For the last few months we’ve been bombarded with histrionic commercials celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 that are so comically bad, you half expect them to turn into Drunk History sketches. Instead, the Conservative art guru who commissioned the propaganda has the rugged voiceover man earnestly impart to us rousing lines like, “200 years ago the United States invaded our territory… but we defended our land,” on the way to portraying what was a minor colonial squabble, as a glorious Canadian war of independence and the birth of our army.
With over $28 million dollars already committed to celebrating the forgotten war, some critics consider Harper’s usage of public funds a paid-for brainwashing, meant to promote the mythical origin story of a warrior nation. The truth is the army has never been too far from Harper’s spin doctors. Since he took office in 2006, his party set about trying to improve what they described as an ailing military suffering from decades of Liberal neglect. The claim went against the 2005 Paul Martin Liberals actually being the ones to commit combat troops to Southern Afghanistan and approve a much needed cash injection to “transform” our military into one capable of fighting in the War on Terror.
What Harper has actually done for the better part of six years in office, is to strategically invoke war and the troops as a means of perpetrating the idea that only a true blue Conservative can preside over a strong military. The reality, however, is that when it comes to the actual safety of our military, he doesn’t seem to care.
In the same way lawyers talk billable hours, teachers about autistic kids, between bragging about firefights and talking cautiously about IED’s, Canadian soldiers complain about being badly equipped in theatres of war, something that has been no different under Harper. “It’s all a fucking PR move,” said one soldier who did not want to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “The Conservatives aren’t that good to the Army, or at least no better than the Liberals were. But they’re good at using the Army, that’s for sure.”
“Take my tactical vest,” the soldier tells me, “ours were originally purchased for peacekeeping tours in Cyprus. They have four pouches for magazines, now, I’m not saying Cyprus wasn’t dangerous, but it wasn’t exactly Panjiway District. You could get away with four magazines of ammo. In Afghanistan I went out on patrol with 10-12 mags, so I literally had to buy additional pouches out of my own pocket to attach to my vest so I could do the job I needed to do. It was even worse for a machine gunner who needed more rounds. They literally had to make a choice sometimes between bringing water or bullets. My British and American counterparts had the right vests for the job.”
Most soldiers I know have made this exact complaint about their “tac” vests before, along with grievances about their boots, which is essential for proper performance during combat (just think trench-foot from WWI) and considered second in importance only to your weapon.
“For the British and Americans they get the choice of like eight different styles of boots to match your feet that you then order. We get one type. And let me tell you, they grate your fucking feet.”
To make matters worse for the average soldier, there have been whispers of major cuts on the horizon. The soldier I spoke with talked about a drastic reduction in billable hours coming for reservists from the current maximum of approximately eighty hours, to less than half that in the New Year.
“The worst part is, we’re now forced into wearing this little fucking pin commemorating the War of 1812 on our mess kits, until 2015. Something the feds have paid close to thirty million bucks on, meanwhile my guys have their training cut and will be lesser soldiers because of it. Not to mention, we’re rushing around right now to link battle honours from the War of 1812 to regiments that never even fought in it. I think one in fucking BC got it. BC wasn’t even settled at that time. All to commemorate a war that vilifies our greatest ally and chief trading partner.”
As has been widely reported, the feds are also making sweeping and unconscionable cuts in financing to burial funds for impoverished veterans, along with scaling back veteran pensions and disability benefits. Of course, no conversation about misspending in the Army is complete without mention of the veritable black swan, F-35 program. The plane has not only been described by aircraft experts as a “turkey” (an unsexy bird) and will cost in the billions, its design is anti- soldier: the loitering time for the plane is limited, meaning it can’t support troops on the ground for very long with airstrikes.
It appears that beyond the smoke and mirrors of a two-bit Isaac Brock, racially ambiguous Tecumseh, or a Laura Secord running through a haunted forest, Harper’s real support for troops is about as deep as any Liberal he hated. At the end of our conversation the soldier put it best: “The Conservatives are just doing what the Liberals used to do, using the army politically during international conflicts then cutting it back to balance the budget every ten years. They don’t care about us anymore than usual.”