From Saturday's Globe and Mail
December 5, 2008 at 11:05 PM EST
When I first heard Friday that Canada had suffered casualties in Kandahar, I got an e-mail from a soldier I know, a wonderfully literate man who has served in Afghanistan himself.
When he got the news, he said, he remembered what then-Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope once told a reporter. Lt.-Col. Hope was the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry-led battle group known as Task Force Orion, which was then in the midst of handing over to the battle group led by the 1st Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment.
At the interview's end, Lt.-Col. Hope (he is now a colonel) was asked if there was anything else he wanted to say.
“Yes,” he said, “there is.
“Remember that these soldiers are doing what they joined to do. Have no pity for them because we don't pity ourselves. Our suffering needs to be seen in the context of our achievements, which were many.”
If there is a more perfect guide for how those of us on the civilian side ought to see the war in Afghanistan – perhaps particularly now, as with the army's 100th casualty, the media coverage is bound to be artificially laden with sombre talk of the milestone passed and almost guaranteed to turn mawkish – I have never heard it. Soldiers are in Kandahar doing what they signed up to do; almost every day, they see that their presence produces results, sometimes small, sometimes big; if losses are viewed in that context, then they may be understood.
Col. Hope confirmed those remarks in a note Friday, and elaborated: “If we'd like anything at all, it is just the recognition that the costs incurred were the costs of succeeding in battle.”
This doesn't mean that officers and troops don't grieve and weep over each soldier; they do, of course, and it is harder and more wrenching when the deaths come in multiples. The Canadian army is an intimately connected group, rather like a smallish town where if you don't know every single person, usually you know someone else who does. Those bonds are only hardened and strengthened in war, so every death is widely felt and personal.
But none of that means soldiers are debilitated by losses, least of all shattered, as at least one TV reporter was glumly saying Friday.
The supposed benchmark of 100 soldiers' deaths – plus the diplomat Glyn Berry – since Canada first went to Afghanistan six years ago is not the army's. It is a creation of the media, of my business. News organizations have been baldly planning for it for months, and perhaps fairly so, because as one of my editors once told me, there must be measures of some sort, and this is a natural one.
But the milestone, as the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walt Natynczyk, told The Globe and Mail Friday night, “is foreign to our culture. We grieve each death,” he said. “We are such a family. And we have a mission to do, that Canada has given us, as they have given our forefathers. We've got to suck it up and get on with it.”
While back home, Canadians may have been growing complacent as almost three months passed without a casualty, Gen. Natynczyk and his ilk would think about the lull and say, “Touch wood, think about something else. We know the luck runs out, and the guys have been busy, doing an incredible job.”
Throughout these purportedly quiet months, the wounded have been returning home – nine troops in one vehicle, coming back “banged up,” Gen. Natynczyk said, but still with fierce spirit, begging to be allowed to get on the next rotation.
One of those he met recently in hospital in Ottawa is Corporal Billy Kerr, a member of the team mentoring the Afghan National Police, who about six weeks ago, as his squad was entering a compound, triggered a bomb. He leaned into the explosion, probably saving others who were with him, and lost both legs above the knee and his left forearm.
The army flew his girlfriend to the big American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was recovering in the critical-care unit. “When he came out of the sedation,” the CDS said, “he looked at her, and realized what kind of a life he's going to have, and said, ‘You can walk away.'” She didn't, of course, and more recently, he proposed to her in hospital, and she said yes.
The three men who were killed Friday – Corporal Mark McClaren, Private Demetrios Diplaros and Warrant Officer Robert Wilson – died instantly when their RG-31 rolled over an enormous roadside bomb.
They were all members of the Operational Mentor Liaison Team, a clunker of a name for a team whose members are embedded with the Afghan National Army and training them. It should be noted that ANA soldiers need no lessons in courage; what the OMLT teams do is train them, try to channel that raw grit into professional operations.
Just recently, Cpl. McClaren risked his life by crawling, under fire, to a wounded Afghan soldier.
All of them – the dead, the wounded, the widows, children, parents – deserve sympathy, respect for service and sacrifice that is beyond most of the rest of us, admiration. But pity? “Don't pity us,” Gen. Natynczyk said. “We're talking about tough young Canadians. Soldiers have pride.”
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