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Book Review; "On Guard for Thee: Canadian Peacekeeping Missions"

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

 

Bin, Matthew. (2007) On Guard for Thee: Canadian Peacekeeping Missions.

Toronto: Bookland Press

 

“The grim fact is that we prepare for war like precocious giants,

and for peace like retarded pygmies”

Lester B. Pearson

As I celebrated my 50th birthday, I was handed a stack of books by Canadian authors by my mother who is a member of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA). One book stood out, as I am currently deeply contemplating the meaning of peace and the right to claims by Canadians that Canada is a peaceful nation. Matthew Bin (2007), a former soldier who subsequently earned a BA and MA in English and became president of the CAA Waterloo-Wellington Branch, has collected personal accounts from Canadian veterans who served in Canadian peacekeeping missions to get a sense of “the reality of peacekeeping as the soldiers saw it” (p. 7). While Bin attempts to create a picture, through their stories, of  a less ‘sentimental’  version of peacekeeping than Canadians have versus the reality of soldiers’ experiences in-theatre, he also unwittingly created a text in which it becomes clear that not all actions are in fact peacekeeping missions. It is also, upon reflection, a series of stories that show less compassion for the afflicted citizens in war zones than sympathy for the Canadian soldiers themselves. The latter is foreshadowed in the introduction (p. 9):

It’s easy to imagine the square-jawed Canadian soldier, in a blue helmet, standing on guard for us. It’s a little more difficult to imagine the garbage and sewage, the angry mobs, the landmines and machine guns and tripwires, the people hacked and shot and murdered before their eyes. It’s hard to know what they go through without asking them.

 

As a study about the soldiers’ personal feelings it is clear the soldiers are deeply affected. But from the beginning to the end of the book, the introverted discussion is entirely on the soldiers themselves and gives short shrift to the people in the countries whom they purport to be supporting. The dialogue is focussed on Canadian feelings, Canadian sentiments, Canadian accomplishments and, even when the soldiers want to stay in-country or return, the dialogue is about the good they are doing and not about how their work is actually affecting the citizens of the countries in which they are serving. A notable entry is that of a military police officer who became Romeo Dellaire’s communications officer. His account includes describing a strange smell in the headquarter that he learned was from a pile of burning bodies not far from their window. His description of the situation in Rwanda does not deal with the citizens of Rwanda but his own discomfort (p. 39):

 

You can’t imagine when you have been walking amongst dead people all day, you come back and the smell you feel has gotten into your clothes, your skin, and you cannot take a shower. You cannot even wash yourself properly. It was terrible.

 

Perhaps compassion is not within the realm of the professional soldier nor the mandate of an army. It begs questions: Should armies be charged with peacekeeping roles or should they be reserved for the protection of peacemakers? Can peace be kept by warriors? Are Canadian soldiers in fact keeping peace or simply standing in the way of, or exacerbating tensions?

            The books’s stated raison d’etre is to discuss Canadian peacekeeping missions from a soldier’s perspective. While the book is representative of peacekeeping missions in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Golan Heights, Haiti, Central African Republic and Qatar among others, it also has representation from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, two distinctly different missions and neither a peacekeeping mission.

            The fact Afghanistan is lumped in with Canada’s peacekeeping missions speaks, perhaps, to the confusion Canadians feel about the current role of the Canadian Armed Forces and the mythology of Canada as a peacekeeping nation. Lucia Kowaluk and Steven Staples (eds. 2009) argue that Canada is in fact fighting for American hegemony in Afghanistan (p. 8):

Canada’s participation in this war serves only to further the economic strategic interests of the US, bent on extending its domination of the Middle East and Central Asia with the help of NATO. This participation seriously undermines Canada’s international credibility as an agent of peace and reconciliation.

           

That confusion may be elevated in the soldiers’ reflections due to the similar experiences of stress, fear, fatigue and brotherhood regardless of whether their missions were of UN peacekeeping, NATO ‘peacemaking’, or war. This suggests further similarities in the campaigns which should in turn make us question the validity of the old paradigm of peacekeeping missions and whether or not Canada is on the path it wishes to be.

            The one exception to the discourse on how a mission affects soldiers, is the contribution made from a veteran of the Sri Lankan tsunami. The soldier’s discussion of the camp was not on the condition of the camp, nor how the soldier felt about the conditions of the camp. In finding a suitable location to set up the DART team, the officer is consciously seeking a site that will not “suck up all the resources”, such as food, and create more harm. The second consideration was finding a location that is within travelling distance to any of the communities affected by the tsunami to make aid distribution effective (Bin 2007: 45). Perhaps it is due to the true humanitarian nature of the DART teams’s job, and the reason for the mission that makes this discussion different from the rest. Peace rests in human security. The DART team’s responsibility is to provide the necessities of life, food, water, and medicine, to the victims of disaster. It’s mission means dealing directly with the people who are affected by disaster. In contrast, peacekeeping, peacemaking and war missions place soldiers in harm’s way to deflect or directly engage in combat with agressors that may cause harm to a community. Although this too is presumed to provide human security the direct contact with civilians is an after thought and is referred to as ‘winning hearts and minds’ in military jargon. It is a mindset to justify action and make a country proud of its soldiers. Humanitarian aid, on the other hand, requires no justification.

            Bin sets out to create a book that gives Canadians an in-depth look at the nature of peacekeeping and the affect peacekeeping missions have on the soldiers, all of them volunteers. Soldiers are placed, and often place themselves, in situations of grave danger and into regions where they witness unimaginable human suffering. This book is about the soldiers. Their naratives and the author’s selection of missions give Canada a window into not only the introverted Canadian perspective, but to the failure of Canada to live up to its mythological status as a nation of  peace.

           

References

Kowaluk, L., Staples, S., eds. (2009) Afghanistan and Canada. Montreal: Black Rose Books

 Pearson, Lester B. (2010) Lester B. Pearson Quotes. Brainy Quote web site. Accessed 23 January 2010. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lester_b_pearson.html   


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Menno Meijer (Menno Meijer)
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Documentary Photojournalist BA - Social Justice and Peace Studies / Political Science MA - UWO Political Science

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