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«Abstract Why did Canada, with its linguistically and regionally based strains of national unity, fight its longest war in Afghanistan from 2001 to ...»

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Two Solitudes, One War:

Public Opinion, National Unity and Canada’s War

in Afghanistan

John Kirton, with Jenilee Guebert

University of Toronto

Paper prepared for a conference on “Quebec and War,” Université de Québec à Montréal,

Montreal, October 5–6, 2007. I gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Madeline Koch,

Harry Skinner, Lindsay Doyle, Hana Dhanji, and Kalyna Kardash. Version: October 8, 2007.


Why did Canada, with its linguistically and regionally based strains of national unity, fight its longest war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2007? Amidst the many external, societal and governmental determinants that cause Canada and other countries to go to war, this study focuses on the puzzle of why a country, with no national interests directly at stake, a distinctive national value of anti-militarism and enduring political memories of the conscription crises of 1944 and 1917, fought for the first time, for so long, in the lead, in far-off Afghanistan, despite the mounting opposition of its public, particularly its French-speaking citizens and their federal representatives from Quebec. Externally grounded explanations featuring the September 11 terrorist attacks on North America, the involvement of American and British allies, and the approval of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations do not explain a Canadian participation that went through several stages of involvement, withdrawal and leadership, and the general expansion of Canada’s increasingly costly commitment, even as the memories of the catalytic 9/11 cause célèbre faded into an ever more distant past. Nor do governmentally grounded explanations, based on the party and prime minister in power, their regional and linguistic base, and their majority-minority status fit well the multi-stage, generally expansionist trend.

To seek a satisfactory explanation at the societal level, this study develops and tests the model of the “1939–41 myth,” first constructed to explain the Canadian government’s domestic mobilization of consent for its first post–Cold War combat engagement in the Gulf War of 1990–

91. Here support for the war among converging anglophone and francophone communities rose when national media, in both of the “two solitudes,” showed Canada going to war with Britain and France without the United States to successfully stop a totalitarian dictatorship and the Holocaust-like devastation it would bring. This study hypothesizes that to go to war in Afghanistan Canada needed to mobilize consent from a public that was substantially permissive but had a bottom line, do so in both largely francophone Quebec and the largely anglophone Canada outside, and do so as the initial rally turned to reluctance and the conscription constraint arose. The Canadian government secured such consent when polling questions and media portraits offered to a “mythologically rational” mass public the “right allies,” reminders of the “right wars,” support from the right “hometown” leaders, and the “right death ratio” of Canadian civilian victims over Canadian soldiers killed abroad. The empirical results show mild support for the classic 1939–41 myth based on the “right ally” combination (now revised to add the directly attacked “Pearl Harbor” Americans), show strong support for the reinforcing “right war” reminder (as the increasingly wrong 2003 Iraq contaminated the Afghanistan cause), some support for the “right leaders” at home and strong support for the right death ratio.

1 Introduction On September 12, 2001, Canada led the alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into declaring war on Afghanistan, in response to the terrorist attacks on North America the day before. Canada soon backed its diplomatic declaration with deadly force, dispatching naval, air, special and regular ground combat troops to fight alongside its American NATO allies in Afghanistan — a theatre half a world away, where Canadian forces had never fought before.

Six years later, Canadian forces are still fighting and dying in what has become Canada’s longest war. With no victory still in sight, Afghanistan could become the first major war in Canada’s long and war-drenched history that Canada would lose.

To fight for so long, so much, so far away and amidst such frustration, the Canadian government needed to mobilize consent from its citizens for the cause. Given Canada’s distinctive linguistically divided demography and history, defined by two divisive conscription crises, Ottawa faced the further challenge of mobilizing consent from both its francophone citizens, concentrated in Quebec, and its anglophone citizens, concentrated in the rest of Canada (ROC) outside.1 The September 11 terrorist attacks may have “changed everything” for some. But for Canadians, still scarred by the searing memory of the conscription crises of 1917 and 1944, arising amidst worldwide wars of long duration with many deaths, the familiar threat to national unity, and thus to Canada’s legitimacy and very survival, had not been blown away. Indeed, with the separatist/sovereigntist Bloc Québécois as a major party in the federal House of Commons, a separatist/sovereigntist Parti Québécois governing the province of Quebec and a Quebec referendum on separation very narrowly defeated only six years before in 1995, the national unity challenge was far closer to the surface than it had been in August 1990, when a post–Cold War Canada went to war for the first time in 40 years.

Of the two challenges the Canadian government faced in mobilizing consent, securing support at the start from Canadians as a whole was the easiest one it faced. After all, 24 innocent civilian Canadians had been deliberately murdered on 9/11, in the twin towers of a city that was far closer to Canada than Pearl Harbor had been in 1941, when the last bolt-out-of-the-blue attack had hit the soil of its American neighbour. The conditions were thus especially ripe for the familiar “rally effect” to spring to life in Canada, as in so many other countries when they first go to war. But it was also subject to the “rally turned reluctance” syndrome as the war dragged on. Richard Falk (1996, 496) is one of many observers who note, on the whole accurately, that “if the state is democratic … it must persuade its citizenry of the merits of an interventionist policy, especially if resistance is expected in the target society, casualties are anticipated as a distinct possibility, and there is no assurance of a rapid end to hostilities.” Such consent is relatively easy to secure at the start, but much more difficult to maintain as the combat continues, the coffins accumulate and the victory celebrations fade into a far-off future that may never come.

In the mobilization and maintenance of consent, Falk (1996, 496) further notes that “historical memory is also of crucial relevance, as is its most authoritative construction.” That is certainly true in Canada where the politically constructed, publicized and remembered “Somalia syndrome” of defeat in 1992–93, as opposed to the real material but socially unconstructed success of Medak Pocket in September 1993, helped prevent any forceful Canadian reaction to the genocide in Rwanda in April 1994 — in part, presumably, because Canadians had come to believe that the inherent racism in their own armed forces was worse than that in Rwandan society at large. More broadly, the 1917 and 1944 memories, which dictate “do not conscript 1 The term “francophone” in this paper refers to Canadians whose first language is French and who speak French at home. “Quebecers” refers to residents of Quebec, whether French or English.

–  –  –

Within these constraints, in the post-Cold War decade leading up to 9/11, the Canadian government proved many times it could successfully mobilize the consent of its citizenry to go to war. Its first and most formidable challenge came during the first Gulf War of 1990–91 when Brian Mulroney, as the most unpopular Canadian prime minister in Canadian polling history, had to convince his fellow citizens in the “peaceable” “peacekeeping kingdom,” to go to war for the first time in 40 years. Not only that, but they had to do so alongside the Americans, under the leadership of President Bush, in a distant theatre where Canadians had never fought before (Kirton and Munton 1992). Mulroney met this challenge. In the campaign’s final days, when Canadian forces went on the offensive to kill Iraqis, a majority of Canadians — anglophone and francophone alike — approved. The government’s success on the home front was not due to any skilled communications strategy from the start. Indeed, government efforts to convince Canadians that this was just like peacekeeping, or like their effort in Korea from 1950 to 1953, had none of the desired effect. Rather, without their government quite realizing it, anglophone and francophone Canadians came to support Canada’s war in the Gulf when their media showed them this was yet another case of Canada going to war, with and for France and Britain, without the United States, against a totalitarian dictator (whose name began with H) who was devoted to murdering innocent children and babies, and even gassing civilians to death innocent merely because they were Jews. In the real material world it was a hard fact that the President George Bush’s USA was involved in the war — indeed, was leading the coalition against Saddam Hussein to which Canada contributed in a minor military way. But only when Canada’s media — above all, their television network news that most defined public opinion on such issues — mythologically constructed this war as a replay of 1939–41 did Canadians increasingly unite to support their government’s decisions to go to war.

To be sure, Afghanistan in 2001–07 is not Iraq in 1990–91. Canadians’ firsthand experience of 1939-41 is far more limited. Moreover, a battle-hardened Canada had gone to war regularly for over a decade when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck, giving Canadians much more material with which to construct new myths. Afghanistan was far from the doorstep of a Holocaust-shrouded Israel, and the latter’s Jewish citizens were far away from any gas-laden SCUD missiles that the Taliban could ever send their way. Most prominently, Gulf War I was a short, inexpensive, victorious conflict, to which no Canadian ground combat forces were sent, and in which not a single member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) died. In sharp contrast, Afghanistan has become a long, costly, casualty-ridden conflict with no clear-cut victory, or even stalemated end, in sight. On the other hand, as the Canadian government’s media messaging highlights, Canada is fighting in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO, as well as the UN, to secure and develop one of the world’s poorest peoples and countries, and educate its young girls.

Amidst all these differences, is the 1939–41 myth, in its classic, adjusted or extended form, still a dominant driver of when and why Canadians, from both solitudes, give their consent to their government’s longest war?

The existing scholarly and popular literature does not think so, but offers no convincing or consensus alternatives about why Canadians’ support for the war, and with it national unity, goes up or down (Dawson 2003; Pigott 2007; McDonough 2007). Rather, it generates a great debate, conducted with much passion but little analytical discipline or detailed evidence, about why Canada is at war in Afghanistan and what part public opinion, media coverage and the overall mobilization of consent plays. Grant Dawson (2003, 180–84) argues that Canada’s initial “diplomatic pause,” “ambiguous approach” and “robust” but “controlled and measured” military response “reflected the domestic” mood that wanted to fight terrorism and support the U.S. but 3 pulled back when told by pollsters that civilian or military Canadian casualties might be involved.

This domestically driven diplomacy of restraint pushing a cautious Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is countered by Peter Pigott (2007, 203), who emphasizes the enthusiasm of the Canadian government and people for war at the beginning an the expanded Canadian government commitment six years later, but a Canadian public that by November 2006 wanted their troops out in February 2009. Others declare that Canada went to war because of and for the Americans, and perhaps their transatlantic allies, but their effort may come to poison the atmosphere for future adventures back home (McDonough 2007).

The Model of the Mythological Mobilization of Consent To add analytical discipline and detailed evidence to this debate, this study explores the relationship among the government’s decisions to go to war in Afghanistan, domestic public support for the war and the portrait of the war on Canadians’ national media in its anglophone and francophone parts. To conduct this analysis, this paper constructs the following chain of hypothesis, based on the best available argumentation and evidence to date, about how the relationship among governors, publics, and media has operated in Canada over issues of war in the past.

The Mobilization of Constrained Consent

First, Canada was not driven to, but constrained in, going to war in Afghanistan by mass public opinion and the dominant media portrait of the war that lay behind. This is to say, the Canadian government was given considerable latitude from its permissive public; but within these broad boundaries, it was ultimately bounded in its behaviour, rather than given a blank cheque, by their views. This hypothesis will be confirmed in its first component if government decisions to go to war, to go to war more, or to continue at war at high levels, generally preceded public support, rather than followed supportive public opinion that was known, and unfolded even as that support declined, a minority government came, and general elections loomed.2 It will be confirmed in its second point if the government stopped going into war and moved away from it when public support for the war was very low, was low enough to approach or fell below Canadians’ “bottom line.”

The Unified Mobilization of Constrained Consent

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