UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

The Afghanistan enigma

By David Wilson

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.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image


Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Two nurses tackle Vancouver's opioid crisis

Richard Moore is a resident of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In this poignant interview, he explains the important work of nurses Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles.

Promotional Image


June 2018

The moment the Pope asked me to pray for him

by Miriam Spies

A United Church minister on the impact of a simple gesture from a powerful man.


July 2018

Best self-care tips for caregivers

by Kate Spencer

Counsellors, teachers and ministers share what it looks like for them.


July 2018

Meet your 2018 moderator nominees

by Mike Milne

Later this month, General Council commissioners will choose the United Church’s next moderator. As of press time, 10 leadership hopefuls had been announced. We asked each of them to sum up their pitch in a tweet.


July 2018

A fond farewell to presbyteries

by Steven Chambers

They will likely be eliminated this year as the United Church restructures. Steven Chambers celebrates the end of an era.


July 2018

Instead of retirement, these two nurses are battling Vancouver's opioid crisis

by Roberta Staley

At age 71 and 65 respectively, Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles embrace their unconventional work in the Downtown Eastside.


June 2018

I hate you, Canada, for teaching people to treat me like this under your name

by Zach Running Coyote

A Cree actor says he blames our country for the racist comments recently directed at him in a McDonald's restaurant.

Promotional Image