News from the frontlines of Canada’s glorious non-combat operation

The release of the federal budget two weeks ago unofficialy ushered in Campaign Season 2015, marking the beginning of posturing and jockeying for headlines and advantage.

The HarperCons did their damndest to hammer home the notion that they’re strong stewards of the economy, despite the fact that the economy has pretty much been shit the whole time they’ve been in power and they had to essentially cook the books to get to a surplus.

Pundits responded to the government’s surplus triumphalism with a pretty big “meh.”

Trudeau’s Liberals countered by announcing the Very Exciting News that barely-out-of-office ex-chief of police Bill Blair was going to run for Parliament.

The announcement didn’t go over quite as well as the Libs had hoped, what with all the awkward questions about the G20 (and Trudeau declaring that it wasn’t his place to judge the arbitrary detaining of 1100 people, the atrocious conditions in which they were held, the horrific violence visited upon peaceful protestors and innocent bystanders, or really any of the TPS’ questionable conduct during the 2010 summit).

Then there was the spotlight that it shone on Trudeau’s repeatedly broken promise to allow open nominations in every riding, with even the hapless National Post poking fun at the Liberaleader.

Which is to say that so far, Campaign 2015 has been going pretty poorly for the two heavyweight parties so far. And with a near-tie in the most recent polls, both were looking for some kind of action.

And as every good Conservative knows that nothing, nothing rallies people around like some good old flag-waving and troop-praising and enemy-bashing!

So in a move that was destined to play well with the “If you don’t stand behind our troops you’re welcome to stand in front of them” crowd, our Fearless Leader made a super stealthy dead of night surprise visit to the combat zone in Iraq (where our troops aren’t exactly engaged in combat, technically).

Red meat for the base, one might assume – until one reads the breathless hero-worshippy coverage of the operation:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a dramatic trip to northern Iraq to see firsthand where Canadian-trained Kurdish fighters have clashed with Islamic State extremists.

With binoculars in hand, Harper gazed out over gently rolling hills at the terrain still held by Islamic State militia barely 10 kilometres away.

Clouds of smoke stained the horizon, likely from fires started by extremist fighters in hopes that the smoke would prevent coalition jets flying overhead from spotting their targets, one defence official told reporters.

Now seriously, tell me that doesn’t sound like full-on propaganda. The bold heroism, the drama, of our great Leader surveying the battlefield where our troops are bravely fighting assisting in the training of the people who are fighting.

Brings tears to my eyes, really. I mean, listen to this!

From Baghdad, Harper took a short flight north to Erbil. This prosperous-looking city is the regional capital of Kurdistan. But just a short drive west, Islamic State fighters were closing in on the city not so long ago.

With the fighting still waging [raging?] to the west, security was extraordinarily tight.

Kurdish soldiers stationed at regular intervals at roadside and keep watch from hilltops. The prime minister himself was under guard by elite Canadian soldiers.

Jet fighters and a reconnaissance aircraft keep watch overhead.

The area around the site where Harper visited remains littered with unexploded bombs, a dangerous legacy of the extremists that continues to take a heavy toll on the Peshmerga forces.

He’s so brave! So fearless! Posing for a photo op just barely kilometres away from where ISIS used to be! Mouthing empty platitudes and taking care not to make a George-Bush-Mission-Accomplished kind of blunder!

Although if you ask me, the guard of “elite Canadian soldiers” (who weren’t on active combat duty, no sirree!) was probably more for protection from the Peshmerga than the fearful spectre of Islamic State militants.

After all, Canada’s one (non-)combat fatality in this war non-combat operation didn’t come at the hands of ISIS, but in a “friendly fire” incident – and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about what went down, questions both the Canadian military and Kurdish peshmerga are struggling to avoid.

But awkward questions about dead soldiers and the limits of our (non-)combat mission couldn’t rain on Harper’s parade!

In the wake of that incident in early March, Canadians have curtailed their frontline activity, a situation that one defence official said was only temporary. [my emphasis]

Harper again called the death a terrible tragedy and while be [he?] could shed no light on the ongoing investigations, he said the military would learn the lessons to avoid a repeat.

(Seriously, the Star should hire me as a copy-editor or something…)

And it’s cute, almost, the notion that our frontline activity in Iraq has been “curtailed”, because that very same day, Harper also addressed Canadian fighter pilots flying out of Kuwait:

In an aircraft hangar in Kuwait on Sunday, Stephen Harper spoke from the prime ministerial lectern, the one emblazoned with the Canadian coat of arms.

In front of him, dressed in combat fatigues, stood the pilots and support crews deployed there for the Canadian mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Behind him were two CF-18s parked at diagonal angles, and between them was a large Canadian flag.

In a sense — per the infamous Justin Trudeau quote — Harper was whipping out our CF-18s and showing how big they are.

Lest you think the writer is exaggerating the scene, here’s a photo:

Photo credit: Unknown/@pmharper on Twitter

Photo credit: Unknown/@pmharper on Twitter

And what exactly, Mr Harper, is that mission?

Well, the Star tells use that “Six CF-18s, joined by one CC-150T air-to-air refueller and two CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft are part of the air campaign against Islamic State targets” and that “By April 29, Canadian aircraft had flown 844 missions, including 548 sorties by CF-18s.”

Which is to say, we’re dropping bombs.

Which is about as frontline as it gets, if you ask me.

And not only are we dropping bombs on Iraq, where the Western-backed government has at least invited us. We’re also, as of March, dropping bombs on Syria.

You may recall the announcement at the time, although I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Despite the fact that bombing a sovereign nation without its permission or the approval of the UN Security Council is against every law of war on the books, there wasn’t much fuss kicked up about it.

Here, for instance, is a Globe and Mail article pretty typical of the tone the media took to the whole thing. Triumphalist quotes from the military and the odious Minister of Defence Jason Kenney, passing mention of NDP and Liberal opposition, a vague gesture at international law, but mostly good ol’ hardcore war porn. (I mean, check that action shot of the CF-18 Hornet over Iraq!)

What these seemingly bloodless “sorties” actually involve, though, is the killing and wounding of civilians.

Just days ago, news broke that an American-led bombing in Syria had killed at least 52 civilians, including 31 children, in a village where ISIS had no positions.

Not one ISIS militant was among the dead, or apparently within miles of the village. Today, the Canadian Department of National Defence insisted that Canadian planes didn’t play a role in the strike.

That may be true, for all we know. But this was far from an isolated incident.

(The article detailing the denial is unfortunately paywalled, and I couldn’t find the original press release anywhere – if a resourceful reader knows how to track it down, I’d be very appreciative!)

The story actually broke while Harper was in Iraq, but it seems he wasn’t asked to comment. In fact, as far as I can tell from the coverage, he wasn’t asked any hard questions at all about the complex conflict his government has got us entangled in.

Which is to say, the press gave the Prime Minister a free pass to use a conflict zone as a photo op. They uncritically aired his claims that our mission against ISIS is going just great. They let him pretend to be a hero for the cameras, and breathlessly documented the stealthy manoeuvres he used to get himself into the country.

They played along.

I’m really not excited for Election Season, and this one has kicked off to a dismal start. The parties seem to be looking at it as an information war – another kind of non-combat operation, if you will, in which our perception of them is far more important than the reality.

This weekend we had Stephen Harper as Action Hero, fearlessly and single-handedly taking on Islamic militancy, whatever the risks may be, wrapping himself up in the flag and using the impossible-to-criticize-in-polite-company language of “honouring the troops”.

It doesn’t matter that this is a bullshit composite image stitched together by Conservative strategists in focus groups and passed on by a captured and credulous media.

It doesn’t matter that our Glorious Non-Combat Operation in Iraq and Syria is a strategic blunder of the first order, was designed to build up fear of Islamic militancy for political advantage, and probably constitutes a war crime.

The story is “Prime Minister visits front lines, praises troops,” because it’s easy to write and it sells.

So consider this the first serious attack in the non-combat operation to secure your vote, and be on guard against future stealth attacks.

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