On June 3, 2008; Canada's then Ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani, was interviewed on a U.S. radio program via telephone.
What the morning talk show host, Renee Montagne, wanted to know was why Canada was suffering a disproportionate number of losses in the war. The highest ratio of all NATO forces.
Whenever you hear that a NATO soldier has been killed in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, it's probably a Canadian soldier. Canada only has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan but they are fighting in one of the most dangerous regions of the country. So while Canadian troops make up only a small fraction of NATO forces, they've suffered the highest number of fatalities proportionately. (1)Soon after being elected in January of 2006, Stephen Harper made Afghanistan his first official visit anywhere as prime minister. There he gave his now infamous "cut and run" speech, which was simply a scaled down version of one that George Bush had presented at the U.S. Naval Academy* a year before.
"You can't lead from the bleachers. I want Canada to be a leader," Harper told about 1,000 troops at the Kandahar airfield base the day after he arrived on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. "Your work is about more than just defending Canada's national interests. Your work is also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country."Up to that time, 10 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat had been killed, and 26 Canadian soldiers had been injured. But that was about to change. To impress George Bush, Stephen Harper sent our men and women into the most dangerous areas of battle. According to Rick Hillier: "It was Stephen Harper's decision to move Canadian troops from Kabul and reposition them in southern Kandahar province, where they are now at much more danger of being killed by roadside bombs." (3)
"There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it's not the Canadian way," he said, to a round of applause. "We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country." (2)
And speeches were not the only thing Harper borrowed from his mentor. He also made the decision to discontinue flying the flag at half mast as a show of respect to fallen soldiers, and forbid the media from capturing for history, the images of flag draped coffins.
"Look, don't bring the Airbus in, or if you bring the plane in, turn it away from the cameras so that people can't see the bodies coming off, or do it after dark, or do it down behind the hangars, or just bar everybody from it," Hillier quotes the PMO staffers as saying. "They clearly didn't want that picture of the flag-draped coffin on the news."It is Canadian military policy that every Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan will be honoured as a war hero. Harper's disrespect for soldiers was the last straw for Hillier and prompted his early retirement at the age of 53. (4)Harper expected backlash for this decision, from the media that he had already silenced, but was unprepared for the reaction of Canadians, especially from military families.
Nothing "casual" About Our Losses
Last week Canada revealed itself once again as a truly unique nation. In a world where dead warriors are commonplace and taken for granted, this country stopped, paid attention, lowered the flags and gave full military honours to four soldiers, who died inexplicably and tragically at the hands of our allies. (Lesley Hughes, April 2002)Hughes was referring to the "friendly fire" deaths of four Canadian soldiers, the first reports of our country's losses in this war. And a nation mourned. Bill Leger, the father of Sgt. Marc Leger, spoke in reference to Stephen Harper's 2006 decision to ban the media from covering the flag draped coffins of fallen soldiers:
And Leger's mother was interviewed more recently:
"... in 2002 it was a great thing for us to have the media there. It was something that we felt at that time, and still feel the same way, that it was a Canadian thing. It was something that we wanted to show all Canadians what the cost of their liberty is. It's nothing else but that. And it's still heart-warming to see the faces and everything else when people were lined up on the 401, in 2002, all the way from Trenton to Toronto. They wanted to be there. They had to be there. I was told that often, over and over again. And those are the memories that I have, and those are the things that I carry with me all my life." (5)
Ask Claire Leger what the past decade has meant to her, and she'll tell you a story of abiding sorrow ... After the tragedy, Leger and her husband Richard planted four small Canadian flags in the garden of their home near Ottawa, in memory of Marc and his comrades, Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, 24; Pte. Richard Green, 21 and Pte. Nathan Smith, 26.Stephen Harper then did an about face, finding a way to make himself look good, and with the help of the ad firm Hill and Knowlton, quickly turned the war into a giant photo-op. Canada had not witnessed a propaganda campaign of this magnitude since the last world war. But it was not about "King and Country" this time, it was about Stephen Harper and ... well ... Stephen Harper.
Seven years later, the Legers haven't sought ''closure'' from their grief. As the war years have ticked by they've maintained a steady vigil, dutifully marking the death of every Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. ''Every time I have to go put a little flag in our garden, it feels like I'm burying our son all over again,'' she says. ''I send a card to every family that loses a soldier and I often get a card back, with a picture of their son or daughter.''''There's less and less attention paid to those who are killed and it's heartbreaking to me,'' says Leger. ''I wish I could share with other families the support we had when Marc died. We were embraced by Canadians. That's what kept me going - I felt people actually cared.''Leger is a fierce critic of what she considers an unwinnable war, and says Canada's participation has made us ''puppets'' of the Americans. (6)
His first defense minister, Gordon O'Connor had been an employee of H&K, lobbying for military contracts. In the United States, the ad firm was well known for using dirty tricks to sell wars:
Hill & Knowlton, then the world's largest PR firm, served as mastermind for the Kuwaiti campaign. Its activities alone would have constituted the largest foreign-funded campaign ever aimed at manipulating American public opinion. By law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act should have exposed this propaganda campaign to the American people, but the Justice Department chose not to enforce it. Nine days after Saddam's army marched into Kuwait, the Emir's government agreed to fund a contract under which Hill & Knowlton would represent "Citizens for a Free Kuwait," a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration. (7)Canadians were no longer going to oppose the war. Belligerent nationalism would reign supreme, and they were going to instead cheer from the bleachers. Rah, rah, rah!
And what did they use to whip us into a frenzy?
Hill & Knowlton's yellow ribbon campaign [my emphasis] to whip up support for "our" troops, which followed their orchestration of Nayirah's phony "incubator" testimony, was a public relations masterpiece. The claim that satellite photos revealed that Iraq had troops poised to strike Saudi Arabia was also fabricated by the PR firm. Hill & Knowlton was paid between $12 million (as reported two years later on "60 Minutes") and $20 million (as reported on "20/20") for "services rendered." The group fronting the money? Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a phony "human rights agency" set up and funded entirely by Kuwait's emirocracy to promote its interests in the U.S. (8)So in Canada, H & K not only had one of their own (O'Connor) as Minister of Defense, deciding which of their clients got what military contracts; they were also able to sell a yellow ribbon campaign that had been mothballed, to a country not known for outward displays of such aggression.
And to make sure that everyone stayed on message, Stephen Harper completely controlled the media, by completely controlling that message.
The Harper government used a pervasive message-control tool to persuade Canadians their foremost purpose in Afghanistan was building schools and fostering democracy rather than waging a war that was turning bloodier by the day.
An investigation by The Canadian Press shows the Conservatives systematically drafted “Message Event Proposals” as part of a quiet campaign to persuade Canadians their country was primarily engaged in development work to rebuild a shattered nation rather than hunting down and killing an emboldened insurgency.The government used MEPs literally to script the words it wanted to hear from the mouths of its top diplomats, aid workers and cabinet ministers in 2007-2008 to divert public attention from the soaring double-digit death toll of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. (9)And when reports began to surface as early as 2007, that Canadians could be charged with war crimes:
WASHINGTON–Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office used a "6,000-mile screwdriver" to oversee the denial of reports of Afghan detainee abuse when the scandal first erupted in 2007, according to a former senior NATO public affairs official who was then based in Kabul. The former official, speaking on condition his name not be used, told the Toronto Star that Harper's office in Ottawa "scripted and fed" the precise wording NATO officials in Kabul used to repudiate allegations of abuse "at a time when it was privately and generally acknowledged in our office that the chances of good treatment at the hands of Afghan security forces were almost zero."In February, the Hill Times reported on the suffering of our men and women who saw service in Afghanistan:
"It was highly unusual. I was told this was the titanic issue for Prime Minister Harper and that every single statement that went out needed to be cleared by him personally ... [my emphasis]" (10)
More than 6,000 Canadian Forces members and discharged veterans who are receiving physical or psychiatric disability benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada have either served in Afghanistan or have a disability that has been related to their service in Afghanistan, the department says. The majority of the soldiers receiving benefits are likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or war-related psychiatric conditions, according to global figures the department and the Canadian Forces provided The Hill Times. They also do not appear to be included in Afghanistan combat or non-combat casualty figures the Canadian Forces compiled, even though the veterans and serving members who have psychiatric conditions likely have them as a result of serving in the Afghan war. (11)And when this report came out, Harper's head media cheerleader, Jane Taber, turned it into a hyper-partisan sideshow. I have never been so ashamed.
So given Stephen Harper's callous disregard for human life, and anal control of the media, should we be surprised to learn that he is now attacking our veterans? Should we be surprised to learn that he has fired the man advocating for them? Or should we be surprised to learn that he has forbidden our broken soldiers from telling their stories?
A half dozen Afghan war veterans who wanted to talk about how their injuries affected their lives were told by senior military staff they were not to attend a press conference held earlier this week by Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran. The instructions come as the debate over how injured veterans are being treated reached a highpoint in Ottawa earlier this week, when Stogran held a news conference and criticized Veterans Affairs Canada and the government for not doing enough for the country's injured military personnel. Other veterans, no longer serving in the Canadian Forces, also spoke out at the conference about the failure of government to provide for them. (12)Are you mad yet? Are you ashamed? Are you Canadian?
This may have been Stephen Harper's War when he changed our direction from Peacekeepers to Peacemakers, but this is now our war, as we go into battle against a government who would allow our veterans to be treated like this.
Are you in?
George Bush (April 2005): "Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal. Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere — but I believe they're sincerely wrong. Pulling our troops out before they've achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies — that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends... To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your Commander-in-Chief. (Applause.)"
1. Canada Bears Brunt of Fighting in South Afghanistan, Interview with Arif Lalani, National Public Radio, June 3, 2008
2. Canada committed to Afghan mission, Harper tells troops, CBC News, March 13, 2006
3. A Soldier First, By Rick Hillier, Harper Collins Publishers, 2009, ISBN - 13:9781554684915
4. General Rick Hillier criticizes Stephen Harper, Lilith News, October 20, 2009
5. Canadian Government Imitates Bush Regime: Dishonors Their War Dead Too, Afraid To Let The Public See The Cost Of Empire, Associated Press, April 26, 2006
6. Afghanistan war: Canada's defining event of past decade, By Richard Foot, Canwest News, 2009
7. How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf, Center for Media and Democracy
8. How Bush Sr. Sold The Bombing Of Iraq, by Mitchel Cohen, December 28, 2002
9. Ottawa’s Afghanistan message: It’s development, not war, Government scripts told top diplomats how to frame the mission, Mike Blanchfield and Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press, June 7, 2010
10. PMO issued instructions on denying abuse in '07: Former NATO official says response to reports was 'scripted' in Ottawa, By Mitch Potter Washington Bureau, November 22, 2009
11. Afghanistan veterans on disability now 6,000 Forces, Veterans Affairs reluctant to disclose casualty records after eight years of war, By Tim Naumetz, the Hill Times, February 8, 2010
12. Wounded vets claim they were muzzled by brass: Soldiers were willing to discuss injuries, but steered away from ombudsman's press conference, By David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen, August 21, 2010