The Peacekeeping Myth

As retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie and other officers noted many times this week, soldiers bitch. Always have, always will. The fact that a soldier killed in combat last Sunday had complained to family and friends about the tough, grinding work he was doing in Afghanistan is essentially meaningless. It is terribly unfair, both to the military and to the memory of the soldier, to read anything into it.

But one comment that didn’t draw much attention is worth examining more closely. Dylan Bulloch, the best friend of slain soldier Cpl. Anthony Boneca, told the Citizen that Cpl. Boneca “was telling me no one wants to be there, no one knows exactly why they’re there and why is Canada in a war zone when all we do is protect and peacekeep.”

If Mr. Bulloch’s recollection is accurate, it is troubling. Cpl. Boneca may have been a reservist, but he was still an experienced soldier and when even an experienced soldier thinks it inconceivable that he would have to fight a war because “all we do is protect and peacekeep,” the military has a problem.

We Canadians love to see ourselves as the world’s peacekeepers. Our soldiers wear blue berets, not helmets. They carry binoculars instead of rifles. They don’t take lives — they save them. War and killing the enemy is for Americans. Peace and protecting the weak is the Canadian way.

Peacekeeping is as central to how most Canadians see their country as universal health care, multiculturalism and hockey. It can be seen on the back of the $10 bill. It can be heard in the speeches of politicians lauding our military’s “traditional role.”

It is also the source of fears that the combat mission in Afghanistan is a radical departure from Canadian values. “(Prime Minister Stephen) Harper is starting to ditch the peacekeeping vocation that has been the military’s primary role abroad since Lester B. Pearson,” wrote Josee Legault in the Montreal Gazette. Commentators from the Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui to union leader Sid Ryan have said the same. So have countless letter writers in newspapers across the country. They are all asking why Canadian soldiers are now in a war zone when “all we do is protect and peacekeep.”

It’s a question born of myth.

Peacekeeping is not the “primary role” of Canada’s military. It never has been. The military’s primary role is, and always has been, fighting wars.

“Peacekeeping was always a sideline activity for the Canadian Armed Forces,” wrote Gen. MacKenzie in the Toronto Star. “At the height of our reputation as the UN’s lead nation in peacekeeping during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we had at any one time around 1,500 soldiers deployed under the UN flag. At the same time, we had up to 10,000 troops, some armed with nuclear weapons, stationed with NATO on the central front in Germany and France prepared to take on any aggression by the Soviet Union.”

Senator Romeo Dallaire, the retired general whose tragic experience in Rwanda made him Canada’s most famous peacekeeper, recently made the same point in these pages. “Canada’s soldiers are first and foremost specialists in combat,” he wrote.

A background paper on the history of Canadian peacekeeping prepared for the Somalia Inquiry put Canada’s UN missions squarely into perspective. “After Lester Pearson received the Nobel Prize in 1957, peacekeeping began receiving enthusiastic public and political support, although it remained a low priority within the Department of National Defence. … All defence white papers and intervening policy statements rank the maintenance of a combat force capable of protecting Canada’s sovereignty as the primary function of the Canadian Forces, with peacekeeping as an ancillary function.”

And in a very real sense, even that “ancillary function” is finished.

In Lester Pearson’s formulation, peacekeeping meant putting neutral blue berets between combatants, usually states, who had agreed to a truce. It was a rare scenario during the Cold War, and since then it has all but vanished. In its place are far more complex situations, most involving civil conflict, that require “peacekeepers” to be heavily armed and prepared, in some circumstances, to take sides and fight.

Experts debate what these missions should be called, but they agree that the term “peacekeeping” is misleading and should be used with care — or better, retired.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Peacekeeping’s hold on the Canadian imagination is too strong for mere facts. Everything I’ve written here has been said a thousand times before by analysts and generals and others far more qualified than me. And yet, the peacekeeping myth is flourishing.

And now, it seems, the peacekeeping myth is believed even by some of the soldiers whose primary mission is, as it always has been, fighting wars.