Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Murray Brewster, "Troops best as peacekeepers, Canadians say," Canadian Press, September 5, 2008.

...from Murray Dobbins at Word Warriors

OTTAWA — A majority of Canadians still view their soldiers as peacekeepers and would rather see them helping disaster victims than fighting, an internal poll prepared for National Defence suggests.

The results of the exhaustive survey, obtained by The Canadian Press, come despite the best efforts of both the Conservative government and the military to rebrand the Canadian Forces as a combat outfit.

“The image of the Canadian peacekeeper is one that has taken hold in the Canadian national psyche in the decades since the Korean War,” said the Ipsos Reid study, which is expected to be released Monday.

“Recent attempts at repositioning this traditional role toward one that emphasizes a more activist approach which includes the use of force have met with relatively little interest and still less acceptance.”

Desmond Morton, a military historian at McGill University, said the results are bad news for the Conservatives, who have staked a lot of political capital on Canada's playing a more militarily active role in the world, especially in Afghanistan.

He said the findings could reflect public unease with the mission in Kandahar, where almost 100 soldiers have died since 2002.

But the survey, which involved both telephone polls and focus groups, found that nearly two-thirds of those asked support what the country is trying to do in Afghanistan.

Respondents generally agree that a stronger military is important, but they sharply disagree on what that force should be doing.

Roughly 92 per cent of those surveyed think the military's role should be to respond to natural disasters around the world.

Focus group participants were asked what image came to mind with the word “soldier” and one responded: “I do not picture a Canadian soldier carrying guns.”

Asked whether Canadian troops should be early on the ground in an international crisis, as they were in both world wars, people were wary, with only 52 per cent seeing that as important.

Similarly, about half of the respondents supported the notion of taking part in international security operations, while the other half think Canadian troops should act as ceasefire observers.

One participant lamented that the fighting in Kandahar was changing the nation's international character:

“With Afghanistan, we're more in the spotlight than ever before. Before we were under the radar. Now our troops are in Afghanistan and they are looking at us in a different light. We used to be peacekeepers and we aren't any more, and I resent that.”

Traditional peacekeeping, which usually meant monitoring ceasefires, largely disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

Canadian troops were routinely caught in the crosshairs of opposing sides during the brushfire wars of the early 1990s, notably in the Balkans where there was often no peace to keep.

That frustrating experience shaped the attitude of a generation of soldiers, who were eager to shed the United Nations blue beret, which they saw as a symbol of weakness and indecision.

Yet the public clings to the romanticized notion of brave soldiers standing between belligerents.

Canadians “are resistant to change to the Canadian Forces, a brand with historic roots that they clearly admire and respect,” the analysis portion of the survey says.

Mr. Morton said the fact that public believes that peacekeeping is the ideal job for the country's military should send a signal to the Conservatives.

He said Canadians are idealists.

“I think the (peacekeeping) values are profound, and while I may think they may not be wholly realistic, they are rather more attractive than the values I encounter in the United States,” he said in an interview from Montreal.

Even though they do noot see their soldiers as warriors, the study suggests that a vast majority of Canadians – 71 per cent – regard the military as a source of pride.

Quebeckers and young people 18 to 24 years old are least likely to see the Forces in that way, a troubling finding for a military trying to recruit new soldiers.

The survey also found that young people are also more likely to tune out coverage of the military, including the Afghan war.

The focus groups were suspicious of both the media and the politicians when it comes to the fighting.

“Many participants claimed not to trust the media to report events in Afghanistan accurately,” the survey said.

“Political leaders were not generally believed to be an accurate source of information about Afghanistan, with some attributing ulterior motives to the government's reporting of events.”

Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said she was not surprised by the finding because “people are increasingly skeptical” of what they read and hear.

“In these kinds of situations there's always a shoot-the-messenger kind of mentality,” Ms. Welch said.

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