War crimes of summer go unaddressed in federal election

It's important to put names and faces to the victims of Canadian militarism - will things change with NDP rule?


As the leaders of Canada’s major political parties kiss babies and glad-hand supporters, there appears to be little interest in addressing Canada’s role in dangerous military escalations half way around the world this summer.

Their names are not met with moments of respectful silence along the campaign trail, but among those killed earlier this year in coalition airstrikes in Syria were a shepherd in his late 60s, Ibrahim al-Mussul, and his daughters Jozah (27) and Zahra (25). The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that “Their bodies were shredded. We found Ibrahim’s hand next to his house, and we were still collecting bits of flesh and body parts into the early hours of the following morning.” 

They are among the civilians killed with Canadian military technology. And they need to be remembered as lefty partisans dream of an NDP victory in October.

Indeed, as many hope for that historic change, a Mulcair government would be in charge of this nation’s tools of mass violence and terror.

Among those tools are Canadian fighter jets participating in a major bombing campaign of ISIS in Iraq and Syria (which, to its credit, is a campaign that the NDP says it would end).

Not so clear, however, is the NDP’s position on the Canadian military readying itself to provoke Russia with October war “games” involving five Canadian warships, assorted bomber planes, and 1,600 ground troops, which will join some 36,000 of their NATO brethren.

An NDP government will also be faced with decisions about Canada’s close ally, Saudi Arabia, which is engaging in the same crimes committed by ISIS, from beheadings in the public square to destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites, in Yemen. The Saudi regime has been engaged in a horrific campaign of bombing that has created what the Red Cross has described as a humanitarian catastrophe akin to the refugee crisis in Syria.

“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years,” says Peter Maurer, head of the International Red Cross. Some 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting sparked in large part by the rebel Houthis’ ousting of a U.S.-backed president earlier this year.

Indeed, the Saudis benefit from an ongoing military alliance that supplies them with the most sophisticated killing technology, courtesy of the U.S. and, more recently, Canada, which has made the largest single weapons deal in Canadian history with the Saudis: over $15 billion worth of equipment that continues to roll off the assembly line at London, Ontario’s General Dynamics plant, with the support, according to the Conservatives, of a 500-firm supply chain across Canada.

Meanwhile, the international monitoring group Airwars has been documenting civilian deaths from the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. As of this week, almost 20,000 bombs have been dropped and upwards of 1,240 civilians killed by the U.S.-led coalition, in which Canada plays a supporting role. In the bland language of lifeless mathematical militarism, Canada’s war department boasts of CF-18 Hornet fighters conducting 889 “sorties” CC-150T Polaris aerial refuellers conducting 237 sorties and delivering 14,352,000 pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft and CP-140 Aurora aircraft conducting 257 reconnaissance (i.e., bomb spotting) missions.

Astonishingly, the coalition will acknowledge no more than two “potential” civilian casualties  with one U.S. general naming the seven-month campaign “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Estimates of Daesh (ISIS) fighters killed so far range from 10,000-13,000, though not all of them are ideologically-bound killing machines. Many are forced recruits, or those who have joined out of economic desperation to feed their families.

But despite coalition claims of a “clean” war, Airwars researchers have found a steady flow of civilian casualty claims  from both Iraq and Syria. 

While Obama and his counterparts claim this bombing is to save Iraqi lives, that did not help eight-year-old Iraqi Danya Laith Hazem, killed with four family members by an April 4 airstrike. Last December, an air strike on a temporary prison being run by ISIS killed 58 people, including men who were imprisoned for the crimes of buying cigarettes as well as four women and numerous teenagers detained for similar misdemeanours.

Then there’s Ahmed Abdul Aqi, a mosque janitor who, critically ill and very poor, had to sell his wife’s jewellery to pay for a medical trip to Baghdad. During the journey by taxi with his wife and daughter, all three, along with the driver, Ahmed Azzawi, were killed in a coalition airstrike.

It is important to put names and faces to the victims of Canadian militarism.

Will things change with NDP rule?

The party’s slogan about change should not leave people with the misapprehension that a Mulcair government will defang Canada’s military.

Indeed, in a recent piece for Esprit de Corps magazine, NDP war minister-in-waiting Jack Harris does not suggest that the $67 million currently spent every day on war in Canada be redirected to, say, affordable housing, tuition-free grants for post-secondary students, fully subsidized child-care, or full-time jobs.

Instead, he criticizes the Conservatives for relatively modest cuts and “the departmental spending freeze and other reductions that will see DND’s budget shrink by $2.7 billion this year compared to 2011.”

Of course, 2011 was the last federal election, when the NDP campaigned on a very clear refusal to cut the $23-billion Harper war budget (insisting instead it would simply reallocate the billions to different military projects). The party endorsed a 2002 parliamentary committee’s call for increasing military spending a full 50 per cent. That was the same year NDP MPs began joining their colleagues in the Canadian Forces Parliamentary Program, which “embeds” MPs in war training exercises where, according to a report in Canadian Parliamentary Review, they “learn how the equipment works, train with the troops, and deploy with their units on operations. Parliamentarians are integrated into the unit by wearing the same uniform, living on bases, eating in messes, using CF facilities and equipment.”

In the 2015 election, the NDP’s Harris is calling for a “new vision” for Canada’s military, complete with “an agile, well-equipped, world-class force,” an improved “procurement process” and a more “transparent” process on replacements for Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets. Criticizing the Harper move to cancel purchase of close combat vehicles, Harris calls for a “made-in Canada” military strategy that will keep the forces “well-equipped” for wherever they go on the world stage.

Needless to say, there is nary a mention about Canada’s avid participation in nuclear weapons alliances in NORAD and NATO, which the party has historically opposed until more recently.

To their credit, an NDP government says it would improve the desperate plight of Canada’s war veterans and live up to “a top-to-bottom commitment to eradicate sexual harassment and assault” in the Forces. But even here, it is unclear if they are willing to risk losing political capital.

The party’s foreign policy plans will be similarly dictated by the robust militarism of its platform. NDP candidates who have had the audacity to mention Israel war crimes against Palestinians (documented by the most respected human rights organizations on the planet) have been squelched and cast aside by the Mulcair machine.

How do we get rid of Harper? Perhaps the better question is: how do we get rid of such policies, regardless of who is in power.

The late, great writer and organizer Howard Zinn put it succinctly when he reminded us that “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Regardless of who forms the government in October, Zinn’s prescription needs to be applied: direct action will continue to be needed to ensure positive change.

In the meantime, don’t be shy about pressing your candidates to address these issues. At the very least, we owe it to the memory of the shepherd Ibrahim al-Mussul and his daughters, the family of Ahmed Abdul Aqi, and the countless unknown casualties not only of Canada’s very profitable war industry, but also the Canadians who, on the ground, in the air, and from the safety of sequestered bunkers, press the bomb-launch buttons.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes Not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. national security profiling for many years. A longer version of this article appeared at rabble.ca.

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