Alison Howell is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and associate editor of the journal Critical Military Studies.
The Globe and Mail's investigative report detailing the suicides of at least 54 soldiers and veterans of deployments to Afghanistan reveal some of the most unbearable costs of Canada's war-fighting in that country. Understanding the causes of suicide is a difficult thing to do: Soldiers' and veterans' lives are complex, and so too are their decisions to take their own lives.
What is apparent, however, is that the rise in rates of suicide among soldiers and veterans – a population usually marked by lower rates of suicide than the comparable civilian population due to screening upon entry into the military – bears a relation to the inadequacy of health and disability services provided to those returning from deployments, in part due to the Harper Government's egregious cuts to veterans services and benefits.
These problems have been documented repeatedly by a series of reports from the offices of the ombudsmen for both the Canadian Forces and for veterans, dating back to 2002. Clearly, a major overhaul is overdue – after all, the military is a federal government employer, and soldiers who work for the federal government should receive services commensurate with the dangers inherent in the labour that they do.
But with a new government in place in Ottawa, it is also time to rethink Canada's foreign policy more broadly.
If Canadians care about the suicides reported in The Globe and Mail – and they should – they should also think about how these suicides relate to the increasingly militaristic turn over the past decade in Canada's foreign policy agenda. Soldier and veteran deaths, including suicides, are part of a mounting human toll of the war-fighting that Canada decided to be party to – costs that will be borne both by Canadian and Afghan society for many years to come. In other words, soldier and veteran suicides are a matter not only of health and veterans policy, but also of what role Canada will take on the global stage, and at what costs.
Canadians seemed slow to realize that they were at war. In fact, the increasing militarism of Canadian foreign policy, and the belief that complex problems could be solved primarily through the use of military force rather than other forms of foreign policy engagement, took on particular shape in Afghanistan. Canada not only engaged in a protracted war, but also a very particular kind of military strategy: From 2008-09 onwards, Canada's military followed the United States in pursuing a policy of counterinsurgency warfare. This form of warfare is modelled on colonial wars and occupations, and asks of soldiers that they act in a role of policing the local population: Using force against those deemed insurgents, and restraining from doing so while circulating within the civilian population.
This is a form of warfare with no clear enemy and no clear battle lines, and in which soldiers are at risk of close combat or exposure to improvised explosive devices (IEDs, or roadside bombs). As the stories of those profiled in The Globe and Mail report show, many soldiers also witnessed the death or serious injury of close comrades.
But it is also the moral ambiguity of conducting this kind of warfare that takes a toll. Then, when soldiers return home, they face not only the challenges of reintegrating into their families and civilian society, but also sometimes a disjuncture between their experiences in war and the way they are celebrated as heroes at home, often by politicians or pundits seeking to stir further patriotic support for militaristic Canadian foreign policy. Recent research coming out of the U.S. context has found that returning soldiers actually often find the rhetoric of heroism burdensome: As a standard that they have to live up to, while also simultaneously having to fight for even the most basic services owed to them by virtue of their employment.
As a new government takes office in Ottawa, we must not only overhaul our health services for soldiers and veterans. We must also take on the challenge of finding imaginative new ways to conduct our foreign policy, focusing less on militaristic "solutions" and the use of military force, and re-investing in alternative forms of diplomacy in our foreign relations.