SUPPORT US

Fighting terrorism: When is a war not a war?

Fighting_terrorism_Montages.jpg

OP-ED

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.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTERS
 
UPCOMING EVENTS


No events are scheduled at this time.


SEARCH
EXPERTS IN THE MEDIA

Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


LATEST TWEETS

HEAD OFFICE
Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9

 

OTTAWA OFFICE
Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6

 

Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]
Web: cgai.ca

 

Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.

 

© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001

 


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email