Failures of Communication

February 20, 2011


Last night, I watched part of an NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators, tagged the Battle of Ontario or something like that. I squirmed through the opening ceremonies. The game was dedicated to the Canadian soldiers who had not refused to carry out a criminal invasion of Afghanistan and who were still present in that unfortunate country. It was called the Canadian Forces Appreciation Night. And so there was an effort to bond the hockey fans and the troops, hundreds of which were present in their fatigues. I have no idea how the people in the stands actually feel about this. All you see is what they put on the little television screen.

The announcer was praising the extraordinary work that these Canadians were doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere. One of the three guests of honour was Master Warrant Officer Eric Larouche who led the first Canadian team of rescue and recovery workers after the earthquake in Haiti.

They hadn’t invited Afghans and Haitians to thank the Canadian Forces (CF) for “putting themselves in harm’s way” or to say anything at all. So, this was a matter of Canadians thanking Canadians. The Third World subjects of their sacrifice were assumed and excluded. The really disturbing thing was that this show was going on while the entire Arab world, right next door to Afghanistan, is in the throws of revolution. Today, Robert Fisk in the Independent comments on the dynamics of these revolts. For instance, Arabs all over the Middle East are saying no thank you to Barack Obama who is now cautiously claiming to support democracy in the region. They are being shot and killed by bullets that the United States has kindly offered to these repressive regimes precisely for the purpose that they are now serving: to suppress the will of the people to control their own lives independent of Western designs. Why in the world, the people are saying, would we trust the United States? Moreover, al-Qa’ida has tried to co-opt the movement in the name of Islam. The people are saying no thank you to Bin Laden. The people are struggling against enormous odds to control their lives independently of the authoritarian and repressive regimes that both al-Qa’ida and the United States have on offer.

Canadians should very humbly be questioning what they have been doing all along. Instead, they are celebrating their troops for their sacrifices in … what, exactly? I wonder if it occurred to anyone during the ceremony last night to ask why it is that not one Arab seeking liberty and democracy thought to call upon Canada for help. Why might that be?

While normally we focus on Haiti on our website, I want to extend the discussion to the Middle East today. What Joegodson and I are doing is very much a response to this self-contained and self-congratulatory nationalist public relations nonsense that NHL teams are promoting in cooperation with the Canadian Forces.

Canadians of all political stripes invent foreign peoples in order to serve their own domestic interests. Once you commit yourself to understanding the actual lived experiences of people in other cultures, you see that an entirely different approach is needed. A new framework of transnational relations must be created. It does not exist now. Joegodson and I will soon begin to demonstrate what we mean by that, perhaps on this website. But last night’s spectacle was surely the antithesis of meaningful intercultural relations. Not one Afghan! Not one Haitian!

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to Rea Doll, a Haitian educator, describe her anger at the fact that the foreign rescue teams left the poor to die in order to concentrate on the foreigners and the wealthy. (She was touring Canada to inject a Haitian voice into the public debate.) I can’t remember if she discussed the Canadian Forces in particular. But, I do mean to caution that until you open the conversation to all parties, you risk being led into a public relations’ scheme. Reading this post, journalist Ansel Herz alerted us to his brief encounter with those CF troops during the rescue effort. Regulations do not allow troops to speak to the press. They are the most politically impotent group of citizens in the country. It says much about our confidence in our national identity that we don’t allow our heroes to speak for themselves. 

That evening, I saw how challenging communication between cultures could be. One man who spoke for a long time during the question and answer session that evening had been a victim under the Duvalier regime. His family had entered Canada as refugees in the 1960s. He recounted at length his family’s persecution under Duvalier. He invited Ms Doll to comment. He seemed to be suggesting that everything that was wrong in Haiti could be traced to Duvalier. Convicting Jean-Claude Duvalier, in his estimation, should be the central priority for Haitians. She was uncomfortable. Ms Doll replied in Creole, her language, that all of her work in Haiti had taken place in the post-Duvalier period. She was obviously compassionate in the face of the suffering that the man’s family had experienced. Tragic. But she couldn’t agree with him that the struggle for justice began and ended with Duvalier. In Creole, she very eloquently described her daily struggles. She said that the fight for justice and liberty was against a system and not any one person. Then, the translator had the job to translate her answer into French. She was stuck. The man had managed to gain the sympathy of the audience by relating in French his terrible experiences as a young boy under the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier. The translator chose to not translate to the French-speaking crowd Doll’s lucid answer that injustice did not end with Duvalier; she related some of what Doll had said, but simply elided the essential part of her response. Of course, the man must have understood what Doll had said in Creole. But somehow, the translator was uncomfortable challenging the man’s claims about the absolute centrality of Duvalier in the problems that confront Haiti; his identity seemed to be formed in response to that traumatic moment in his life. Later, I spoke with Ms Doll. I referred to the exchange. She said she was aware that her comments in Creole were not being translated and that it was disturbing her, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

Last year, I was preparing to write a review essay on the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. I have some background as a social historian. After studying dozens of scholarly works on the entry and presence of the CF in Afghanistan, I was frustrated by an obvious void in the literature. No one spoke of the relations that were developing among the troops and the local people. Who are the Canadian soldiers saving and how do they feel about being saved?

With that question in mind, I spent hours talking with a Canadian soldier returned from Afghanistan. Of course I can’t give his identity. Moreover, after he realized that our conversations had uncovered more than he should have divulged, he asked me to repeat nothing. However, I will only agree to repeat nothing that we discussed after the point that he asked that our conversation be private. Otherwise, I’ll grant him anonymity. I’ll repeat only one anecdote to convey my concerns.

In the military base in Afghanistan that the Canadian Forces shared with the soldiers of the Afghan National Army, the two groups were thoroughly separated. The CF did not promote language and cultural exchanges between the two groups and it was clear that neither was there any interest. The soldier described his contempt for Afghan soldiers. From his perspective, he and his comrades were bringing civilization to a bunch of ungrateful medieval peasants. His cultural arrogance was, I admit, disturbing to me. He was the perfect neoliberal soldier in the service of today’s global warfare. Anyone who didn’t want the benefits of Canadian culture had abdicated any moral claim to independence.

Afghan and Canadian soldiers did not shower together. (In fact, they did nothing together.) He described to me an altercation that he had with an Afghan soldier. The Canadian soldier’s intent in relating this was to convince me of the vileness of Afghan men. He said that there were Afghan soldiers present when the Canadian soldiers were taking their turn showering. He took the opportunity to moon one of the soldiers, in his own words, in a disgusting manner. The Afghan reacted in fury, drawing a knife and intent on attacking the Canadian. He was restrained and no one was physically harmed. Why did you do it? I asked the soldier. He had no answer: to him it was an obvious thing to do, to show your naked ass to an Afghan soldier. What do you think it meant in Afghan culture? I asked. He had no idea. But what did you intend to communicate to him? Apparently he suspected that the Afghan men were ogling the Canadian solders. He thought they might be queer. This kind of exchange went on for a while until the soldier started to realize that maybe I was limited in my ability to appreciate the good old boys of the Canadian Forces. I was actually getting physically sick. So, he was right about that.

So, those are the kind of questions that I was posing. What is happening between Canadians and Afghans? The nearby Arab populations are in revolt, leaving no doubt whatsoever that what they want in order to advance their democratic institutions is for the United States and its allies to butt out. What impact has that had on the Canadian psyche? Last night, at the Air Canada Centre where the Maple Leafs play, there was evidence that the Canadian public will not be touched whatsoever. Instead, they mooned the entire world.

And so, here I will add a small part of that essay that I finally published in the Journal of Canadian Studies. Of course, I don’t mention the soldier there at all. But here, informally, I acknowledge that he helped me to understand something about the legacy that Canada is leaving in Afghanistan. Among the books that I reviewed was this one from a popular Canadian journalist. The other books were by scholars. Her book is probably much better known. So, I’ll plagiarize myself here:

Christie Blatchford scratches the surface of the Canadian Forces presence in Afghanistan in an award-winning and popular book, Fifteen Days. The book is formulaic, recounting the deaths of Canadian soldiers due to roadside bombs and firefights with enemies. In each case, Blatchford describes the incident and then introduces the reader to the soldier, his family, and his friends. The soldiers are loyal comrades, tied together in mutual defence in a hostile environment. The CF are presented as solicitous of the needs of the family of the slain soldier. The Canadian nation honours the tragic sacrifice and vows to not break faith with their fallen heroes. None of this is inaccurate; the problem is that the curious reader becomes trapped, along with the CF, in the bubble that Reuter has described in his far more insightful article. After 353 pages of text, the reader will understand very little about Afghans, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the resistance to foreign designs on their country. In that way, Blatchford has unwittingly offered Canadians an accurate view of the mission. Search the pages for a hint of whom the soldiers are shooting at, of what the Afghans want, and you will leave the book deeply unsatisfied and equally disturbed.

Consequently, I will focus on the one instance when the reader meets the enemy. The Afghan National Army (ANA) contingent working with the Princess Patricias arrests an Afghan teacher riding his small motorbike. Apparently, they suspect he might report the location of the Canadian convoy to the enemy. They claim he is a Talib who teaches in a local religious school and so he is blindfolded and placed in the pickup truck. (The curious reader may wonder how the Canadians have any confidence that the ANA claims are accurate and not motivated by unknown grievances. Moreover, what evidence do they have that he is he dangerous? Under what legal or moral right are they acting?) Meanwhile, the ANA soldiers take the opportunity to stunt-ride on his motorbike. Eventually, a female Canadian gunner, Janie Duguay, takes her turn. Two male Canadian soldiers and an officer recount to Blatchford the amazement of the ANA soldiers at the spectacle of a woman riding a motorbike, having “pulled her long hair out of a ponytail” to “let it loose.” Commanding Officer Ian Hope takes the opportunity to untie the suspected Talib’s blindfold and force him to watch a woman “riding the piss out of that bike.” “That,” Hope tells the Talib triumphantly, “is the future of Afghanistan.” Apparently, the suspected Talib grew “visibly angry” at the incident. (286-8)

I am not surprised. I too was angry just reading Blatchford’s account. Later, the female gunner told Blatchford that, in fact, it had been a small bike and that she was capable of driving much bigger. Blatchford tells us that the lesson she took from this is that one must “Beware of over-romanticizing a soldier or a soldierly moment.” (288) The fruits of that lesson are nowhere apparent in Blatchford’s text. However, I think the reader can learn more from the incident than Blatchford did. If the suspected Talib was indeed a teacher in a small Afghan village, we can assume that even a humble motorbike was a major possession for him. For a glimpse of what future did Lt Col Hope think it worth removing the peasant’s blindfold? For a future where both men and women claim the right to appropriate and abuse the property of someone taken into custody on suspicion of defending his country? Was he angry because his bike was being abused, because a woman was abusing it, because he had been falsely accused or unjustifiably apprehended, because he saw it as his right to defend his country, or because the Canadian officer could not speak his language? How many other possibilities am I unable to imagine? The Afghan soldiers were apparently as shocked at the sight as he was. So, presumably, this gender utopia that the CF represent in the eyes of the Canadians did not sit well with any Afghan man. How would Afghan women have felt about it? Are Canadian soldiers really outspoken feminist activists? (By my own calculations, by the way, ninety-eight percent of the Canadian casualties in Afghanistan are male. Ninety-six percent are white males. Canada does not have a gender-neutral military force.) I’d like to know more.

Before the gratuitous gender sensitivity training, Blatchford says that Lt Col Hope forced the Afghan prisoner to look at pictures of his children, telling him “through an interpreter that the next time he tried to blow up a convoy he would be leaving children like these without a father.” Blatchford laughs that she took this to be “a cartoon version of the Canadian notion of torture. I thought, when he told me about it: Really fuck with us and we get out the home movies.” (287) Does Blatchford believe the myth that Canadians are kinder, nicer imperialists? Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin has testified that he was warning at the time that all prisoners that the CF handed over to local authorities risked being tortured. In response, officials in the CF, PMO, and DFAIT told him to stop documenting his warnings on paper. Blatchford fails as a journalist to even identify the questions raised by her research. She is instead star-struck by Canadian soldiers and wants, to the detriment of her assignment, to be accepted by the boys.

Since Blatchford has bonded herself to the troops, she is a very poor analyst of the system. She cannot see it, since she is inside of the bubble. She has embedded herself. But a reader who remains outside of the system can see it at work. Blatchford collapses belief in the mission with the commitment to “forward action” that she says motivates every single Canadian soldier. What happens when individuals doubt the cause? When the girlfriend of the slain soldier Tony Boneca told reporters that he had confided in her that he was suffering in Afghanistan and felt unprepared for the ordeal, the CF closed ranks around their fallen comrade. Blatchford laments that the words of the fiancée “sadly” became Boneca’s “undeserved epitaph.” She writes a more fitting commemoration: “Tony Boneca’s actions spoke the loudest: He was going forward, doing his job with his mates when he was felled by a bullet in the neck.” (208) But how does Blatchford claim the right, over his fiancée, to give his life meaning? Why did the CF send officials from Ottawa to “speak” to the fiancée? Blatchford believes that the reason that Boneca’s comrades were sent, atypically, to Thunder Bay for Boneca’s funeral was that “the troops had been asking about doing this sort of thing” in order to pay their proper respects to a fallen comrade. We could also speculate that the CF was replacing Boneca’s family with their own for the media. Without the ability to separate illusion from reality, we cannot be effective analysts.

For all of the space that the iconic combat soldier currently occupies in Blatchford’s book and Canadian culture, there is precious little information about the military culture that he represents and less about the legacy he will leave in Afghanistan. Since the Somalia Enquiry, which was shut down precisely when it began to open this issue, Canadians know no more than what Don Cherry, Christie Blatchford, and other nationalist commentators imagine. The Canadian combat soldier is a mythic figure in the national imaginary, and no myth can withstand scrutiny. The information that is allowed to make it into the public domain is vigilantly vetted. Where the military does not control the message, the national media softens its lens when it comes to the nation’s men in uniform. Out of either fear or romanticism, soldiers are off limits to critical analysis. James Laxer shows that Canadian culture is being militarized and masculinized as a result.

Once we become adept at distinguishing illusion, or perception, from reality, we can bring into focus some important questions. Blatchford’s book is part of a myth-building tradition. As such, she must restrict her narrative, either intentionally or subconsciously, to ‘facts’ that reinforce the myth. Blatchford can barely bring any Afghan into view, but she claims that Canadian soldiers are killing bad Afghans.

Blatchford’s book won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2008. The jury that awarded her this honour says, “Christie Blatchford’s Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army is a dramatic and vivid chronicle that proves reportage and the language of common speech can rise to the challenge of literature. Blatchford’s writing allows the soldiers and their families to speak to us in their own voices, without adornment.” Not only without adornment, I would add, but untroubled by analysis.


One Response to “Failures of Communication”

  1. ansel said

    Nice post Paul. What a shame Rea can’t even have her words, finally being heard, properly translated.

    I saw the Canadian military up close in Haiti after the quake. In Soleil:

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