war is over but struggle goes on

Another September 11th has come and gone. Wreaths have been laid, speeches made, and miles of column space spent mourning that day’s terrible…

Another September 11th has come and gone.

Wreaths have been laid, speeches made, and miles of column space spent mourning that day’s terrible loss of life, and regretting or defending the place we’ve come to as a result.

In the middle of all these lamentations and deliberations, who should appear but Osama Bin Laden, sporting a freshly darkened, neatly trimmed beard, and thumbing his aquiline nose at the Global War On Terror.

But then, as CBC Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald points out in one of the best pieces to appear on that awful anniversary, the GWOT is over, quietly suspended with “no armistice, no surrender ceremony, just a rhetorical adjustment, and the clash of civilizations shrinks and shifts and morphs and emerges as … a struggle.”

With Iraq in shambles, a resurgent Taliban, and Bin Laden still on the lam, GWOT triumphalism has become self-mocking.

Six years on, even Bush isn’t talking about shock and awe, or bragging about missions accomplished anymore.

With each new revelation from the war zone, the name War on Terror comes more and more to represent evil doing and failure.

Now, as Macdonald and others have observed, the White House is soft-pedaling the GWOT, and introducing softer terms, like “the struggle against extremism.”

Even the word terrorist has lost currency, having been twisted in both Iraq and Afghanistan to mean anyone who is an enemy of the United States.

Prisoners captured on battlefields, others purchased from their accusers, are labelled terrorist, one step on the road to becoming “enemy combatants,” meaning persons utterly without rights.

Canada often takes a while to catch up to what’s going on in the States, so Stephen Harper’s still reading from the old script as the White House moves on to a new line.

In his eagerness to emulate that great anti-terror warrior, George W. Bush, the prime minister is even going so far as to lay claim to the ultimate trump card of 9/11 victimhood.

“The buildings may have been American,” Harper said in Canberra last Tuesday, “but the targets were every one of us: every country and every person who chooses tolerance over hatred, pluralism over extremism, democracy over tyranny.”

He didn’t add, though he could have, “the warlords over the Taliban, Kurds over Arabs, Shiite fundamentalists over Baathists”.

Having assumed the mantle of the righteous terror victim, Harper made sure to link Canadian victimhood to the deaths of  “seventy of our soldiers,” as well as a diplomat and a carpenter, in Afghanistan. “So, both our countries have been bloodied by terror, and both of us are doing our part to confront and defeat it … the cause is noble and necessary.” 


Nine days earlier, in a campaign speech for three byelections currently underway in Quebec, Harper spoke briefly and vaguely about the men and women who “volunteer and find themselves in dangerous places,” avoiding all mention of Afghanistan, or the three dead Van Doos even then making their way home from that noble and necessary, if unmentionable, war.

The PMO’s explanation for this silence in Quebec, where the war is least popular — that the prime minister “refuses to play politics with the deaths of soldiers” — is particularly hard to take in light of Harper’s willingness the following week to trot out Canada’s war dead in front of a more sympathetic audience.

In Canberra, he recast our military casualties as victims of terrorism — by definition an attack against civilians — diluting their soldier’s honour to score a point about Canada’s right to a place in the GWOT.

In fact, Harper is all too willing to play politics with soldiers’ lives.

His July 1st boast that, “Canada is back as a vital player on the global stage … in every field of human endeavour” carried strong echoes of his statement last October that military casualties are “the price of playing a greater role on the world stage.”

America and its allies invaded Afghanistan six years ago, allegedly to catch Bin Laden and free Afghan women from the tyranny of the Burqa.

A similar coalition attacked Iraq a few months later supposedly to stop Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and biological weapons programs.

These were lies.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been wars of opportunism, whose results have been runaway profits for giant corporations, the swapping in each country of one gang of thugs for another, and an ever-growing trail of dead and wounded, of communities smashed and lives ruined.

Bush warned Americans that the War on Terror would be long and costly.

Don’t take its rhetorical downgrading to struggle status as a signal that the conflict is coming to an end. Public support for the GWOT is weakening, but there’s still plenty of money to be made spreading freedom and democracy.

There is no victory in sight for NATO in Afghanistan or for the US in Iraq, no clear notion in either case how victory might be achieved, or what it would consist of.

American foreign policy will no doubt go through many more name changes before it all collapses.

By whatever name, the struggle against extremism will last many years to come — about exactly as long as the struggle against colonialism, or as long as the desert sands drift over proven reserves of oil.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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