Once More Into The Breech – A view of the Middle East Conflict

What kind of war is it?

You cannot fight a war or engage in conflict by telling your opponents one or more of the following:  that you are only partially committed, that you will remove troops on a certain date, that you will re-evaluate your commitment three or six months hence, that casualties are unacceptable to you, that you will send troops and equipment but not arm them,  that your troops are there just to train local forces, that there will be no boots on the ground to fight, that you will only send planes and drones but don’t expect them to get their paint scratched, and that you are there for humanitarian purposes only.

If you act like this, your adversaries will have difficulty controlling their mirth, and be unable to believe their luck in having such dismal opposition. A boxer does not enter the ring promising to use either one or no hands. The lessons from all types of conflict from WW1 and WW2, to Vietnam, guerilla wars and terrorism are that your opponents will use any means to attack and try to defeat you. There are no rules of war for those who decide not to respect them. The Geneva Convention was signed by almost 200 countries, some with reservations. When it comes to unconventional warfare and terrorism, rules are neither recognized nor respected. The only rules are no rules. Stoning of women and beheading of prisoners by terrorists should be a reminder of this.

The ISIS/ ISIL conflict is not an isolated situation where if you decide not to be involved you will not be affected. The war metaphor is not Northern Ireland where Catholics fight Protestants locally with a few spillovers to bombings in England, and financing from Americans with Irish ancestry. It is more like the Crusades, a religious conflict where, from 1086 for 200 years, Christians fought Muslims over a wide geographic area; or where Protestants fought Catholics in Europe, and where Thomas More was beheaded at the Tower of London for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, and for not helping the king solve his marital problems.

ISIS/ISIL may appear to be a local religious war but it has already mestastised into a much wider conflict including the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa from the Sudan across to West Africa. It has reached into Western Europe and North America with nationals from these regions travelling to the Middle East and returning to cause trouble at home. Remember the off-duty British soldier who had his throat cut on the streets of London by one such person.

Listen to former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, to spokespersons for the CIA and American counter-terrorist organizations. Listen to or read Leon Panetta’s latest book Worthy Fights. Panetta was head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. All point out the dangers now facing the West, some of which may occur in the West like 9/11, and bombings in London and Madrid. There could be more incidents, even beheadings in the West, or attacks on soft targets like railway, bus and airline terminals before passengers go through the screening process.

Al Qaeda is a terrorist brand with headquarters in Pakistan. But the followers of what this brand represents have created their own branches, which often operate independently of each other. This is a far stretch from tanks and troops lining up against each other in trenches on a well defined battlefield as in WW1 and WW2.

What has Canada done?

Should Canada send troops to the Middle East and what should those troops be tasked to do? By a majority vote in the House of Commons, with Liberal and NDP members voting against the resolution, the decision has been taken to send troops and planes. The opposition supports troops but only in a non-combat role. But there is no such thing as a non-combat role, unless you tell the troops that they will not carry arms and cannot defend themselves if attacked, even if acting only in an advisory role. The enemy is unlikely to recognise such a distinction. Fine distinctions are seldom respected when shells are flying. Even Liberal/NDP Bob Rae and humanitarian promoter Liberal Lloyd Axworthy recognize the situation for what it is, rather than for what Liberal and NDP supporters would like to believe it is.

Members of Parliament have every right to vote against the motion to send armed forces and planes to fight. Now parliament has done so, these members are in the position of signaling to troops on the ground or in the air that they do not support what they are doing. T’was ever such for pacifists in wartime, and it is happening now in Canada. Opposition MPs who were at one time members of the armed forces, or are reservists now, are withholding their support for active members of the armed services. I would imagine it is not a comfortable position to be in, but even less comfortable for the armed forces and their families.

There is another dimension to the parliamentary decision which has to do with domestic politics, and the historical lack of enthusiasm by Quebec voters to support any type of foreign military action. With 78 of the 338 seats after the next federal election coming from Quebec, it is unsurprising that the opposition parties have an eye on how their actions will be viewed by this electorate. Jack Granatstein deals with this issue in detail in an article in the Globe and Mail for Oct.10, 2014.


The Middle East situation is incredibly complex pitting countries against each other, and lining up religious groupings on opposing sides – Muslims versus Christians and Jews, and some Muslims against other Muslims. Anyone offering views on this situation will be influenced by their own background and experiences. I offer mine for those who want ammunition to disagree on personal rather than substantive grounds.

My father served and survived as a junior infantry officer in WW1 on the western front. He was wounded three times, once at the Battle of the Somme, and each time returned to the trenches. After the war he served as a staff officer to General Carton de Wiart, who was in charge of the British military mission to advise the Polish military in the early 1920s. WW1 continued after 1918 on the eastern front.  Poland fought the Soviet Union which was trying to extend its territory westwards.  I grew up in England during WW2, living in southeast England thirty miles from London during and after the Battle of Britain. I survived, but my mother did not, dying as a result of an accident that could have occurred in peacetime, but was more likely to and did happen because of the wartime conditions. Later I served for two years required National Service (1952-54) as a junior infantry officer in the British army, in Germany and then Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.


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