DND drops plan to add Afghanistan to war memorial

The Defence Department has shelved an elaborate proposal to revamp the National War Memorial in Ottawa to honour Canadians who fought in Afghanistan.
A Defence Department proposal to revamp the National War Memorial in Ottawa to honour Canadians who fought in Afghanistan has been shelved. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The Defence Department has shelved an elaborate proposal to revamp the National War Memorial in Ottawa to honour Canadians who fought in Afghanistan.

The plan, a copy of which was seen by The Canadian Press, involved etching the dates 2001-2011 into the granite sides of the downtown monument that was first erected to honour the sacrifices of troops during the First World War.

The $2.1-million plan, which included the addition of an eternal flame to the monument, was circulated at National Defence headquarters last October, say senior military sources.

The proposal also recommended a commemoration ceremony, preferably on Remembrance Day this year, that would have involved the families of 157 soldiers who died throughout the combat mission, which concluded in Kandahar this summer.

It also suggested a stone-and-marble memorial, erected behind the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar, be brought to Ottawa and reassembled at the Beechwood Cemetery, where many casualties of the Afghan campaign are buried.

The proposal was made to the chief of defence staff, as well as senior civilian leaders, including former junior defence minister Laurie Hawn, but was quietly dropped without explanation.

Defence officials confirm the plan was never brought forward for a decision, and came before the Harper government had decided to continue a presence in Afghanistan through the NATO training mission in Kabul, which will continue until 2014.

"These men and women in uniform are in harm's way and it is clearly inappropriate to commemorate a mission which has yet to be completed," said Joshua Zanin, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

"When the last troops return home to their families at the conclusion of the mission, the full scope of Canada's contributions in Afghanistan, including all the work of all those who have sacrificed and fallen in the service of their country, will be appropriately recognized and commemorated."

The Harper government has previously insisted that combat is over for Canadian troops and that the training mission is benign. To emphasize the point, it refused to put the training deployment to a vote in Parliament.

The prime minister visited Kandahar at the end of May to mark the end of the combat mission, although it continued until early July.

War memorial changes could rekindle debate: expert

The day combat operations ceased in July, the Harper government said nothing to mark the occasion, although the Taliban noted the event for Afghans and the world.

Other than acknowledging the sacrifice of soldiers in Kandahar in ceremonies related to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Harper government and has been silent about the mission, preferring to move on from the bruising debates and the incendiary politics that characterized the war.

Douglas Bland, a former soldier and defence academic at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said changes to the memorial could rekindle the fading debate, but also ignite a new one about whether Afghanistan — with 157 casualties  qualifies to stand alongside the much larger sacrifices of earlier wars.

"Commemorations are appropriate in this circumstance," Bland said Tuesday. "When you're looking at scale, there is a big difference. I think a monument to Afghanistan, somewhere in the National Capital Region would be useful."

In the First World War, 66,944 Canadian soldiers were killed along with 2,000 civilians. A generation later, the Second World War claimed 45,000 soldiers and Korea left 516 dead.

Bland said soldiers who fought in Korea came home to a subdued welcome and had to fight for recognition over the decades. Kandahar veterans are unlikely to face the same public indifference, he said, because media coverage of the war was "in your face" and Canadians are more aware of the hardships.

The now-abandoned memorial proposal acknowledged that the Defence Department had a vested interest in shaping the post-combat mission narrative and worried how history would view the country's decade-long war.

"Above all else, the nation must not believe that the efforts of soldiers, public servants, police, of our dead and wounded, of the decade and billions spent were somehow in vain," said the briefing.

Legion organizes troop appreciation events

It took almost 20 years after the devastation of the First World War for the federal government to design and erect the national war monument, which was known as The Response.

The inclusion of the Second World War and the Korea War on the sides of the monument didn't take place until 1982. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added in 2000.

The presentation noted that the federal government didn't even begin to think about commemorating the sacrifices of the First War World until 1925, well after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice.

"We should not allow seven years to pass before commemorating Afghanistan," said the PowerPoint briefing.

It urged senior leaders in the Defence Department to talk with Veterans Affairs Canada and the National Capital Commission, both of which are responsible for the site southeast of Parliament Hill.

The Royal Canadian Legion, with 500,000 members and 1,600 branches, has been organizing local events to show appreciation for the troops, but also noted the Harper government's silence about the coming Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremonies.

"It is just a normal Remembrance Day," said the legion's communications director, Bob Butt.

"There has been no indication [from Veterans Affairs] of anything different happening. We would have expected to have been briefed, if there was something different."

Butt said the legion would happily support the inclusion of the Afghanistan dates and the eternal flame, but noted the issue has not been debated among members.