May 16, 2002

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vol. 24, no. 2

War is a hell, the generals sadly tell us, in which good people die.
Soldiers accept this as a fact of life and the general population - you and me - should accept it, too.

And so Canada is told to mourn its soldiers, killed last month in Afghanistan by U. S. firepower. The oxymoron - friendly fire - we're told, is just another of war's cruel ironies. It is what happens when nations choose to send their armies against another's.

All that may be true. The fact remains, however, that Canada is not at war.
The Prime Minister has offered no declaration of hostilities against Afghanistan to Parliament whose members did not vote to go to war against that country. The Governor General has not been called to carry a war declaration to the Queen. There is no war cabinet in place in Ottawa. We are not at war.

In September 2001, we offered sympathy and assistance to the U.S. after New York's twin towers were destroyed. But solidarity with a grieving neighbour is not carte blanche to engage a distant and sovereign nation in a sustained and brutally one-sided conflict.

This is not a simple, legal caution. It is, instead, a moral and ethical problem. War is a peculiar relationship defined by international treaty that affects the very functioning of the governments that engage it. It is costly in lives and in property and in material. It is humankind at extremes we prefer not to approach.

Because war is hell - damning and destructive - no state of international relations is so well defined as the relationship of war. It is carefully described and proscribed by treaty, its many shadings argued in legal dictionaries. It has to be this way because the reality of mass conflict is so devastating, so brutal.

And so it is important that, while Canadian soldiers may die from U.S. fire and perhaps errant rebel bullets, Canada is not at war. We thus act at the edge if not actually outside the international covenants whose conventions we elsewhere seek to support. We do this out of friendship for the U.S., our neighbor nation, which is also not at war.

The unilateral declaration by George W. Bush of a war on terrorism was a rhetorical device, not a legal call to legitimate arms. For the U.S. to be at war would require its president to ask Congress to declare that specific state of hostility against a specific nation. Instead, Congress gave President George W. Bush carte blanche to use its military to protect the nation against what on Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to be an exigent threat.
If, as U.S. case law insists, war is the “hostile contention by means of armed force carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between citizens in the same nation or state,” this one doesn't qualify. A one-sided action is not a relation between nations, state or rulers. It is an aggression, at best - and more neutrally - a state of conflict. But a war? Not in law, or the ethics that govern it.

Because there is no war the U.S. has not felt compelled to apply the international rules of war, the Geneva Convention. They have therefore chosen unilaterally how they will treat the prisoners who have survived their bombing. Others have argued that to take Afghani soldiers to internment camps in Cuba is illegal under international law. The official U.S. response has been that those so removed from their own country to the Caribbean were not in uniform. They therefore were not soldiers and accepted conventions did not apply. That suggests the U.S. government believes it is acceptable to remove civilians in a way that one would not do to soldiers. This takes us far from the Geneva Convention and well into the stricter domain of the violation of individual rights.

None of this is to offer disrespect to the Canadian soldiers killed in April in Afghanistan. Their deaths insist we ask not how this happened technically - was there a way to prevent the disaster? - but instead ask what Canada is doing in Afghanistan at all? Those killed and injured are there because we sent them. Why?

Canadians are bound by treaty to the mutual defence of the U.S. But it is hard to argue there is any necessary defence function in the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Clearly, Afghani citizens and soldiers pose no state of exigent threat to North America these days. After months of carpet bombing a Stone Age country into the Stone Age it is hard to argue any threat exists to anyone except the Afghani people.

We're there because the sitting U.S. president wants others beside him as he vents his rage against the body of a nation for a terrorist cell's actions carried to the U.S. Less charitably, we're there because as a nation we've forgotten how to say no.

In the 1960s U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson demanded and tried to bully Prime Minister Lester Pearson into participating in the U.S. exercise in Vietnam. Pearson refused. It was not that Canadians were afraid to fight but that Vietnam was not a conflict worth fighting. Canada's position as a distinct and compassionate nation stems, in no small measure from that period. It is not that we are not warriors when need arises. Rather, that Canadians will not fight when other avenues are open to them.
That position - call it our moral legitimacy - is now in question. So too, of course is the United State's. Why should Israel listen to North American calls for restraint when we devastate a country because it was the base for a brutal but small terrorist network? Why should anyone listen when we insist that, absent the necessity of defence, war isn't the way to resolve bitter differences?

There are a range of venues in international law and diplomacy by which terrorism can be attacked and the rule of law enforced. But for those to be employed, for the sanity of non-violent resolution to prevail, we have to be sane and non-violent ourselves. Instead we are engaged at the U.S. behest in a violent conflict with - if George W. Bush is to be believed - more to come against the “evil empires” he detests. As a result we are killed not by an enemy's bullets but our good neighbor's bombs.

Tom Koch is a medical ethicist and an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. His twelfth book, Scarce Goods: Justice, Fairness, and Organ Transplantation was published in 2001.

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