The Proud Path to Operation Athena
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 14, 2004
and in the Edmonton Journal, August 17, 2004

“Only the dead have seen the end of war” - Plato

It’s a far cry from the days when a cavalry regiment of 600 cowboys, frontiersmen and North West-Mounted Police was recruited mostly in western Canada. Created by the man who made it big in Canadian railways and become one of the British Empire’s richest men, Lord Strathcona’s Horse arrived in Cape Town on April 10, 1900, to fight in the Boer War. The soldiers quickly became indispensable as scouts and in battles against the Boer mounted riflemen. In 1917, the cavalry again saw action defending the Somme front and won its third Victoria Cross charging a superior German force supported by machine gun fire.

It’s an even farther cry from that 23rd day in August, 1914, when the Edmonton City Pipe Band traveled to Ottawa to announce to the Commanding Officer of the newly formed Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry that “We came (Sir) to pipe you to France and back again.” Like Lord Strathcona’s Horse, the PPCLI was the brainchild of an enterprising Montreal businessman and citizen soldier, Captain Andrew Hamilton Gault, a veteran of the Boer War who understood the gravity of the situation in Europe on the eve of its Great War. From the trenches of Ypres and the battle of Vimy Ridge, the Patricias went on to glory in the Second World War at Sicily and the Hitler and Gothic lines. Later, they battled proudly in Korea and, as peacekeepers, fought against the Croation army in Yugoslavia.

This week, 600 troops from across western Canada arrived in Afghanistan to replace 2,000 soldiers with the Royal 22nd Regiment in Operation Athena - Canada’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Force under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Scaling back its mission to about 900, Canada’s role will consist mostly of reconnaissance by a fleet of Strathcona Horse armoured Coyote and LAV-3 vehicles with support from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd PPCLI, 1 Combat Engineers, 1 Service Battalion and others.

“Basically, they’ll be in and about Kabul providing overwatch protection with their surveillance equipment,” an army spokesman said. With gun battles raging in the provinces and two elections imminent in the nascent Afghan democracy, this surveillance will be critical to ensuring the vote is fair.

To be sure, it’s important work but, despite an impressive organization nationally and a noteworthy presence in peacekeeping missions internationally, it’s no secret that Canada’s cash-strapped military is not what it used to be. From the days of being a militia that repelled the Americans in 1812 and a warrior class forged on the crucible of battle in two world wars, Canada’s military has declined.

Following the heyday of post 1945 professionalism when NATO was created and the Korean War engaged, Jack Granatstein’s book Canada’s Army Waging War and Keeping the Peace concludes that “…unification , budget cuts, personnel reductions, bilingualism, social engineering, and a failure to renew equipment gradually broke down morale and sapped professionalism. The crisis of the 1990s did not have to occur as a result of Somalia, but it was bound to happen.”

And now, in a new century, it’s a new game in a new field. Warfare has been changed by new technologies, new doctrines and new operational and organizational concepts. The enemy, too, is new. Terrorism respects no rules of engagement and takes no prisoners, except as hostages.

Prime Minister Paul Martin, announcing Canada’s expanded role in Afghanistan when he addressed troops at CFB Cagetown last April, spoke of his 3-D approach to addressing international crises: diplomacy, defence and development. He also announced a comprehensive international policy review, the first such review in a decade. The goal, he said, is to determine whether Canada’s objectives and capabilities match foreign policy goals and to find out if Canada’s defence and security obligations are realistic and sustainable.

Canadians wish the prime minister clear thinking and abundant resources for determining and furnishing those objectives. After almost two centuries of wars fought by soldiers who overcame the failure of their governments to anticipate or make adequate provision for the nation’s defence and international obligations, his task is indeed great.

In the meantime, we salute Lord Strathcona, Hamilton Gault and the days of brash cavalry men, of bootless treks in stench filled trenches, of heroic deeds and missions that tested a man’s mettle. They may be gone though war, as always, remains.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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