Interview with an anti-militarist veteran
Scott Costen says Canadians must re-think how the military operates, envisioning a way for its know-how to be used for more constructive purposes than fighting NATO's wars
Journalist Scott Costen served as a public affairs officer with Canadian Forces’ Regional Command South in Afghanistan from 2009-2010, having joined the military as a reservist in 1999. He’s been on medical release since 2015 due to post-traumatic stress.
Costen, who lives in Enfield, N.S., wrote a piece in the Toronto Star on Aug. 31 this year, headlined, “To avoid another Afghanistan, Canada must leave NATO” that is very much worth a read.
On the eve of Remembrance Day, I spoke to him about the military’s capacity to be a force for peace, the Royal Canadian Legion’s stranglehold on Remembrance Day festivities and why the Afghanistan War was doomed to failure.
What follows has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for the length.
JA: What attracted you to the military?
SC: My grandfather was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He was in Bomber Command, he was a gunner and a Halifax bomber. He was actually at one point shot down over France and, for all intents and purposes, was missing for two months. He was fortunate enough to connect with resistance members in France who eventually helped him return to England safely.
He didn't talk about it a lot, but I always respected his service. And the Second World War was such a fundamentally necessary effort. Most wars, I think, are unnecessary. But I do believe that under certain extreme circumstances fighting becomes a necessity. And I always respected his courage.
The other part of it was the desire to serve something bigger than myself. Canada has many flaws. We've seen recently with the discovery of the children from the residential schools just how flawed Canadian history is. There are serious flaws still remaining. But I do believe that Canada is a country to be proud of and a country that is worth serving.
JA: When you were deployed to Afghanistan, what were your thoughts on the war? Was your more critical viewpoint something you came to over time through your experiences?
SC: As a public affairs officer, I had had the very solemn duty of having to assist a number of the families of soldiers that were killed in Afghanistan before I went there myself, and that really laid bare for me the loss that was being felt in households across the country. I wanted to go, partly because of just the natural inclination of somebody in uniform. If there is a an operation underway, you want to participate in it. It's a sense of duty.
Part of it was a motivation of, quite frankly, some guilt over attending all these funerals and assisting all these families, but not having been overseas myself at that point. But really, I'd bought into the the line of thinking which the government which the government and the military was projecting, that we were going there to help women and girls, help them go to school, help protect them from all manner of dangers inherent in the society that had taken hold under the Taliban.
It didn't take me long to figure out the mission that was actually unfolding on the ground was not the one we were being told about back home. It just seemed that, for the most part, the people didn't want us there. We seemed focused on far more on the kinetic warfare than on the humanitarian aspect of it.
There were a lot of humanitarian projects underway. I'm not trying to discount that work. But it just seemed that although I was at Regional Command South headquarters in Kandahar, every order was coming down from Kabul, which was completely dominated by American leadership.
And that's part of why I think if Canada ever wants to have an independent foreign policy, we have to remove ourselves from NATO, which is completely American-dominated.
JA: It sounds like you were always skeptical, but being there and seeing it in action over time was formative.
SC: When I went there I was hopeful that I was going to make a difference. And probably, within a week, I came to the realization that that just wasn't going to happen, that the mission was not what we were being told it was, and then ultimately, that it would end in failure.
JA: I wanted to shift the focus towards Remembrance Day. There’s a perception that Remembrance Day — whatever the intentions of the people who are participating in it — serves to sort of glorify militarism. Do you share that assessment?
SC: No, I don't think that that can be made as a blanket statement. Remembrance Day is a very difficult period of time for veterans, especially those who have served overseas. It can be really painful, it can be really triggering, I guess is a term we use now, especially for Afghanistan veterans like myself with the recent calamity that's unfolded there.
One of the issues that I think is at play when people say it's being romanticized or glorified is that the the Royal Canadian Legion is the default leadership of Remembrance Day ceremonies across the country. The Legion is an organization where the vast majority of its members are civilians who never served a day in uniform and is out of touch with with veterans, especially newer veterans.
It’s a problem when you have an organization like that in charge of Remembrance Day ceremonies, that doesn't really have a grip on where veterans are at, has a stranglehold on the poppy as a trademark and sues people if they use the poppy in a way they don't think is appropriate.
I don't know what the alternative is. But at some point, I think communities might be might do well to take over Remembrance Day for themselves and maybe incorporate other voices, like someone from a peace organization.
JA: How widespread is this perspective in the veterans community?
SC: Generally speaking, the public doesn't understand what the military does, how it's structured, or who is in it. And that also applies to most of the media. In my experience, most journalists have very little understanding of the military. They write about it as if they do, but they really don't.
People in the military come from all walks of life. But a lot of them come from very working class backgrounds and a lot of them come from rural communities, particularly in Atlantic Canada.
A lot of these people, first of all, want opportunity in terms of employment. But they also genuinely want to do something meaningful and serve other people.
The military is whatever the government says it is — it can be a warfighting machine, or it can be a peacekeeping machine, or it can be a climate change-fighting machine.
We've got military members who have helped with the response to the pandemic. We could have military members helping with the distribution of clean drinking water for First Nations across the country if we wanted to. I know there are some issues with having uniformed members come into a First Nations community. But if we really wanted to solve that crisis, the military could do it quicker than any other governmental or non-governmental organization.
We have the disaster assistance response team that's responded to a number of natural disasters around the world. They can fly overseas and in three-to-four days be churning out fresh drinking water for people. I've never understood why we don't redirect that resource to help people here in a time of crisis.
In other news …
Belarus, which is not an EU member, is forcing refugees from the Middle East and Africa to the border with the Poland — the EU nation on its western border — as retaliation for EU sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s Russia-aligned government.
From United Press International: The refugees have been at the center of the dispute for days. Now, sitting in freezing temperatures in Belarus near the Polish border, thousands of them are now facing armed Polish troops on one side — and Belarusian forces on the other, urging them to cross into Poland and the European Union illegally.
Some migrants attempted to breach the barbed-wire border fence into Poland with logs, demonstrating the depth of their desperation.
“We don’t have any blankets, some of us don’t have coats. We don’t have any more food or water. You know hunger is the main cause of freezing,” Zanyar Karimi, a 26-year-old Iranian-born Kurdish migrant, told the Globe and Mail.
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