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"With our exit in sight, how will we honour those who served?"

The Bread Guy

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Very good question - this from CBC.ca, shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.
Canada has to find a way to honour our soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, not just tiptoe away from an uncompleted mission, Brian Stewart argues.

With barely 10 months to wrap up our combat mission in Afghanistan, I sense this nation is going to stumble out of that war the same way we stumbled into it. That is, without much forethought and with the minimal engagement of Parliament.

From my talks with officials, I get no sense that Ottawa is actively considering how to mark what will surely be an historic and emotional homecoming for Canada's largest military mission in three generations.

My question: How will this country publically honour the more than 25,000 Canadians in uniform who have rotated through Afghanistan during almost a decade of grinding and demanding effort at the behest of successive Liberal and Conservative governments?

Will there be a massive parade next September? A national service? Civic greetings across the country?

Surely there can't be "victory celebrations," for there's been no victory and not much to celebrate about a war that looks likely to continue long after our exit. But there must be some creative way to say thank you to a war-weary and battered military that performed its duty.

After all, even the staunchest critics of the Afghan mission, such as the NDP, repeatedly stress their respect for our troops, while the Canadian public still gives a whopping 82 per cent support, despite the frustrations with the war and controversies over detainees.

Something special seems in order.

Sneaking away

Still, I'm not optimistic Canada will find an appropriate, public and absolutely non-partisan way to mark the end of our combat mission.

Under the glaring eye of the Prime Minister's Office, the federal bureaucracy is increasingly fearful of drawing notice of any kind, while the relentless drone of partisan bickering seems to have left us without the touch for honouring any event that doesn't involve a Zamboni.

In the end, Ottawa may well opt for something like bland, photo-op handshakes with the last planeload of returning soldiers. Something far short of what's required.

That means Canada will exit - as quietly as possible, as if on tiptoe - from the whole NATO Afghan mission with nary a backward glance.

The government may not wish to draw international attention to any welcome home ceremonies given that we are almost the first, just behind the Dutch, to bail out of the coalition war.

Political leaders and diplomats fret that our allies would not appreciate such displays, considering our curt parting message that "we've done enough" (as we brush aside pleas to at least leave a few military trainers behind to help an effort we so long extolled as "vital to our national interests").
A national debt

Of course, consistency of message has never been a hallmark of Canada's Afghan mission.

But surely something of higher concern than mere political optics is at stake here. There is a nation's debt to be paid.

It is a debt not just to the 152 military personnel killed on operations, or the more than 500 wounded, many severely, or the unknown thousands carrying emotional scars that may linger a lifetime.

Clearly, there should be a truly national way of honouring, with more than trite speeches, the combat force that was dispatched to Afghanistan so long ago that even its very beginnings, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, seem so hazy now.

Who back in October 2001 imagined the hard slog to follow when then prime minister Jean Chretien first ordered our soldiers to leave for an almost unimaginably distant and unlikely war "against terrorism" in landlocked Afghanistan? Or could conceive of this mission outlasting the rest of the decade itself?

Who could foresee that just four years later, Ottawa would further commit an already tired and overstretched army to the highly dangerous campaign in Kandahar province, the very birthplace of the Taliban?

That challenge became Canada's most ambitious military undertaking since the Korean War and was takan on, it seems, largely to impress NATO allies and assuage the George W. Bush administration for our having dodged the bullet called the Iraq War.

Regimental pride

Through most of the battle for Kandahar, Canadian forces were hopelessly under-strength and under-resourced. Consider that the current U.S./allied forces in Kandahar now number 30,000 where fewer than 3,000 Canadians had previously stood virtually alone.

This long grind, to be sure, did give this skeletal force a pride that was very noticeable to anyone who visited them. This pride cannot be overlooked or underestimated.

Despite our many setbacks, we should not portray our returning military as entirely frustrated or embittered.

This is, after all, a well-trained professional force that has become renowned in NATO circles for its astonishingly high morale in the most challenging environments.

Many who served in Afghanistan view it as the highlight of their careers, just as many were eager to return on successive missions.

If anything, the Canadian military feels that Afghanistan gave a certain swagger back to all ranks of the forces, as well as providing a new generation of more confident officers tested by the unique responsibilities of active operations.

What to do with this proud "Afghan force" will be a serious management issue for the federal government in the years to come. How to re-arm it, fund it, retrain it for other duties - and where and how to deploy it overseas in the future - are just a few of the strategic questions that need addressing.

But first there is that question of how to welcome the force home, as the last units redeploy back to Canada next summer.

Getting the tone wrong, or messing up the message yet again, will lead to the kind of deep civilian-military distrust that has never been healthy for this country.

Despite how we individually feel about the war itself, we should be looking at this homecoming as an important national event that should best be planned at the very top.

That means that all party leaders should co-operate to come up with honouring ceremonies that won't tip the events into the familiar partisan quagmires.

Not likely, you say. I agree, but we can only hope. It would certainly be one way for our leaders to prove the "respect for the troops" that each professes to hold so very dear.