The US military has confirmed the authenticity of video footage in which an American helicopter crew slaughters a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists carrying camera equipment. When a van comes to try and pick up a wounded man, the gunship fires again, destroying the van and killing several more people.
The film gives a chilling gunner’s-eye view of the day-to-day business of the War on Terror. This is no My Lai, no blame will fall on these soldiers; as the accompanying sound track clearly shows, they never fired a shot without receiving authorization.
A military investigation found that the chopper crew acted properly. They mistook the camera equipment for weapons. That perception made it their duty to gun down everybody in sight. Even after the film cameras and their bearers were lying smashed in the street, the gunners acted properly when they fired on people who were obviously doing nothing but trying to rescue the wounded.
The US military is also owning up to the murder of two pregnant women and a teenage girl, as well as a police officer and a local official, in a Special Forces nighttime raid in eastern Afghanistan. In that case the soldiers outraged family members by digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies in order to cover up the killings. Again, an investigation found no evidence of misconduct.
War is a bloody feast. If they fed it to us straight, we’d choke on it. A healthy dose of secrecy, stalling, and stonewalling helps to mask the flavour. That’s why the Harper government fired the chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission to silence demands for openness on the Afghan detainee transfer file. It’s also why their new appointee closed the commission’s hearings to the public for reasons of “national security” this week.
But to really make war go down smoothly there’s nothing like a good dose of jingoism, preferably one that draws from both the best and the worst of the national character. Enter the hero.
A hero, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is “a great warrior,”“noted and admired for outstanding achievements, great courage, etc.” According to our Conservative government, a hero is any Canadian soldier who dies, in or out of combat. That soldier’s remains are driven in ceremony down the “Highway of Heroes,” and his children are eligible for “the Hero Project,” a scholarship that covers university tuition and expenses.
Canadians generally accept this hero business because we recognize that the families of fallen soldiers need and deserve their nation’s sympathy and support. But so do the families of fallen carpenters, or of people killed by drunk drivers, or women murdered by their spouses. To confer the gratuitous label of ‘hero’ on every military corpse not only cheapens the memory of genuine heroes, it exploits the tragedy of soldiers who died simply doing their jobs.
This week, 16 professors sent an open letter to the president of the University of Regina calling Project Hero “a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan,” and demanding an end to it. In the best tradition of jingoism, Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski lashed out at the professors, accusing them of trying to “politicize tragedies at the expense of Canadian military families.”
The professors can no more politicize Project Hero than they could flatten the Prairies. The scholarship was political from the moment of its conception. If it wasn’t, why the name? Why indeed was it necessary at all? The students’ needs were already covered by a program that has existed since 1953. Its name? Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance.
Instead of sullying the memories of our fallen soldiers with lies about their universal heroism, lets illuminate them with truths. Here’s one: 118 Canadian soldiers have been killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. Almost everyone died trying to secure the area that will become the route for the multi-billion dollar TAPI pipeline, scheduled to begin construction this year.
Here’s another truth: Canada is not rich in helicopter gunships. When our troops on the ground radio for air support, the responders are almost certain to be American. That would be the same American chopper crews whom we now know are acting properly and doing their duty when they mow down unarmed civilians.
How heroic is that?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes,
is available in bookstores.