This month’s issue of The Walrus opens with a letter from Major General Lewis Mackenzie (ret.). He was the man in charge of the Canadian peacekeeping force in Sarajevo in 1992, remembered particularly for re-taking and maintaining control of the city’s airport. He’s also a man who I met several times at UBC and whose insight and candour I appreciated.
The letter argues that it is factually incorrect to say that Canada is a peacekeeping nation. Mackenzie doesn’t argue this for the familiar (and true) reason that our outlay on foreign relations of all kinds has been cut in order to maintain the budgetary surplus, but because the kind of operations the Canadian Forces are engaging in no longer have the character of classic inter-positional peacekeeping, as envisioned by Lester Pearson and used with such good effect to end the Suez Crisis. I’ve discussed the composition and present deployments of the Canadian Forces in a previous entry. While I am less sympathetic to his argument that Canada has never been a peacekeeping nation, I think the argument that we no longer play that role is convincing.
The reasons for this are mostly fairly obvious. A line of lightly armed personnel with blue helmets between two armies is no longer the model for military intervention in conflict zones. Given that most wars are now civil wars, the armies may be neither disciplined, organized, nor clearly defined. Chaotic and dangerous places do not lend themselves to soft blue berets, as Mackenzie identifies, but to the flak jackets and “camouflaged Kevlar helmets” that are the kit employed by almost all Canadian Forces members overseas: especially in our largest deployment, in Afghanistan.
Is Mackenzie right to challenge the peacekeeping myth? It’s something Canadians use as a heuristic device for understanding how Canada behaves in the world: out there solving problems and putting out fires where they erupt, as opposed to the more brash and world-changing strategies of our great southern neighbour. Obviously, it’s not an idea that should be perpetuated if it’s blatantly false. I would argue that it is not, but that the gritty details of contemporary peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peace enforcement must be recognized in the public arena.
One of the most regrettable developments in warfare recently has been the progression from a blue helmet or a red cross being a protective symbol to it being irrelevant or even grounds for being targeted. Partly, that has to do with the conflating of war fighting and reconstruction roles to which both the United States and Canada have contributed. When some jeeps have food aid in them and others have ammunition, there is little chance of retaining trust and credibility for those who distribute the first. Likewise, some planes dropping food packets while similar ones drop cluster bombs. When aid providing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) get integrated into war plans, similar problems arise. For that reason, I applaud the way in which Medicins Sans Frontiers, among other groups, have resisted the pressure to become subjugated to the military planning of western states.
The complex nature of modern peacekeeping operations may not be accurately reflected in the media and the opinions of the public at large. I think that Mackenzie is correct to raise the issue, but simply doing so doesn’t offer us a great deal of guidance. It is plausible that the Martin and Harper governments have actively managed the representation of Canadian operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere to heighten the sense that they are similar to the ‘traditional style’ of Canadian peacekeeping. If so, it’s understandable, given how much of an identity issue peacekeeping has become in Canada. To the extent that such idealization helps create support to take the initiative internationally, there is some value. To the extent that they confuse the issue and obscure the real character of our actions, the illusions should be dispelled.