The Canadian army is winding up its combat mission in Afghanistan. Many of you may not even be aware that Canada had a combat mission in Afghanistan. The first Canadian troops deployed to Kandahar airport in 2002 and then switched to Kabul. But the casualties only started to really mount in 2005 when a battalion strength battle group took responsibility for Kandahar Province. The last major anti-terrorist sweep is now over and if Canada’s lucky it will have lost a total of just under 160 troops in Afghanistan by the time the Quebec-based Van Doos fly out.
The war memorials are being packed up. That’s probably quite wise. I remember going to the British Cemetery in Kabul when I was in the city for the first presidential elections. There was a plaque on one of the walls which surround the old cemetery for the seven Canadians killed up to that point– four by a US plane, two killed by an improvised explosive device and one to a soldier who died in the bear-hug of a suicide bomber. Most the old grave stones in the cemetery, some in memory of British soldiers who died in 19th Century wars, had been pieced together again after the Taliban took sledge hammers to them. The graves had gone undisturbed during the 1919 War between Britain and Afghanistan; but the Taliban are something else. And I don’t think there’s any guarantee they won’t be back. Kandahar is the Taliban heartland.
War memorials are all well and good. In nearly every community in Britain one stands in mute testimony to the tragic losses experienced in the First World War. The names of those killed in the Second World War and some subsequent conflicts have been added, but the list of dead from the First is nearly always by far the longest. But perhaps the best memorial is not a block of carved stone. Perhaps the best memorial for the dead is to look after the survivors better. Too many of the injured, both physically and mentally, are effectively cast adrift.