Fighting terrorism: When is a war not a war?

by David Bercuson

The Globe and Mail
March 31, 2016

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insist that Canada is not at war with the Islamic State. The two men are trifling with a very important word. The question is, why are they doing it?

There are probably hundreds of definitions of what war is, given that archeological evidence shows that armed conflict predates the existence of writing and stretches back at least 10 millenniums. One frequently cited definition is that of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, whose treatise On War was published in the 1830s. In it, he defined war as the “continuation of state policy” by “other means.” In other words, war is a political activity in which violence is used to bend the will of your enemy to accord with your own, because non-violent means just won’t work.

But the argument about war in Ottawa is a semantic one that does not reflect reality. Dozens of wars are being waged around the world today that don’t fit any definition outlined by Mr. Trudeau last week when he declared “a war is something that can be won by one side or the other.” Or Mr. Dion’s definition: “two armies with respecting rules.” When it comes to terrorist extremists, he said, “you have terrorist groups that respect nothing. So we prefer to say that it’s a fight.”

Canadian governments of both Conservative and Liberal stripes have always been reluctant to use the word “war,” except when Canada officially declared war on Germany in September, 1939. Although Canada suffered the loss of more than 500 soldiers in fighting the Chinese and North Koreans in 1950-1953, we were not fighting a “war” but engaging in what the government called a “police action.”

When about 160 Canadians were killed in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011, that wasn’t a war either. No one in Ottawa bothered to define exactly what it was. Armed Canadian soldiers were killing or being killed by a non-state actor (the Taliban) and were supposed to treat Taliban prisoners in accordance with the laws of war, all without being in a war. That’s what the politicians (Liberal and Conservative) said. The Canadian men and women serving in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province of those years may be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

There is a patent silliness here that is partly a reflection of the bubble that is Ottawa, but is also due to an ongoing, long-standing confusion in the Canadian policy establishment as to where Canada stands in the world. In the John Diefenbaker years, some members of what was then the Department of External Affairs, including its minister Howard Green, decided that Canada should try to differentiate itself from the United States and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by becoming a world champion against nuclear proliferation. That was when Canada was acquiring nuclear weapons and endorsing NATO’s “first-strike” doctrine.

In the years that followed, Canada seemed to go out of its way to act like a neutral country, despite tight economic and military ties with NATO and the United States. Championing disarmament (though with pitiful results), a “north-south” dialogue and closer ties with Russia were all window dressing. That was especially true during the last years of Pierre Trudeau’s government, when the United States insisted, successfully, on using Canadian airspace over the Mackenzie River Valley for cruise-missile testing.

Part of Canada’s self-proclaimed mission to be an armed member of NATO, but nicer and more understanding of the “red menace,” was to eschew the use of the word “war” and to pretend that our soldiers, like other soldiers trained to kill and destroy to achieve state objectives, were not soldiers at war but rather “peacekeepers.” And peacekeepers don’t make war.

When we deploy our men and women in arms to some brutal civil war somewhere soon, to earn United Nations brownie points for our campaign to regain a seat on the Security Council, everyone will hope that none of them are killed. But if that were to happen, someone inside the Ottawa bubble may feel better proclaiming that the dead Canadian was not killed in a war.

David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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