Flag flap is just that - a flap

But banning media coverage of the coffins' arrival goes too far

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jack Layton made a good point yesterday when he noted the flag on the Peace Tower is flown at half-staff at the passing of a senator, but not in honour of Canadian soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan.

But the defence minister, Gordon O'Connor, had an equally good point when he replied the Harper government was merely restoring the traditional flag protocol that had been set aside by the previous government, which lowered flags on Parliament Hill on a one-off basis. Sometimes they were lowered, sometimes not.

Indeed, it was Bill Graham, as defence minister in the Martin government, who last November restored the traditional protocol of lowering flags in the theatre of operations, the home base of the dead soldier, and defence headquarters as well as within the member's service of the Forces.

The ad hocery of lowering the flags on Parliament Hill began with the death of four soldiers in the friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan in 2002. Other service members have died since, including an officer at sea in the fire aboard the disabled submarine HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004. On that sad occasion, the flags on Parliament Hill were flown at half-staff pursuant to an opposition Conservative motion that passed unanimously. So there's plenty of hypocrisy and cheap opportunism to go around here.

That more will die in Afghanistan is a virtual certainty given the size of the deployment and the hazards of the mission. The stationing of 2,300 Canadian troops in Kandahar is the largest deployment to a theatre of war since Korea. While a division was posted to Germany during the Cold War, that 40-year conflict was won without a shot being fired, and the only casualties Canada suffered were on manoeuvres.

The reprofiling of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, from the relative calm of Kabul to the dangerous region of Kandahar in the south, was always a hazardous assignment. But the former Martin government never assumed its responsibilities in warning Canadians just how dangerous it was.

Instead of Paul Martin explaining the new mission to the country, the government sent out the chief of defence staff, Rick Hillier, to deliver the message about taking it to the Taliban and Al-Qai'da on their own turf. And in the politically correct culture that prevails in this country, he was criticized for his provocative language in referring to terrorists as scumbags, which is actually a pretty apt description.

The mission isn't peacekeeping, it's nation-building and reconstruction of a failed state in the face of a murderous insurgency. Convoys of soldiers travelling in light vehicles make inviting targets. But if they are to win over the local population, they must be seen among them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a message to the troops, and the country, when he visited the Forces in Afghanistan last month, and actually slept over two nights rather than just chowing down with them and getting out, the usual drill for visiting heads of government.

Harper met two of the four victims, who served as close-in protection during his visit. Normally, he would speak to the families, or personally write to them. It's one thing to indicate resolve for the mission, but showing empathy is also part of the job of being prime minister. Harper doesn't do empathy very well, but he shouldn't be afraid of it. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton understood it went with the territory.

The flag flap is just that, a flap. More significant was the government's decision to declare yesterday's arrival of the four caskets at Trenton air base off limits to the media.

The Americans have been doing this for years. The media are not permitted to photograph the flag-draped coffins arriving at an air force base in Delaware.

Is the Harper government, similarly, banning the media so that support for the mission doesn't plummet at the sight of coffins? Such was the policy of the Chretien government during the Kosovo campaign in 1999. The return of casualties was never announced, let alone covered.

But if the Canadian media were permitted to cover the coffins being carried on to a plane in a moving ceremony in Kandahar, then in all logic they should be allowed to witness their arrival back in Canada. If Canadians can see the plane taking off in Afghanistan, they should also be able to see it landing in Canada. If the families prefer privacy, that's a different matter, but survivors have a way of sharing their grief with grace and dignity.

There is nothing morbid about the media being present on such an occasion. It is a sorrowful duty, but a solemn one.

 
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