Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!
We’re fit and well and feeling as right as rain.
Never mind the weather, now we’re all together.
Hullo! Hullo! Here we are again.
(Song by Frederick Wheeler, 1915)
Here we are again. The Canadian Parliament has voted in favour of sending the air force to Iraq to wage war against the Islamic State. This will be the fifth war fought by Canada since the end of the Cold War: the Gulf War (1991); Kosovo (1999); Afghanistan (2001-2014); Libya (2011); and now Iraq (2014). Since a few Canadian servicemen and women were also involved in Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia (1995) and the invasion of Iraq (2003), one could even make that seven wars. This is an extraordinary total for a country which enjoys almost complete safety from external attack.
Not even the Canadian government pretends that it’s going to win this war. Also, nobody thinks that the war is going to be short. We’re in for the long haul, we’re told, despite Sun Tzu’s observation that ‘No country ever benefitted from a protracted war.’
Pursuing a policy which you know cannot succeed is almost the definition of irrationality. So, what is going on in our politicians’ minds?
One explanation might be that the government really believes that the Islamic State poses a mortal threat to Canada. As Foreign Minister John Baird told the House of Commons, ‘The dark clouds of terror are gathering in Iraq and Syria, threatening to strike their thunder from India to Spain. We must not let this storm descend on Canada, and we know that it will if left unchecked’. But if the Islamic State really is so dangerous, why are we only sending six planes to deal with it? The fact that we are making such a tiny effort suggests that we do not really consider ourselves so threatened after all. There must be another explanation for our behaviour.
Moralism may be part of the answer. The Islamic State is ‘evil’ and thus has to be fought. ‘This is a struggle against a group of terrorists that rape, pillage and slaughter anything and anyone that stands in its way,’ says Baird, ‘Throughout our history, Canada has done its part defending the ideals and values that have made our country the envy of the world. Canada heeds the call. Canada protects the vulnerable. Canada challenges the aggressor.’ The war is thus not so much about defending ourselves against a threat, let alone about achieving victory, as about identity. It’s a matter of pride, of proving who we are.
It’s about proving who we are to ourselves, but it’s also about proving who we are to others. ‘Being a free rider means you are not taken seriously’, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Decoded, this means that we are waging war because we don’t want the Americans to look down at us. This is a longstanding obsession with Canadian politicians.
Anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote that honour is ‘the value of a person in his own eyes but also in the eyes of society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.’ Seen this way, Canada’s decision to bomb Iraq is all about honour. The problem with this is that strategy is about applying means to achieve ends, but if honour is your end, you achieve it the moment you start bombing. Just by turning up, you have proven that you are somebody who fights evil and deserves your allies’ respect. After that, what you bomb, when you bomb it, how you bomb it, and whether your bombing achieves anything or not, is neither here nor there.
It is no surprise that we end up fighting wars we do not win.