Haven't these people got anything better to do than to watch traffic?" I muttered as we barrelled along Highway 401 east of Toronto one evening early last summer.
Not far from the auto-making city of Oshawa, Ont., I had noticed a group of people, maybe 50 of them, gathered on an overpass. A couple of Canadian flags had been draped over the guardrail. Next overpass, same thing. And the next, and the next, and every overpass after that for 35 kilometres.
I later learned, sheepishly, that the people on the overpasses had a very good reason for being there. A week earlier, three Canadian soldiers had perished in a roadside bomb attack south of their base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Police and firefighters east of Toronto organized the overpass vigil to show respect for the soldiers' sacrifice and support for their families. Ordinary citizens joined in spontaneously and enthusiastically, and have continued to do so in growing numbers whenever Canadian casualties from Afghanistan are brought from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Toronto for an autopsy.
There is something admirably Canadian about these vigils. Our country is not accustomed to fighting wars. Historically we are peacekeepers. We have no Vietnams in our recent past or, mercifully, Iraq's in our immediate present. War for us is not an abstraction; it is as real as the sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who wear our country's uniform, as real as the grief of those who gather on the tarmac to watch the grim return of the flag-draped coffins.
The bumper decals exhort us to "Support Our Troops," and I think most Canadians do, without reservation. I believe Canadians will continue to support the troops until Canada's current commitment to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan ends in 2009. The prime minister has promised that any extension of Canada's commitment beyond 2009 will go to a vote in the House of Commons. Afghanistan will loom ever-larger on the country's political radar as the deadline nears.
I believe that our democracy is mature enough to sustain a full and respectful national debate about why we are fighting in Afghanistan without calling into question the merits of the troops we support. In the same way that there's a difference between the law of the land and the police officers who enforce it, Canada's policy on Afghanistan and the soldiers who carry it out are not one and the same. Encouraging public discourse on the Afghan mission does not equal advocating a movement against it. It merely presumes a healthy democracy.
Two recent statements (see story, "An ethical enigma called Afghanistan," page 27) from the Canadian Council of Churches notwithstanding, churches need to take a bigger role in the discussion. War raises profound ethical questions, among them, "Is this war just?" In the past, churches haven't shied away from pressing the point if they felt it was one they had to make.
Afghanistan is a remote and baffling place. But that does not excuse us from trying to get a better grasp on why the troops who wear the maple leaf on their battle fatigues are fighting there. Yes, Parliament will make the final call on the future of the Afghan mission. But the discussions we have in coffee shops, in church basements and over back fences will go a long way toward shaping it.
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