One Canadian soldier

Published: April 3, 2006, Time Magazine

On March 29, 2006, in a firefight with Taliban insurgents, Private Robert Costall became the 12th Canadian killed in the Afghanistan mission. When the news slammed home, tears filled my eyes, and I turned to my family photographs. I impulsively touched the pictures of my elder son as a child splashing in a stream, balancing in a tree, standing proud on his first day of school. I was right there, off camera, ensuring the tree was not too high, the water not dangerously swift. The latest photo of my son, now 20 and a part-time infantry soldier with the Canadian Forces Reserves, was taken in a military helicopter. (I’d rather not give his name for safety reasons.) He wears a uniform and a broad grin under his helmet. As he trains for a near future mission, most likely in Afghanistan, I’m no longer behind the lens. Now it’s Canada’s government that protects my boy from unnecessary danger. And every time a soldier dies in Afghanistan, that reality turns my heart cold.

I was dumbfounded four years ago when my son, then underage, asked permission to join the reserves. He’s a student, a writer, a volunteer, an athlete–a social guy with a world of options. Perhaps, I wondered, we should not have enrolled him in the Boy Scouts. Maybe he was influenced by his four grandparents who served in uniform in World War II. Was he inspired by his stint at Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, named for the former Prime Minister who founded the United Nations peacekeeping missions and won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize? Was it 9/11?

I understand that a part-time job in the reserves offers adventure and a sense of purpose unmatched by delivering pizzas or busing restaurant tables. My son has rappelled down cliffs, forded rivers, orienteered through deep bush, learned first aid, driven army trucks. He’s training to help in domestic floods and fires and, yes, for armed combat. (It’s the latter that keeps me awake nights.) I once imagined that when my kids grew up, we’d bicker over university grades, money, the keys to the car. Instead, we debate far weightier issues: fundamentalist terrorism, Canada’s military role, the achievability of military goals. Our debates will pause only if my son is offered an Afghanistan tour and either turns it down or is deployed.

My son says he wants to make a difference in the world, and experience humanity firsthand. He says he wants “to help victims, keep civilians safe, help set up an education system. That’s huge.” Huge, indeed. I have come to accept his choice and respect his determination. I no longer argue that the military is a last resort, that he could contribute better through economics and diplomacy. He points out that he’s young, that his education will take years, that he can contribute now.

I know why my son is in the military. But I don’t know why Canada’s military is in Afghanistan. If we’re protecting human rights, why not fight the genocide in Sudan? If counterterrorism is our goal, why not focus on states that support terrorists? In the wake of 9/11, there was a clear case for international force to oust Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and their al-Qaeda guests. Now Afghanistan’s new government, still religiously conservative, relies on outside military protection against feudal warlords, religious extremists and foreign agitators. Nobody knows if the government can prevail, if it will uphold human rights, or how long the militaries from liberal democracies will prop it up.

Canada’s obligations in Afghanistan end in 2007, and Ottawa must decide whether to recommit. But Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, like Paul Martin’s Liberals before them, haven’t answered the tough questions about our mission. Both parties have refused to hold parliamentary debates on our priorities, our response to human-rights violations, our relationship with U.S. forces and where else our military might be used. Our media are awash in opinions, but decision makers aren’t engaged in debate.

Though a scared mom, I am no appeaser, pacifist or isolationist. I agree with my son that Canada has a duty to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But Afghanistan is complicated, Canadians’ questions deserve answers and the festering doubts dishonor our soldiers. As a soldier’s mom, I want Ottawa to convince me that we haven’t sleepwalked into war in Afghanistan. I want to know we won’t wake up one day realizing, like the Russians before us in Afghanistan or the Americans in Vietnam, that we’ve been fools in a war without honor. When it’s all over, I want all Canadians to be able to meet my son on the street, and look him in the eye.

Copyright © 2006 Deborah Jones 

Originally published in Time magazine, back-page essay, April 3, 2006.

Epilogue: August, 2013. The War in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 with the American-led “Operation Enduring Freedom,” grinds on. The tough questions about the mission, and its aftermath, continue to fester. My own relief that my son did not serve there during his military career is tempered by the heartbreak of countless direct and indirect civilian deaths; thousands of soldiers killed, wounded or who later committed suicide; and one haunting word: Why?

References and further reading:
Story as published as Time back-page essay
Wikipedia page: War in Afghanistan
Afghanistan page: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
BBC and New York Times reports on suicides amongst soldiers outnumbering combat deaths