Agnes Macphail, a schoolteacher from rural Ontario, was elected Canada’s first female Member of Parliament in 1921. I don’t imagine being the only woman in a posse of male politicians was any picnic, but Agnes persevered, lobbying for the old-age pension, disability allowance and student bursaries. Agnes was also against mandatory military training for schoolboys. When taken to task by her male colleagues she simply replied, “Patriotism is not dying for one’s country, it is living for one’s country.”
I thought of Agnes recently when I read the news that Afghan government officials are in secret negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban? That’s like finding out after World War II that democratically elected German leaders were secretly negotiating with the Gestapo. Is that why 158 of our young, dedicated, sometimes terrified, steadfast Canadian men and women died? Not for patriotism. Not so Afghan children could go to school without fear. Not to eradicate the destructive influence of radical Islam on the day to day lives of fellow human beings. But so that twelve years after 9/11 an Afghan president could negotiate with a Taliban leader.
How could that happen? Who in Canada, or the United States, or Britain is ultimately responsible for launching a war against an enemy – the Taliban, that led to more than 30,000 civilian deaths and the death of over 3,200 Coalition forces. Operation Enduring Freedom, a catchphrase created by the Bush government, has made no one free. After four trillion dollars, yes, that’s right – trillion dollars – the best manoeuvre that President Karzai of Afghanistan can make to have peace in his country is to make a deal with the devil who began the carnage in the first place. How is that possible?
Forget about the world stage. It’s too easy to become overwhelmed by the numbers and the political posturing and flip the channel to The Simpsons’ re-runs or The Real Housewives of Somewhere Shameful. Forget about trying to make sense of the convoluted propaganda and just think about one soldier. Like Sapper Stephen Marshall of Calgary, Alberta. Stephen died when he stepped on a homemade landmine. He was 24 years old. He’d been in Afghanistan six days.
Sapper Stephen Marshall was a patriot who died in a war that has no meaning. He died in a strange place for faceless, nameless people who cannot see that their lives are any better than a decade ago. He died so that your son or daughter does not have to learn to kill another human being. But he should have lived. We took too much when we asked him to prove his patriotism by dying.
A soldier goes where he or she is told by the government in power. Canada is a democracy. That means each of us of voting age is responsible for Stephen Marshall’s death. We put him in harm’s way. And for what?
There will be a next time, another war. The inevitability of that is something Agnes Macphail refused to acknowledge in 1921. Next time, will anything be different? Will eleven years in Afghanistan have taught us anything of value? Will we be smarter, wiser, fiercer?
Will we be brave enough to keep our patriots alive?