Our military has lost “clout” because it does horrible things

Op-eds Opinions

Canadians need to reckon with the fact that our state and its forces are not a moral authority 

Image by Cam Welch

In the September 19 issue, Natasha Simpson argued that Canada “lacks clout” and has lost its status as a renowned peacekeeper because cuts to military spending have rendered it unable to threaten other states. Simpson suggests Canadians are too squeamish about war, and are foolishly holding our military back. But if the Forces have lost international standing and domestic pride, those are consequences of what our military has done, not what it hasn’t. 

In recent decades, our Forces have done horrible things to foreigners, to those in Canada, and to those in its own ranks. This idea of Canada as a moral exemplar is just a story we tell ourselves.  

Evils done abroad 

In the 1990s, in Somalia, Canadian troops gunned an incapacitated man to pieces, tortured a teenager to death, and attempted cover-ups. In the 2000s, our military transferred detainees to Afghan forces despite evidence of torture, which a whistleblower said that higher-ups knew about. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament in part to avoid the scandal, but polls in 2009 indicated most Canadians believed that government and military officials were aware of it. 

That tends to ding the old clout score a bit. 

Canada also infamously allowed the U.S. to hold, illegally try, and torture Canadian citizen and likely-innocent child soldier Omar Khadr for years. The Harper government refused to right or acknowledge this misdeed

Canada is reliant on the U.S. for protection, it’s true, and Simpson believes our military weakness prevents us from asserting autonomy. But was it a lack of aircraft carriers that caused us to let the States torture Khadr, or a lack of morality?

Maybe the best way to rebuild our reputation would be just going a decade without committing, assisting in, or covering up any war crimes.

Evils at home

Some will counter that our military keeps us safe. Does it, though? It was used to suppress Quebec during the FLQ Crisis and Indigenous land-defenders during the Oka Crisis.

Our military even endangers its own service members. A 2015 report found that incidents of sexual assault and harassment were extensive in the military, and a report last year showed negligible improvements. In July, Canada presented a $900 million settlement to survivors. Two weeks after Simpson’s article, a retired Corporal was found guilty of numerous sexual offenses in our own community yet was released until his appeal as part of our military justice system. 

Vice reporting uncovered plans by white supremacist groups to infiltrate the military and gain combat skills to use for domestic terrorism, and an internal military police report revealed in 2018 confirmed that some got in. The military identified 16 hate group members and 37 members who had engaged in racist or hateful conduct since 2013, and at least 30 of those racists still remained in the Forces.

Several soldiers ran a white supremacist memorabilia store and, in one case, made racist comments on a neo-Nazi podcast but were all allowed to return to active duty. After the Winnipeg Free Press revealed a soldier’s membership in The Base (an Atomwaffen-linked neo-Nazi paramilitary group), the RCMP did raid his home and the military arranged to discharge him. But then they promptly lost him.The disgraced Master Cpl. fled.

Are these just bad apples? Or are they consistent with the systemic racism and frequent racial harassment that some veterans accuse the military of and have sued it for? Are the war crimes, sexual assaults, and racism perhaps a natural product of an institution built around dehumanizing and dominating enemies?

The Canadian state and our industries can’t be trusted internationally 

Militarism is corrosive, but it is not the sole source of Canada’s misdeeds. Our state has shown it cannot be trusted to act morally on the global stage.

We are a settler state that has committed genocide, has stolen land, and continues to violates Indigenous consent with pipeline imposition. We sold billions in arms to Saudi Arabia, which they use to shred and starve Yemen. Our government backs Netanyahu’s fascist Israeli apartheid administration and even tries to shield it from criticism. Our Foreign Minister eagerly abetted the U.S.’s blatant campaign to instigate a coup and potential ground invasion of Venezuela. Canada’s “democracy promotion” here is inconsistent and self-serving — Venezuela is far from the only nation in crisis in the region, but it  happens to have a lot of that sweet, dark liquid America loves starting wars over. Our foreign policy serves money and our allegiances as much as peace and justice.

Meanwhile, Canadian corporations commit evil worldwide. Nevsun allegedly knowingly used slave labour in Eritrea, and Guatemalan workers filed a suit after Tahoe Resources security opened fire on them. SNC-Lavalin famously bribed Libyan officials. Just bringing our abusive corporations in line would do more for global peace and prosperity than having more warships for a pissing contest with China in the Arctic.  

This is not to say Canada has never done anything good, or that our military only does violence. At the local base, many people do valuable jobs unrelated to violence. But having a large military to enact our aims in the world is not normal or necessary or good or effective. 

Military money could go toward actually doing good

With each of the 28 billion dollars we devote to military defense, we lose a dollar that could help the poor, sick, and oppressed. We have reserves without clean water. We have people living — and dying — on the sidewalk. We have thousands dying in an opioid epidemic. We have a population burdened by student debt, prescription costs, and housing prices. We could fund solutions and universal social programs instead of cutting services down to buy even more instruments of death. 

There is much we can do for international peace and security without force. We could mitigate international crises by taking on more refugees, including those who don’t feel safe in a hostile and diseased U.S. that shows symptoms of early-stage ethnic cleansing

If a major conflict with powerful nations is coming, it will likely be driven by climate crisis and attendant resource scarcity and mass migration. Which is the better approach: pre-emptively  mitigating these incoming crisis conditions, or having a few more shotguns to clutch in 2036 when the U.S. bangs on the cabin door demanding our water?

If we really cared about doing good for the world, we could end our subsidies to mass-polluting fuel companies, try their executives, return the stolen land we let them misuse, and replace our conventional military with a national public service deployed primarily against the climate crisis.

Canada is disproportionately responsible for and already disproportionately impacted by rising temperatures. Canada’s WWII war measures rallied the nation, established dozens of Crown corporations, and re-oriented the economy. That precedent could be revisited alongside a Green New Deal to urgently and massively mobilize us against our greatest existential threat.

We could set up sustainable mass transit, homes, and disaster response teams on a massive scale — if we stopped orienting our national security and international deployment around violence.