OTTAWA – Canadian units that fought in Afghanistan are being considered for battle honours by the Harper government, which is casting around for ways to commemorate the conflict as it draws to a close after more than a decade.
A memorandum to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation, lays out the options for recognizing individual regiments for specific battles and the overall war itself.
“Battle honours are awarded to provide public recognition to combatant military units for active participation in battle against a formed and armed enemy,” says the May 13 note by the country’s top public servant, Privy Council clerk Wayne Wouters.
“The awarding of battle honours has deep historical roots and must be done in a thorough manner to ensure units are properly recognized.”
The fact most of the fighting was against Taliban militants, who chose hit-and-run attacks and remotely detonated bombs, may complicate the process but ultimately won’t stop the acknowledgment, said historian Jack Granatstein.
There is precedent for the honour set by Canadian units that fought in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, he said.
Different levels of battle honours — from recognizing an entire theatre of operations to specific campaigns, battles and actions — give the government a choice. For example, the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid was the subject of a separate action honour.
Such recognition allows the regiments involved to display the name of the battle on their flags or colours. It is a British military tradition that dates back to 1760 and is a point of pride within each unit.
The bigger question is how far the Harper government is prepared to go in publicly commemorating the Afghan war, which divided the country. The recent throne speech laid down a clear marker that Conservatives intend to recognize it.
“The question is what they’ll do. I doubt there will be a big parade of veterans,” said Granatstein, a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
“That somehow doesn’t seem like something this government would do at this stage for Afghanistan.”
The Conservatives “have been backing away from Afghanistan as fast as they can” in terms of political and government attention.
A mission to train Afghan soldiers, involving roughly 950 Canadians, is rapidly winding down with the final boots expected to depart Kabul at the end of March. The exit will allow the prime minister to once and for all consign the messy conflict to the history books, Granatstein says.
“I think basically Harper decided there was no political gain in the military, and in Afghanistan,” he said. “My guess is there won’t be much of a parade. But who knows? They might surprise me.”
Following the Libya air campaign, which saw no Canadian casualties, the government organized a celebration on Parliament Hill, which included a military fly-past. The event cost over $850,000.
Coming so close to the end of the Kandahar combat mission in 2011, the display prompted resentment among Afghan veterans, who felt their sacrifices, including 158 dead, were being ignored because the war was politically unpopular.
The thinking among the military leadership was that commemorations were appropriate only once all troops were home in 2014. The sentiment was so strong that defence sources say former defence minister Peter MacKay received pushback when he argued a travelling memorial to troops killed in Kandahar be allowed to proceed last summer.
In the throne speech the government also promised to rededicate the National War Memorial for all of those who fought for the country.