Review: The Third Man In The Room

On March 21, 2005 a small group of men attended a secret meeting in Ottawa and committed Canadian troops to a disastrous Asian land war. No minutes of the conference exist. None of the participants had been to Afghanistan; none spoke Farsi; none had been in combat. Three participants recalled the event in their memoirs. Two of these accounts, by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin and Chief of Defence Staff Rick “Hell-ya” Hillier, are of little use.

The third man was Bill Graham, then defence minister. Graham’s account from page 373 of his autobiography rates among the most profound writing of any postwar Canadian politician. Faced with a life and death decision, Graham chose unwisely. He admits it with humility and candour. To read The Call Of The World is to sense a nagging conscience and sleepless nights. “It’s a cautionary tale that future governments might do well to heed,” he writes.

Acting without parliamentary authority or debate, cabinet committed troops to combat in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The mission was so catastrophic the defence department for years concealed casualty figures, and apologists misled the country in claiming phantom victories. “The Taliban is on the run,” Stephen Harper said in 2006. Canadians were told Afghanistan was “on its way to becoming a high-functioning democracy” (Winnipeg Free Press) where “there is progress every day” (Legion Magazine) in what was “one of the most extraordinary success stories” (Barrie Examiner) in “start contrast to the claims of naysayers” (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix).

“One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the Canadian government’s relentless effort to spin the war in Afghanistan into a positive light,” Scott Taylor of Esprit De Corps wrote in 2010. “Equally gobsmacking is the number of media flunkies who all too eagerly give voice to this misleading nonsense.” Esprit De Corps published a photo of then-Canadian Ambassador Chris Alexander next to a headline that read, “Only Village Idiot Can Remain Hopeful In Afghanistan”.

So, we come to Bill Graham’s memoirs. Graham is sincere and forthright. No, we didn’t know much about Afghanistan, he writes. No, we didn’t really know what we were doing. “No one in any department persisted in pointing out the pitfalls,” he writes.

“Nobody foresaw how large or long a commitment Canada was going to make to a country that was unknown to most Canadians and geographically far removed from any place that touched on our vital interests,” Call Of The World acknowledges. It exposed Canadian troops to a “violent, experienced enemy in very hostile terrain.”

“We were clearly and deliberately sending our men and women on a peacemaking mission in a dangerous conflict zone,” writes Graham. “What we underestimated was the scale, intensity and duration of the fighting that our troops would face.”

“I have to admit that some of the seeds of our disappointment should have been evident at the start,” Graham continues. “We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have”; It was unrealistic for us to expect that we could construct a truly effective government and civil society in the midst of the ongoing carnage. Moreover, our efforts to create an accountable, corruption-free and efficient police force capable of providing basic security for the population met with only modest, highly localized success.”

“We got into an extended conflict from which we couldn’t extract ourselves,” he concludes. Many questions remain: why was Parliament not consulted? What realistically did Canada intend to achieve? How would cabinet define mission failure? Graham kept notes but provides limited answers.

There’s a question of whether confessions of Call Of The World will reassure or infuriate war widows and those Canadians whose lives were forever altered by our Asian war. For the moment Graham deserves credit for plain honesty in a political memoir that breaks the mold of self-serving platitudes.

By Holly Doan

The Call Of The World: A Political Memoir, by Bill Graham; University of British Columbia Press; 456 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-90007; $39.95

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