Lewis W. MacKenzie, OC, O Ont, OStJ, MSC, CD, PH
(Major General - Retired)

COMMENTARY – TEAM CANADA

Lewis W. MacKenzie
Lewis W. MacKenzie, OC, O Ont, OStJ, MSC, CD, PH
(Major General - Retired)
In 1993 when I took my release from the Canadian Forces I made myself a promise that in retirement I would never don my uniform when there was a chance that I might criticize government policy while wearing it. Loyalty to the principle of civilian control of the military is an essential characteristic of democracy. As a result I had not worn my uniform for 12 years – until this past week in Afghanistan.

Perhaps you can understand my acute disappointment when the occasion that convinced me to once again dress as a soldier came under such vicious and ill-informed criticism from a number of critics, some, in the most disturbing cases, for cheap political points.

Canada has over 1500 soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan and surrounding locations – (in my vocabulary, “soldier” is a complimentary term referring to all the men and women of the Canadian Forces regardless of rank. The majority of soldiers serving in Afghanistan are from the Army). The work they do is tough, dirty, exhausting, at times mind-numbing and yes, dangerous. They are currently in the process of a major redeployment from the Kabul area to the more volatile region in and around Kandahar and their numbers will grow to over 2000 in early 2006.

Appreciating that the majority of the Canadian public is less than well-informed regarding our military’s largest overseas commitment the Minister of National defence, Bill Graham and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Rick Hillier invited a number of Canadians ranging from retired military media commentators to sports superstars and celebrities to spend a week in Afghanistan with the men and women of the Canadian Forces. We would observe first-hand how this major Canadian foreign policy initiative is conducted at the sharp end and have a chance to meet as many soldiers as possible.

The MND and CDS would be in the operational area meeting with the Afghan leadership at the same time as our “Team Canada”, thereby presenting a high-value target for the terrorists. As a result, the details of the trip including the schedule and the participants were tightly controlled. Mind you, enough details were leaked to the media prior to our departure on the 10th of October to stimulate the inevitable condemnation of the trip from some quarters as a waste of time and money.

The critics cited costs – presumably without checking that the military flights to and from Afghanistan were primarily moving cargo and soldiers in and out of the theatre with the CDS, his small personal staff and “Team Canada” located in rear of the aircraft. Eight hours to Zagreb, five hours to an “undisclosed location”, three hours sleep followed by five hours to Kandahar, the last thirty minutes of the flight wearing protective gear (flak vests and helmets) and flying a rough combat approach a few feet off the terrain is not exactly most people’s definition of a luxury boondoggle.

The Team: Mary Ann Burdett and Tom Irvine, the President and Chairman of the Royal Canadian Legion for all the obvious reasons; Rudyard Griffith from the Dominion Institute which amongst many things records veteran’s memories of wars past and arranges for veterans to visit and speak at schools across the country; Bob Sweet, the mayor of Petawawa where the majority of the soldiers in Kabul deployed from and left their families; Tim Page from the Canadian Defence Industries Association which represents many of the companies producing the soldier’s tools-of-their trade; John Eaton the long-serving chairman of the Canadian Force’s Liaison Council which encourages businesses to support their employees who deploy overseas as reservists; Raf Souccar the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP which serves shoulder to shoulder with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan; the following military attaches and defence advisors from Ottawa representing their military forces which currently work with us or are about to in Afghanistan – Colonel Steve Czepiga (USA), Brigadier Simon Young(UK). Colonel Theo Kuper (New Zealand), Colonel Voetelink (Netherlands), Colonel Timothy Grutzner (Australia) and Colonel Valentin Inceu (Romania); Retired Rear Admiral Ken Summers who commanded the Canadian contingent in the Gulf War and who comments on military matters for the CBC; sports superstars Catriona Lemay Doan, Daniel Igali and Guy Lafleur and on his third visit to the soldiers, the multi-talented entertainer, Rick Mercer. On arrival the schedule went into overdrive with the aim to see as many soldiers as possible. We ate with them, patrolled with them past scenes of suicide bomber attack less than 48 hours old, played with them, slept beside them and most importantly talked to them about their jobs, their equipment, their likes and dislikes and reassured them at every opportunity just how proud we and their country was of their efforts to bring some normality to Afghanistan in the midst of chaos. At first light and late at night ball hockey games broke out and Guy Lafleur took to the “ice” required to play in his boots as his handicap. Catriona Lemay Doan and Daniel Igali were inundated with requests for pictures and autographs and Rick Mercer never failed to brig smiles and laughter to hundreds of dusty faces that followed his every move. Hundreds of e-mails with pictures were flashed back to families in Canada from soldiers who enjoyed their encounter with the Canadians visitors. (this para was abridged in the Globe article, Ed)

Following his meetings with President Karzi and senior Afghan officials the CDS was in the same locations at the same time as the Team during our last two days in theatre. Hi invited us to attend a number of dusty parades where he informally addressed his soldiers. When he called on Olympic wrestling gold medalist Daniel Igali to say a few words this proud Canadian spoke for all of Canada when he reminded the soldiers that when they patrolled the dark alleys of some of the most dangerous locations on earth every Canadian walked with them. I truly wish that were true; however…

Message to some in the Opposition in parliament – “don’t play politics with our soldiers”. One defence critic who should know better having been a combat-arms general, unwisely questioned the wisdom of the visit even before the Team’s departure from Canada. The unit he commanded as a lieutenant colonel in the 70s is currently serving in Kandahar doing sterling work. A number of the unit’s solders indicated they would have him drawn and quartered if he ever showed his face in Afghanistan! Not exactly the type of endorsement he would appreciate but one he should have expected.

As someone who has served in and commanded numerous overseas missions starting with the Gaza Strip in 1963(!) and therefore have been on the receiving end of similar visits I can guarantee every Canadian that I have never encountered a deployed soldier that didn’t appreciate the time, effort and risk volunteered by Team Canada participants in the past. So, before the critics offer commentary on such matters perhaps they should contact the only people that really matter in this debate – the soldiers currently doing the dirty work for the rest of us – and ask them what they think!