What if you died for your country and nobody remembered?
Or if strangers wished to lay a wreath, pay their respects, but couldn’t?
Last Thursday, eight years after Canadian troops bugged out of Kandahar, a dedication service was held at the new Afghanistan Memorial Hall at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.
No family members of the fallen were present. They weren’t invited. The public wasn’t welcome. Media didn’t even receive a press release.
Officials claim the intent was to keep the ceremony low-key. But why? Because this smacked more of secrecy than subdued commemoration.
Canada suffered 159 military casualties in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011, most of those deaths during the troop deployment which began in 2006, Canada part of the UN-led combat battle group. Seven civilians were also killed, including Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang and Foreign Affairs diplomat Glyn Berry.
At the Kandahar Airfield, as an embedded reporter, I attended several — too many — solemn repatriation ceremonies, at dusk, in the late night hours, where coffins were loaded into the belly of a CF-130, to be flown home.
Behind the Canadian military administration building at the base, a cenotaph was erected on which, over time, 190 black granite plaques were added, honouring Canadian Forces members and others who died as the mission ground on. Military brass routinely held press conferences nearby. Soldier-colleagues of the fallen — even, on occasion, family members who visited the base — would stop to touch the monument, running their fingers across the names of the dead.
A different sort of statement was fashioned by troops, of their own ingenuity, on a hill overlooking a forward operating base — stones painted red and white, laid out in the image of a giant Canadian flag.
I don’t know if the rocky depiction is still there. But the cenotaph was dismantled and shipped to Canada at the conclusion of combat operations, reassembled here and travelling across the country in 2013 while tall foreheads pondered what to do with it as a permanent memorialization.
A military working group recommended the cenotaph be installed on Department of Defence property, accessible to both families and the public, anybody who wanted to visit and show respect. In typically military big-footing, the recommendation was overruled. Instead, because it was determined that the cenotaph could not withstand weather elements in Ottawa — hard to fathom that granite slates would erode, in a city jammed with memorials crafted from stone — DND ordered the construction of a purpose-built pavilion to house the cenotaph at the military’s new headquarters complex in the capital’s west end. It was to have opened in 2017, then pushed to last autumn, delayed again because of various completion issues.
Many veterans expressed displeasure over the cenotaph’s location, sitting firmly behind a security cordon with restricted access, arguing it should have been placed closer to Parliament Hill and of higher profile.
A separate cenotaph honouring those killed in Afghanistan had been erected at Camp Mirage, the Canadian logistics base in the United Arab Emirates. It too was brought back to Canada and installed at the National Air Force Museum at CFB Trenton. As well, names of the Afghanistan casualties were added to the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
Calls to DND were at first directed to the Twitter postings, which state that letters have been sent to the “families of the Fallen” with details of how they can visit the cenotaph, with an escort, and plans are underway to “facilitate access” to those who want to pay their respects. “We are also considering ways to accommodate special visits by the public on appropriate occasions. Given the memorial’s location inside the national HQ, it is not possible to make it instantly available but we do want to share it with Canadians.”
Funny way of doing that — by regimented access — and no further details provided. The DND did not return the Star’s followup calls by deadline.
But Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance, did state in a Facebook posting: “We must maintain the memories of those who fell, and those who returned from Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. We will remember them.”
Again, an opaque way of doing that.
Canada has a conflicted take on the $18 billion Afghan mission, on all modern-era military involvement, actually, with a citizenry that still yearns for the peacekeeping model this country invented, preferring blue berets to combat helmets. But peacekeeping is an anachronism in these globally a-roil times. Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s Liberals fretted and hand-wrung its commitment to UN stabilization undertakings, hemming and hawing for two years before finally signing on to Mali — a mess of a country embroiled in ethnic violence — and only for a year, in limited engagement, primarily to support medical evacuation of UN forces by air.
The decade-long deployment to Afghanistan was an anomaly because latter-day Ottawa, with no lead in its pencil, shies away from combat engagement. But very much a muscular military mission. Boots on the ground soldiering.
Canadians have plenty reason to be proud of their troops in Afghanistan, especially after an earlier debacle in Somalia. The hard-humping contribution to the International Security Assistance Force, while adhering to a made-in-Canada doctrine — Responsibility to Protect — at the very least held the line in Kandahar Province, even as, now, all the achievements are teetering on the brink of a renewed and reinvigorated Taliban resurgence.
So yes, I suspect a great many Canadians would like to put Afghanistan firmly behind them, even as they profess support for our troops. They’d rather not be reminded that wars kill, that we killed and were killed. How much easier it is to talk the noble talk and never get your hands bloodied. Just leave the killing and dying to others.
But I expected more from our military brass and the politician-soldiers than a bizarrely shrouded cenotaph behind a security cordon.
By appointment only.