Par Mark Abley
"The last temptation is the greatest treason," St. Thomas Becket says in T.S. Eliot's great play Murder in the Cathedral: "To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
I've been thinking a lot about that couplet in the past few days, as the rhetoric swirls back and forth about Canada's military adventure in Afghanistan. Let's avoid the word "mission," which comes with unhelpful religious baggage.
Whether or not you support our involvement in the Afghan conflict, it's important to do so for the right reasons. Clarity of purpose matters, especially when lives are at stake. And to my mind, some of the arguments on both sides are downright murky.
Last week the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe, used the killings of three Quebec soldiers to call for Canada's withdrawal from Afghan combat within 18 months. By then, he said, "Canada will have done more than its share."
Duceppe didn't talk much about Afghanistan – a beaten, broken country in crying need of almost everything, starting with peace. He merely invoked a calculus of sacrifice, as if the death of several dozen Canadians (among them a small but growing number of Quebecers) justifies bringing the troops home.
It's lucky Duceppe wasn't around in World War II. It's even luckier that Canada's newspapers and radio stations in the 1940s didn't report on casualties the way our media do today, in lavish, often sentimental detail. Back then the press and the public understood that the job of soldiering carries a high risk of death.
If the lives of most Afghan citizens are truly improving, if the Taliban is getting weaker and if Canadian security would be enhanced by their ultimate defeat, then it shouldn't matter whether three, 30 or 300 brave Quebec soldiers give their lives for the cause. Those are three gigantic ifs.
But those who want Canada to keep fighting in Afghanistan often brandish arguments no better than Duceppe's. In particular, they're likely to fall back on the stale line "stay the course."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper produced that phrase a couple of weeks ago. He was echoing both NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and his own previous defence minister, Gordon O'Connor. George Bush has used exactly the same wording about Iraq.
The phrase is useful because it pre-empts discussion. "Do you want to quit the course?" is almost as hard to answer as "Have you stopped beating your wife?" The best response is to dispute the premises behind the words. Just what exactly is this course?
The proponents of combat also like to say we should keep our troops in Afghanistan to show solidarity with the U.S. war on terror (or, as the great journalist and editor Lewis Lapham put it, the war on an abstract noun). But more time has now elapsed since the Sept. 11 attacks than was taken up by the entire Second World War. Solidarity was crucial – at first. It should not serve as an excuse, year after year, for blindly following America's wishes.
I'm not certain what the right deed for Canada would now be in Afghanistan. I only wish the media were telling us more about what's really going on in that shattered country, and less about our flag-draped coffins.
There's an irony here. St. Thomas Becket chose to die – in Eliot's version, anyway – rather than submit to the domination of religion by the state. But if Canadians are tempted to continue fighting an Afghan war, the most compelling reason may be to keep a poor, struggling state free from religion's tyranny.
Montreal journalist Mark Abley appears every two weeks on the Ideas
At war for the wrong reasons?
But if Canadians are tempted to continue fighting an Afghan war, the most compelling reason may be to keep a poor, struggling state free from religion's tyranny
Sauvons la planète de la tyrannie religieuse - Afghanistan, Iran, Irak, "etc"...
Par Mark Abley