We are travelling in Laos. Admiring the glorious Buddhist temples of its capital city Vientiane. In the back of my mind is this nagging question of how Canada should respond to the events in the Middle East, Syria and ISIS in particular. There’s a call for greater bellicosity. Commentators and opposition politicians say we need to increase our military engagement. It’s not quite wanting to make the desert glow, but lots of “why can’t the Prime Minister sound at least a little angry?”
Well, anger may be a great way of letting off steam, but it’s not always the best emotion for rational analysis. There’s a recurring moment in the movie Bridge of Spies, when the Tom Hanks character asks his Soviet spy client (played brilliantly by Mark Rylance) a question intended to provoke a strong emotion, and the spy always replies, “would it do any good?” That’s a great question, a question which we should especially ask about whether Canada needs to get more engaged - I was going to say ensnared - in the literal and metaphorical minefield that is the Middle East. Would it do any good?
All wars come about because older men and women decide to kill younger men and women. Their own citizens. Some of those killed are soldiers, and others are innocent civilians. The Leader says to his people, “Please give me your sons and daughters so I may slaughter them on battlefields, and break your hearts when they never return from the faraway place I need to send them.” The question arises, “Why, O Leader?” The answer is often an appeal to a higher ideal. In many countries of course, the answer is sometimes “because our borders are threatened.” Not so in Canada, not for the past two hundred years.
Sometimes the answer is, “We need to do this to make the world safe from something bad.” Perhaps it is justifiable to put Canadians in harm’s way if the result of the loss of lives is that some greater evil has been avoided. As I get older, however, experience teaches me to be increasingly skeptical of that argument. The world was told Iraq needed to be invaded to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction. Except there weren’t any such weapons. And the result of the invasion of Iraq is that the world is actually less safe. Much less safe. The world was told that Afghanistan needed to be invaded to make the world safe from the harm being caused by its leaders. Well, the world is always being told that about Afghanistan, and whether it is ever true, the fact is that the lost of precious Canadian lives in Afghanistan has had no enduring positive impact on domestic safety and security in that country, and Afghanistan continues to be a source of international instability. And we are told we need to increase our military engagement in Syria. We are told this, mostly, by people who are much better at starting wars than finishing them. Forgive me if, this time more than ever, I am skeptical of the war-mongers. I have grandchildren.
Why am I ranting on like this? Yesterday we visited the National Museum of Laos. The plaster is cracked, there's dust in the corners, and some of the exhibits are a bit timeworn, but the story of the country's passage is compelling nonetheless. It's a story told from the singular perspective of the Democratic People's Republic, with the special tone that one-party states tend to adopt when praising their accomplishments. I took a (bad) photograph of this map. Every dot is a bomb drop.
Between 1964 and 1973, as part of a secret operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions.
As our tour guide said a couple of days ago, “Well there were about three million people in Laos then, so you could say the US dropped about a ton of bombs for every man, woman and child of Laos.”
Did it do any good? Did all those bombs make Laos a free country, with liberal democratic institutions, respect for private property rights and the rule of law?
No. About a year after the bombing stopped, Laos became a communist state.
Some historians argue that the final triumph of the communists in Lao was a direct result of the US bombing campaign. That is, not only did this massive, relentless campaign of utter destruction singularly fail to achieve its stated purpose, it actually produced the opposite effect. Laos was bombed (in part) to protect the US war effort in Vietnam. Well, so how did that turn out? The US left Vietnam in failure and disgrace, and soon thereafter, North and South Vietnam became one undivided communist state, the very thing that the US intervened to prevent a generation earlier.
All conflicts have their own histories. But before we put our children in harm’s way, isn’t it right to ask the question whether it will do any good? The answer is so rarely yes. It is often said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But we do not have to. It is also said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. I have heard no one begin to offer a coherent explanation of the kind of multi-generational commitment that would be needed to build a measure of security and stability in the Middle East, and frankly, the region’s leaders are themselves quite conflicted on the question whether they would ever want such a thing, given that a certain amount and kind of conflict and instability seems to suit their interests.
For a generation, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Canada tried to make a reputation for itself as a peace maker, not a war maker. Many look back on that era as a high point of our contribution to world affairs. Others think we should just buy more fighter planes. I say, just this once, let's reach for something higher.