In Canada, An Uproar Over Army Casualties

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

TORONTO, April 25 — A day after Canada’s newspapers carried front-page photos of the flag-draped coffins of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the Conservative government slapped a ban on news media coverage of the coffins’ return home to Canada on Tuesday.

The order, and an earlier decision by the government not to lower the national flag to half-staff to mark the soldiers’ deaths, brought criticisms that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to muffle reaction to Afghanistan casualties.

“What is the prime minister trying to hide by dishonoring fallen soldiers?” Jack Layton, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, demanded in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

“We should not be trying to hide these things,” echoed Bill Graham, leader of the Liberal Party.

Harper insisted the government is protecting the privacy of grieving families, and Conservative officials said the flag has traditionally not been lowered for war casualties. But the debate underlined the public’s qualms over Canada’s beefed-up role in Afghanistan, and the government’s nervousness about uncertain support for that operation.

Canada now has 2,300 troops in Afghanistan, and has recently moved its operation from Kabul to the more dangerous Kandahar region in the south. The four soldiers, killed Saturday in a roadside bomb blast north of Kandahar city, brought the Canadian death toll in Afghanistan to 16, including a diplomat. The nations’ papers were filled with stories about the four fallen men. The attack was the deadliest by insurgents against Canadian troops since they deployed to Afghanistan.

Harper, who took office in January, is a strong supporter of the military mission. But the most recent public opinion poll found Canadians evenly split on having troops in Afghanistan.

The redeployment to Kandahar and the casualties have led to “a series of rude awakenings for Canadians,” said Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute, which runs a veterans’ awareness project. That unease is increased by Canadians’ strong opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and to the Bush administration, he said.

“It’s a very fine balancing act the prime minister has to manage, communicating to Canadians that Afghanistan is not Iraq,” Griffiths said. As reports of Afghan civilian and Canadian military casualties mount, “it’s going to transfer that negative image of a bungled enterprise, of hopelessness, from George Bush to Stephen Harper.”

The comparison came quickly Tuesday after the government ordered journalists away from the Trenton, Ontario, air base when the coffins of the four soldiers arrived.

“Mr. Bush instituted the policy of not allowing the caskets to be open to the media, and now Mr. Harper has lifted a page from George Bush’s book,” Ujjal Dosanjh, a member of Parliament and the Liberal Party’s point man on defense, said in an interview from Ottawa. “This is absolutely unacceptable and un-Canadian. You don’t build support with Canadians by trying to hide casualties.”

But Harper’s defense minister, Gordon O’Connor, noted that the somber ceremony of the coffins’ departure from Kandahar had been widely photographed.

“The government is not trying to hide anything,” he said in Parliament. “The media have full access to our forces in Afghanistan. We are going to allow the families to mourn privately.”

O’Connor also defended the decision not to lower the national flag over the main Parliament building as a return to a tradition observed through the first two World Wars and Korean War, when Canada lost 117,000 troops. The previous government’s decision to lower the flag to half-staff for Afghanistan casualties was inconsistent and dishonored previously fallen soldiers, argued O’Connor, a retired general.

That position had the support from Canada’s largest veterans organization, the Royal Canadian Legion. But together, the flag issue and the media ban caused skepticism among other veterans.

“The cost of the war should always be shown front and center, so we can make informed decisions,” Sean Bruyea, a retired captain and veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, who has fought for veterans rights, said in an interview from Ottawa. “We rely a lot on public support. I would hope Canadians would step up to the plate to defend us.” .

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