Tag Archives: Iraq

Toronto Star & CTV’s front-line Iraq coverage amounts to little more than a military PR exercise

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

The Toronto Star and CTV are currently in the midst of a three-day exclusive profile of Canadian Special Forces training Kurdish peshmerga soldiers on the front lines of the war against Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) in northern Iraq. But unfortunately, their reporting so far has amounted to little more than stenography, with an apolitical and pro-military point of view presented without an iota of criticism or balance. Given the recent history of the Canadian Forces’ relationship with the media, it’s reasonable to speculate that the friendliness of this coverage was a condition to which the media organizations agreed in exchange for access.

The frontline access granted to the Star and CTV is a notable departure from the intense secrecy which has shrouded this mission since its earliest days. Other than sporadic glimpses on fear-mongering political tours, reporters have generally been denied access to the area, particularly reporters who come asking difficult questions, as the Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon did in the months after the death of Canada’s lone casualty in the conflict, Sgt. Andrew Dorion, at the hands of the very Kurdish peshmerga troops he had been training.

MacKinnon was repeatedly turned away despite obtaining permission from all relevant authorities to travel to the area, and Department of National Defence officials were pointedly vague and politely uncooperative in response to persistent inquiries from the Globe on the matter. The military’s top brass was likely not too pleased with the resulting long read, which dug deeply into the many questions still surrounding Dorion’s death and highlighted the highly contingent and transactional nature of the Kurds’ alliance with Western militaries.

This was likely exactly what Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance had in mind when he criticized media coverage he perceives as being hostile to the military. Last fall, Vance, whose visit to the front lines is a central highlight of the Star/CTV coverage, put forward plans to “weaponize” the information DND shared with the media. This incredible story, broken by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, didn’t get nearly enough attention at the time, and is extremely relevant in light of this Star/CTV exclusive:

There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed “friendly” to the military. Such leaks will consist mainly of “good news” stories or positive initiatives and the journalists will be required to heavily promote those.

Equally important, is the flip-side of this “weaponization” strategy. That is the targeting of journalists who are writing or broadcasting the stories that the [Canadian Forces]/DND don’t want out in the public domain.

Journalists seen as “trouble-makers” are those producing stories about failed equipment purchases or uncovering details about severely injured soldiers not being treated properly or individuals being sexually harassed, etc., public affairs officers tell Defence Watch.  In other words, reporters who are producing what the CF/DND views as negative or embarrassing news stories.

The “weaponization” aspect will come into play with phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc. – anything to undercut the credibility of such journalists in the eyes of readers and their employers, NDHQ public affairs sources say. Other tactics aimed at these journalists could also be developed.

Vance later tried to downplay the report, saying that while he understood why some may find the term “weaponization” “aggressive”, he merely “want[ed] Defence to be a respected voice in the very important defence dialogue that goes on in the country”. Notwithstanding these comments, given the military’s history of intimidating reporters who cover them unfavourably, it would be understandable if this threat of “weaponization” put a chill on critical coverage of Canada’s operations in Iraq.

It also simultaneously created a perverse incentive – outlets which provided positive coverage which was “friendly” to the military would be rewarded. It seems that the Star and CTV have won this teacher’s pet contest, and are doing their best to maintain their current level of access with what ultimately amount to hero-worshipping puff pieces.

The Star’s piece on Friday, sensationally headlined “Daesh is doomed, Canada’s top general says during dramatic visit to Iraq”, is an exercise in security theatre. Peppered with details on the dangers of the visit (“Anything in the bushes, avoid it. The last thing I want is for you guys is to step on something that goes boom,” a Canadian special operations sergeant cautioned journalists as they awaited Vance’s arrival”), the article is profoundly deferential to Vance, who is given a platform from which to uncritically promote the mission and confidently declare that it will inevitably be successful:

Today, the Star gushes about the incredible progress Canada’s incredible Special Forces (“experts in the craft of warfare…among the best in the world…trained to handle worst-case scenarios at home and abroad”) have made in training and assisting peshmerga troops:

“Since we’ve been working here in northern Iraq, we’ve seen outstanding progress. They are very capable fighters. They will absolutely fight to the last man to protect their homes,” a major with special operations forces told the Star…

But the Canadians are more than just military teachers. They are a welcome reassurance, a morale booster in what has been a difficult fight against the extremists…

“As peshmerga we gained a lot from the Canadians, from training to help during major attacks. We thank them for all this,” one pesh soldier told Canadian journalists as he stood watch in an observation post.

Meanwhile, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, absurdly wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word PRESS, opened her exclusive front-line interview with Vance with what is possibly the softest softball question of all time:

LAFLAMME: So tell me about, you know, this is such a rare opportunity for Canadians to finally see who Canada’s Special Forces are. Why was that important for you to share this message now?

VANCE: Well, I guess I’ll start with, Lisa, by saying that to me, every member of the Canadian Armed Forces is special, and every part of the Armed Forces has something special and important to offer to a military mission. In the specific case of CANSOF [Canadian Special Operations Forces], this is an organization that I want Canadians to be proud of. I think we should be proud of them. They’re wonderful people – you know, bright, motivated, and exceptionally well trained. And we’re one of a very, very small number of nations in the world that can do what we do.

Just in case you forgot – this is the exact same general who just months ago was threatening career-sabotaging reprisals against journalists who covered the military unfavourably. Is it any wonder large sections of the Star’s reporting reads like it could have been directly copied from a DND press release? Or that LaFlamme gave Vance every opportunity to make himself and his troops look good?

This “exclusive coverage” has not in any way offer the public a better understanding of Canada’s military mission in Iraq, and especially not of the fraught political context in which it operates. Instead, it’s been a fairly blatant exercise in public relations, uncritically promoting Canadian Special Forces, their peshmerga-training mission, and of course, Gen. Jonathan Vance.


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Canada’s overlooked baggage of foreign colonialism

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia)

Speaking to an audience at New York University this past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set off a tempest of argument in Parliament and online with a seemingly off-the-cuff statement that Canada doesn’t have “the baggage” of a “colonial past”.

The remark was a reply to a question about peacekeeping, and Trudeau’s handlers and defenders were quick to point out that the Prime Minister was referring to colonialism in a foreign context, and not denying the legacy of colonialism in (so-called) Canada.

In fact, as the CBC pointed out, Trudeau delved into that painful legacy during the same talk:

Trudeau also spoke critically of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people — and specifically mentioned “colonial behaviours” — in comments that were not in the National Observer article.

“We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said, in answering a question from a student.

Nevertheless, Trudeau has come under fire for the comments. Some see the distinction between foreign and domestic colonialism as meaningless, as Canada is a product of colonialist ideology. It is a nation which was literally built on the colonial dispossession of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, a genocidal process which continues to this day.

Less discussed is this debate, however, is Trudeau’s erroneous assertion that Canada doesn’t have “baggage” when it comes to colonialism in other parts of the world. Continue Reading

Defying all reason, NATO is shambling towards another disastrous war in Libya

Image description: Two fighter jets release explosives in mid-air. (Image credit: Coto Report)

Image description: Two fighter jets release explosives in mid-air, apparently over Benghazi, Libya. (Image credit: Coto Report)

As Canada and its NATO allies gear up for yet another military intervention in Libya, I feel it’s worth asking what exactly they hope to accomplish there.

Note I don’t say “what we hope to accomplish”. I was against the first round of bombing and political interference and sneaky boots-on-the-ground special-forces whatever-it-was-they-did (cause-we’ll-never-know), although of course Stephen Harper & Co. never asked me for my opinion. And I’m solidly against a second ill-conceived round of open-ended meddling into one of the more complex civil wars in the world, mostly on the grounds that Western militaries caused the damn war by virtue of its first ill-conceived intervention, and haven’t exactly demonstrated any kind of penitence or even awareness that they played a role in creating the chaos that subsumes Libya today.

If you’ve forgotten about the First Libyan War Non-Combat Operation, or if you weren’t paying attention at the time, here’s how it went down: Continue Reading

Canada ending ill-conceived air war, expanding ill-conceived ground war in Iraq

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 20, 2015. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has fallen under heavy criticism from the Conservative Party this past week over the government’s recently announced revamp of Canada’s war non-combat operation with ISIS/Daesh. Interim leader Rona Ambrose slammed the ending of the Air Force’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria as “shameful”, and called Trudeau “dangerously naive” for his belief that the best approach to the conflict was, in his words, a “reasonable” one.

“There’s no reasoning with terrorists of this kind, that’s why it’s important to send a very clear signal that we are willing to do what it takes to fight a threat of this nature,” Ambrose told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

But the Conservatives, as is par for the course, are barking up the wrong tree on this one. Distracted by the smell of red meat for their base – cowardice in the face of Islamic terrorism! – they’ve missed the true issues in PMJT’s mission relaunch.

The fact of the matter is that the end of Canada’s ill-conceived air war, though laudable in isolation, is accompanied by a significant escalation of what can only reasonably be termed a ground war in Iraq. And there’s nothing in the rhetoric coming from either the Prime Minister or the Department of Defence to indicate that the government has well-considered contingency plans for the various ways in which this conflict may develop, or even much acknowledgement of the massive complexity of the situation. Continue Reading

Liberals’ plan for Iraq & Syria will be unrealistic, unwinnable and unfinished

Image: An RCAF CF-188 Hornet refuels from a CC-150 Polaris over Iraq. In the background are white fluffy clouds and a blue sky. (Image credit: Department of National Defence)

Sources inside the Department of National Defence indicated to the press last Friday that the Liberal government’s long-awaited plan for Canada’s military operations against the so-called Islamic State (also known, derisively, as Daesh) will be revealed early this week.

While the specific details of the plan remain to be seen, a few things are already certain: it will be unrealistic, will feature no feasible path to victory, and will not address the main driving forces of the conflict in any meaningful way.

Bold claims? Perhaps. But how else to interpret the last four months of hyper-cautious prevarication on the part of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his colleagues on this issue, their near-perfect silence on the escalation of Russian intervention in Syria or the mounting evidence of Turkish governmental collaboration with Daesh, their total unwillingness to justify their drawdown of fighter jets, their wilful ignorance of our “ally” Saudi Arabia’s involvement on both sides of the conflict? Continue Reading

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