Canada is not at War in Iraq (and Combat is a Noun not an Adjective)

Matthew Fisher had it right. The recent parliamentary discussion over the role of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Iraq is largely foolish and naïve. There has been too much politicking, too much talking, and not enough thinking. While recognizing that the central issue revolved around Opposition attempts to score political points by claiming Prime Minister Harper apparently misled Parliament by saying the CAF was not a combat mission, the vocabulary used did nothing to enhance Canadians’ confidence in parliamentarians’ ability to understand what really goes on in military missions abroad.

Canada is not at war

There are many reasons to argue Canada is not ‘at war’ in Iraq. First, the term ‘war’ is notoriously difficult to define these days and there is no universal agreement on what it actually entails. At one end of the spectrum, we know when there is no war. At the other end, we know when war exists. There is, however, a very broad grey area between those two ends in which a particular degree of violence may or may not constitute war.

Second, although war terminology is used loosely to describe any confrontation — from sports competitions (the ‘battle’ of Ontario) to science fiction (the ‘war’ of the worlds) — the fundamental connotation of war has always related to conflict between states. Lately, however, war has been used to describe conflict against state-like (non-state) entities (the ‘war’ against terrorism). Usually, countries go to war against another country, or against an organized (state-like) adversary.

Third, in the past, mainly within democracies, declarations of war have constituted a formal legal step, which serves to give governments additional legal powers to mobilize national resources to fight the war. In the current case of Canada’s military mission in Iraq, Prime Minister Harper has been quite clear in defining the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) as the ‘enemy,’ repeating that ISIL has threatened Canada on many occasions. But he has never declared that Canada is at war with ISIL.

Fourth, to follow that last point, despite government bellicosity throughout the time of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, our contribution to overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and now our air and ground activity in Iraq, the government has never attempted to nationally mobilize Canadian resources, or public support, in a grand effort to prevail, as Canadian governments did during the periods 1914-1918 and again from 1939-1945. In fact, during the long years of combat in Afghanistan, many in Ottawa cynically, but accurately, complained that only the Department of National Defence (DND) and the CAF were ‘at war’, with the campaign there being seen, at best, as an ‘issue’ to be ‘managed’ during the course of other business. Other departments envied, and seldom supported, what resources were given to DND and the CAF. Nonetheless, if we had truly been at war, much more could and should have been done.

In Iraq, our meager military mission, as effective as it may be, hardly constitutes the product of a nation at war.

It is also necessary to refute talk of a ‘combat mission,’ because there is no such thing. Missions are defined by (hopefully clear) objectives, something politicians are loath to, if not unable to, provide for fear of being held politically accountable later on. The reality is, because Canada always operates within a coalition of friends, our only big political decision is whether to participate or not. Then we decide how small a contribution we can get away with, without being embarrassed. Once committed, military commanders are left with defining what it is they actually have to do, within the overall coalition operational framework. Politicians just want their soldiers to be there. The soldiers, on the other hand, want clarity about what it is they are expected to accomplish. Simply showing up at a fight is irresponsible. Our troops should come to any fight equipped, mentally and physically, to prevail. It’s not supposed to be a fair fight.

Any military mission involving troops and weapons may, or may not, involve combat. Canadian troops sometimes exchanged gunfire with one or other of sides they were keeping separated in Cyprus. They certainly fought one side or the other in the Balkans. They had gunfights in Somalia.  Yet, those campaigns were never referred to as ‘combat missions.’

Combat is a noun, not an adjective

Combat is a noun, not an adjective. Combat is an activity, not a mission objective. Combat – the violent engagement of an enemy, like air attacks on ISIL, no matter what the mission mandate – is only one of many methods available to complete any mission.

Calling it an ‘advise and assist’ mission in Iraq does not negate the risk of combat anywhere in the theatre of operations. The enemy, as they say, has a ‘vote’ and may initiate combat at any time, any place, to which Canadian soldiers will respond with effect. ISIL fighters are not restricted only to their supposed ‘front lines’ and could infiltrate predominantly Peshmerga-held areas to target Canadian troops. Combat can be sporadic. It might last for minutes. It could last for hours or days. There are long spells within any mission where there is no combat. So claiming some kind of mission-creep simply because Canadian special operators returned fire near ISIL lines ignores the reality of the battlespace. There is a risk of combat on any military mission.

In the end, debates over whether Canada is ‘at war’ in Iraq, or whether Canada’s ground troops are now engaged in ‘combat,’ are somewhat moot and useless to normal people. What is worth arguing about is the extent to which we should mobilize all elements of Canadian national power to play a truly meaningful role in destroying the pestilence that is ISIL.

BGen (ret) Dr. James S. Cox

Jim is a former Canadian Army Brigadier-General with extensive UN and NATO operational experience. He is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. and he also teaches foreign policy and civil-military relations at universities in Ottawa.

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