" implications of militarization, nor can most Americans stand back far enough to analyze the impact that a permanently huge military establishment and frequent wars have had on their social fabric.

Nor can I "prove" what the long-term consequences will be for Canada if militarization continues. Perhaps because of the tradition of a small military, perhaps because Canadians trust their government too much, perhaps because of a more general complacency, few public voices sound such an alarm. But I am not sanguine about this trend, and I would like to see more public debate. I believe we are slipping into an American Republican style material and ideological marriage of military and society.

Many believe that the chief threat of Harper conservatism lies in his social beliefs, particularly on abortion. Although that social conservatism may be true in his heart, a "strong military" is far more front and centre in his belief structure. These are values upon which he has acted vigorously, while he has steered clear thus far on any sustained action concerning social issues like abortion.

So far he is having his way. More questions need be asked.

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