Where's the national monument for Canada's Afghan vets?

Robert Smol on the need for a national monument for Canada's Afghan War veterans.

At the start of November, the final rotation of Canadian troops began their deployment to Afghanistan.

Come June 2011, when this last rotation returns, our current combat mission to that country will be over.

With that end in sight, it seems appropriate now to ponder what the legacy of this conflict will be.

By legacy, I mean our collective historical memory of the thousands of Canadian Forces who have served in this nine-year conflict, including the more than 150 Canadian men and women who gave their lives in the cause.

Troops of the first battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment make their way to parade square on Oct. 28, 2010 at the citadelle in Quebec City. Nearly 1,400 left the following week for a last stint in Afghanistan. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Whether we acknowledge this officially or not, Canada has created a new generation of young war veterans, some with special needs, who will be walking among us for many years to come.

Are Canada's Afghan War veterans going to be forgotten much like we have already forgotten those Canadians who served and died with NATO and the UN in places such as Bosnia, Cyprus and central Africa, to name only a few?

Or, worse, are they going to be the ones we blame for a war that the West might ultimately lose?

A true costing

The future is unclear. But what we can be certain about is that Afghanistan is a war and that for the last, almost nine years Canada has been engaging an enemy in one of the deadliest regions of the world.

Still, it seems that every November 11, when we remember "the war" and "those who made the supreme sacrifice," we choose only to commemorate the two world wars and those who fought in them, despite the fact that the majority of veterans alive today served after 1945.

Perhaps it is time to recognize that fact and realize, too, that as the face and the experiences of the veteran community changes so must our focus when it comes to honouring those who fight our country's battles.

As I am sure most veterans would agree, building an appropriate legacy for Afghan veterans must begin at the political level, specifically around the federal cabinet table and in the executive offices of Veterans Affairs.

If I may, the first thing I would suggest is that the federal government increase the pensions and benefits for veterans, especially disabled veterans, at least to the same level now enjoyed by those who served in the Second World War.

Yes, that will be expensive — and it will fly in the face of systematic attempts in recent years to scale back these benefits, particularly as they apply to younger soldiers.

Informal memorials to the sacrifice in Afghanistan dot Canadian communities. Here, artist Victor Fraser paints poppies in memory of the Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan in front of the War Memorial at Old City Hall in Toronto in 2008. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

But if we are going to insist on sending our young men and women into the heat of battle, then it is only right that we have a true costing of what that entails. 

Build the monument

Next on my priority list would be a formal obligation by the federal government to build a memorial in the national capital to the Canadian soldiers who served and died in Afghanistan.

We have small, almost informal versions of such a monument here and there  — on the outskirts of CFB Petawawa, at the Kandahar air base and in certain small communities across the country.

But there is no one, central national monument for a sacrifice that has clearly been made.

We have a precedent in the memorial to Canada's peacekeepers, constructed in 1992 through the sponsorship of the National Capital Commission and the Department of National Defence.

Don't the Afghan vets deserve the same public support? Or will this generation of war veteran be compelled to do what our Korean War vets had to do in 1996 and build their own memorial through private donations?

A lost war

Frankly, I am not optimistic that either of the above will happen any time soon.

Many former soldiers, like myself, have spent the better part of our adult lives in the regular or reserve military.

But yet we are not seen as bona fide veterans because we are perceived as too young and as having not fought in a "real" war.

What though makes a 20 year old who took a bullet for Canada in Afghanistan, Bosnia or Cyprus any different from a 20 year old who took a bullet for Canada on D-Day in 1944?

Does the geopolitical magnitude of a conflict add or detract from the individual sacrifice made by any member of our military?

Or is it more the fact that we can't quite digest according the same prestige and compensation that we do to Grandpa's generation to the 20-something Afghan vet who grew up going to rock concerts and playing video games?

Is this war any different? Canadian soldiers set up a trip flare after being shot at by insurgents during an operation in Panjwaii district, Kandahar, in October 2010. (Jonathan Montpetit/Canadian Press)

It should not matter, but I'm afraid it still does to too many of us.

My biggest concern, though, for the Afghan vets is not so much what is happening today but rather what might happen in the not-to-distant future. Particular if the war in Afghanistan is deemed by the West to have been lost.

I hope this does not happen. But if it does, it will be the first important conflict in which Canada has been on the losing side. Our Vietnam, if you will.

How then might we treat this new generation of vets, still mostly young men and women who are likely to be encouraged to leave a shrunken Armed Forces?

Will we make the same mistake as many Americans did after the Vietnam War and treat the veterans of our first lost war with backs turned and a public monument that took years of controversy to bring to fruition? 

I would like to think not. This has been a national sacrifice, it deserves Canada's and the national government's full attention.