The Dead Demand the Truth

The war in Afghanistan where several thousand Canadian troops are serving to help bring peace, stability and good government to a country that’s never had it, and possibly doesn’t even want it (at least in the democratic sense that we in this part of the world think of it) has hit home. 

One of two soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan was Cpl. Robert Thomas James Mitchell of Owen Sound. He and Sgt. Craig Paul Gillam were both members of the Royal Dragoons based in Petawawa, Ontario. They died, and five other Canadians were wounded when a small group of insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles attacked a Canadian observation post about 20 kilometres west of Kandahar city, an area Canadian troops thought they had taken from the Taliban just weeks ago.

Mitchell’s death is not the first time the war in Afghanistan has hit close to home. The day before her ninth birthday a student at Keppel-Sarawak Elementary School was told her father, Cpl. Glen Arnold, was killed in action. She will grow up without the countless moments of good, loving times she might have shared with her father if he hadn’t died. She will wonder if he’s still somewhere watching over her, taking care of her, guarding her from harm, wanting only the best for her.

I want to offer Katie Arnold this consolation, from my own experience of losing a father I didn’t get to know well enough before he died: The answer is yes, Katie; he is with you, he will make his presence known to you in many ways. Watch and listen and you’ll hear his presence, see it, feel it. He may be with you in subtle ways, and you may have to be very, very careful to take the time and make the little silent places in your heart where you and he can be together. It’s been like that for me. I have talked to my father many times since he died 36 years ago a long way away from where I was. I have told him many times that I love him, and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I have told him I forgive him so his courageous, life-loving spirit can be free at last.

But I know he hasn’t left yet, because there’s still much for him to do for the people he loves. Katie, your father may come to you in a very obvious, direct way, when you need him the most – perhaps when your life is hanging in the balance. That’s the way it was for my young sister Susie when, years ago not long after my father’s death, she was lying in a hospital in Los Angeles. Suffering from a very bad eye infection, she had been in the hospital for two weeks. The infection had spread, causing one side of her face to swell badly. The doctors didn’t know what more they could do. The infection was not responding at all well to treatment. Her condition worsened day by day. They were afraid she was dying, and so it seemed. But then one night she felt the presence of someone in her hospital room, and then a gentle touch on the infected side of her face. It lasted for just a few moments. Susie has told me she was awake at the time. There was no one else in the room. It wasn’t a doctor or a nurse who touched her face that night. Afterwards, she fell into a deep, sound sleep. The next day her condition had improved noticeably, and continued to improve to the point that she was able to leave the hospital in a few days. She has suffered no lasting effects from that serious illness.

Susie believes, as I do, that it was our father’s touch she felt, that he reached out to her that night with some desperately great supernatural energy, to break through whatever barriers separate the dead from the living, to save her life. I can think of many times in my life when it seemed I must have a guardian angel looking over me, helping me find my way through troubles and dangers. I know there are many people who have experienced and can say the same thing. I don’t doubt for one moment that it’s true, that the spirits of our ancestors stay with us; perhaps not forever, but for as long as they’re needed. There may come a time when they have to move on, to their last eternal refuge, wherever that is.

I don’t tell you this lightly, Katie. Now – at this painful moment in your life, and in consideration of other moments yet to come when you think about your father and why and how he died – is no time to indulge in empty sentimentality (or semi-mentality, as my old friend Roger used to say). But I believe when I tell you with all my heart, that your father is with you, and will be with you for a long time to come, for as long as you need him. You’ll see.

It’s been a long time since so many Canadian soldiers died in combat. It’s entirely understandable that the families of the dead take much consolation from the idea that their loved ones died bravely and sacrificed their lives for a worthy cause. It’s also appropriate that the powers-that-be who got Canada into this war and continue to support our country’s involvement should buttress those feelings with their own expressions of similar sentiment.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement on the deaths of Gillam and Mitchell this week. He said, “Canada is forever grateful to these brave men who put their lives on the line and made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of promoting peace, stability and security in Afghanistan.”

Given the heightened state of emotional sensitivities, these are difficult times to ask questions about why Canadians are dying in Afghanistan, just over five years after the 9-11 attacks in the U.S. that led President George W. Bush to declare his “War on Terror” and proclaim, in one of the stupidest things any leader of a major Western power has ever said, a “new crusade.”

Do not be mistaken, Canadian soldiers and those of other nations are dying because of Bush’s deplorable grasp of history and use of language.

After 9-11 the U.S. occupied the moral high ground. It didn’t take Bush long to lose it. Shortly after 9-11 this newspaper published an editorial which expressed understanding for the justified anger of the American people, and the need for the world to defend itself against terrorism. But the editorial also struck a note of caution as it called for criminal charges to be laid and justice to be done “under the rule of law.”

By all means conduct a vigorous police action, go to Afghanistan in force, round up the 9-11 perpetrators, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda gang, and their accomplices, the former Taliban government.

But what is the situation today? Osama bin Laden has found refuge somewhere in the mountains and sympathetic communities along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and is no doubt helping direct the Taliban counterattack. And where has the U.S. concentrated most of its military might? In a wild goose chase called the war in Iraq. Just so we’re clear, there never has been any evidence that Saddam Hussein, the ousted Iraqi dictator, had anything to do with 9-11. Yet, when Bush gleefully announced, “we got him,” after Hussein was pulled from a hole in the ground many months ago, you’d have thought he was talking about the mastermind of 9-11. No, George, that’s Osama, and you still haven’t got him. Why is that? How, when he was surrounded at Tora Bora, did he manage to slip the noose?

Young Canadians in this area are signing recruitment papers to join the armed forces in anticipation of “adventure and danger” in Afghanistan, we were told this week in a front-page Sun Times article.

Oh, Hooray, hooray. How nice. So it goes, since the dawn of time: There’s never any shortage of young men who learn too late the realities of war

They deserve to be told the truth about what they’re getting into and how it happened, not fed a lot of nonsense about “promoting peace, stability and security in Afghanistan.” They’re on their way to Afghanistan to clean up Bush and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s mess. And it probably can’t be done. Tell them that. Tell them Afghanistan is probably the last place on earth where “peace, stability and security” will ever, if ever, be established. That’s just history. Read it, for God’s sake read it, for the sake of those naïve young men and women going into harm’s way. The dead demand the truth.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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