Saturday, April 23, 2011

Are Yankees Stupid?

What would I say if a European friend asked me about my neighbors to the south, asking, “Are Yankees really that stupid?” I’d be honest. I’d reply “Well, just last year a responsible high up Washington official said publicly that some of the terrorists of 9/11 had crossed the border from Canada into the U.S.” Of course, that was not a responsible thing for her to say since it was 100 per cent false. I don’t remember whether she apologized.

I’d refer my friend to that new passport law, that law bitterly opposed by congressmen of the border states, that law whereby North American farmers and townsfolk would still be able to cross county lines and state lines for free, but would now be stopped at the 49th parallel unless they had a big expensive passport. And then I would relate how, only one month before the new law was to come into effect, two former U.S. presidents were doing the “rubber chicken thing” in Toronto. And when a journalist asked these two “Mr. Presidents” what they thought of compulsory passports for the world’s longest undefended border, both men said… they didn’t know anything about it. The scandal made the front pages all over Canada. I don’t remember whether any congressmen were asked for their reaction.

In fairness, if I was a former president, depressurizing after the stress of holding office, then I too might stop reading newspapers and instead get all my news from the six o’clock infotainment, but of course this excuse can’t be applied to that Washington official who, by the way, was the head of Homeland Security. Perhaps the crux, then, is not that Yankees are “stupid” so much as irresponsible. Declaring war on terror without being committed to learning basic information verges on something far more serious than mere stupidity. Perhaps, even though as individuals Americans don’t like losers, as a group they are just not committed to winning. (There is no try to win; you either do or do not.)

In fairness, I must say that Canadians, being equally North American, are equally prone to irresponsibility. In Afghanistan, for example, according to my memory, the Canadian counter-insurgency effort is, supposedly, to deny aide and comfort to Taliban recruiters, by winning the people’s hearts and minds and nourishing a strong democracy. Supposedly this is to be done by building schools, wells, bridges and so forth. The Canadian armed forces are to be merely support troops, a mere sideshow, assisting this main focus by keeping Canadians safe to do their development efforts. Otherwise the Taliban will dig up their rifles and rush back in again when the Canadians leave. Yet somehow, or so it seems to me, every reporter who goes overseas reports solely on the armed forces. Of course I believe the army is glorious, and of course I have a “support the troops” ribbon on my car, but that doesn’t mean I take my eye off the ball: the development efforts.

What if General Patton had closed his eyes after Pearl Harbor? What if, instead of making an effort to develop a big army as quickly as possible, he had frozen all such development for six months? The Canadians in Afghanistan, I regret to say, after their initial success, had a six-month period where the development workers didn’t leave their compound because they weren’t safe. This does not trouble me nearly as much as how it was so long after the six months were over that the news finally leaked out. That’s not good enough. If the journalists, and the government, didn’t care enough to notice for six months, then the Canadian public obviously doesn’t care either: That’s not glorious, that’s not a noble tragedy, that’s just small and petty.

It is not possible merely to wish benevolent government on a nation whose history, both recent and of old, has been a field of war invasion and lawlessness. So, our troops remained deployed to (a) guarantee a measure of security while Afghanistan citizens went about the first steps to democracy and the extension of basic rights, (b) assist in building the essential elements-schools, a justice system, infrastructure, roads-that any society must have, and (c) offer humanitarian assistance where possible.
Rex Murphy, Canada and Other Matters of Opinion, p.139

I live on the Canadian prairie. As in Afghanistan the grass is dry and yellow. Many of the surrounding farms have Quonset huts for barns, those long half cylinders from World War II, made of arching corrugated steel bolted together. In the next town, Cochrane, is a pre-war barn that’s shaped like a Quonset hut, but the structure is made of brick. Whatever works. Another (infra) structure easy to bolt together is a WWII style Bailey bridge, like something out of a giant’s mechano set.

I remember as a boy, driving with my father, when one day Dad stopped the car to show me a Bailey bridge, a sturdy bridge like something out of a war movie, explaining to me how amazingly fast they can be extended over the river. Now I’m as old as Dad was then, while every day I drive past a well that is something out of a cowboy movie, a well with rotating vanes on a tower. These wells are common here on the plains.

Now ask me, as a fine Canadian citizen, “What do the schools, bridges and wells we are building over in Afghanistan look like?” My answer is: “I. Don’t. Know.” Yes, you may call me petty. Just don’t call me a Yankee.

Here in Calgary, if any European asks me in amazement, “Is there something in the drinking water that makes Yankees have a low I.Q.?” then I can only reply, “I can’t judge intelligence, not when Calgary has the highest per capita ownership of library cards in Canada.” The first thing I noticed, when I settled here, is how the Coles Bookstore downtown, besides having sections for standard categories like cooking or self-help, also had an entire section for oil and gas. How brainy. We are such a progressive city; I think we’ve elected the first Muslim mayor west of Toronto.

In fairness to U.S. citizens, their issue is probably not stupidity, and not exactly irresponsibility, but something else, something that occurred to me just recently as I was writing my essay Knowing Nam (February 2011). I have come to realize: In the U.S., the average man or woman in the street, judging by their behavior, wants “plausible deniability.” However, it’s hard to have deniability if your peers are actively seeking information; it’s very hard if your downtown bookstore, in addition to the standard “for males only” war and history sections, has, as well, a war on terror section that includes books by civilian females. Thoughtful, engaged females. Unfortunately, those are mighty big “ifs.”

Are there such sections? If I’m too stubborn to fork out for a passport that would cost me three night’s accommodation at my usual cheap Edmonton hotel then I’m not going to drive down into Montana to see for myself.

By this point I can imagine some U.S. reader sputtering indignantly, “Drinking water! (sputter) plausible denia—(sputter)… Are you crazy? Listen, Americans are really smart and really responsible—so there!”

At which I can only reply, as gently as I can, “All of my readers are responsible. And you, dear reader, may well prove me wrong. Go ahead: do the “citizen thing.” Go to your downtown library, or bookstore, and ask them to include a war on terror section. Tell them how your fellow citizens want to seek out new information, new concepts, and boldly put their actions where their commitment is… I am sorry to say I think you will fail… Then you may write a comment here to tell the rest of us what happened.”

Sean Crawford
In driving distance of stupidity
April 2011
~This essay was inspired by the elation and gloom of reading A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya, a young idealistic Member of Parliament in Afghanistan.

~I think my last word on this war, after several essays at the intersection of citizenship and war, is Pick Your Wartimes Well, archived September 2013.

Someone cares about development. According to the Calgary Sun, July 5, 2011, page 10, Kandahar's provincial governor, Br. Toryalai Wisa, "took part in an international conference in Montreal, only to find: "The Canadians were not aware of what is (happening) here.... The only news the Canadians were getting was just explosions, death, killings, assasinations."
On that visit, he said no one seemed aware of the schools the Canadians have built and refurbished, roads paved or the irrigation and dam projects military engineers have created."

Memory Upgrade- At first Canada sent 1,000 armed representatives, under Prime Minister Chretien. It was under PM Paul Martin that Canada opened... "a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base (compound?) in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar city. A  modest initial deployment in November was followed a few months later by about 2,000... (troops). The daunting second assignment was to lead an open-ended new combat mission across a province notoriously regarded as the most dangerous in the country." Calgary Herald June 4, 2011 p A15, by Matthew Fisher, Counting the Cost of Combat.

~Matt Fisher again, Nov 30, 2013 p A2: The mission began with a small combat deployment switched to a larger mostly peacekeeping role in Kabul  from 2003 to 2005 and returned to Kandahar with a large task force  for combat operations between 2006 and 2011 when the Candadians transitioned to a training role...

A Final Word- I like the final paragraph of Michael Den Tandt's book review, as published in the National Post p. A6 Sept 23, 2013, of Graeme Smith's The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. 
Tandt writes: ...Despite its very bleak tone, and its scathing assault on Western hubris, the author's empathy—for ordinary Afghans, and for ordinary Canadian soldiers—shines through The ironies are palpable throughout, and elevate this beyond the level of a combat memoir, to something more timeless and sad. It was former chief of  defence staff Rick Hillier who  declared in 2005 that success in Afghanistan would be a 20-year project. He may have been right. Eleven years in, we will never know.


  1. hmmm you write about terrorist? may i ask you? What about Muslim in your mind?

  2. I think the average Muslim here at home is as nice as the Mayor that I party-ed with years before he got elected. I think the average Muslim in Afghanistan is as kind as the ones who elected young Malalai to parliament. I hope you enjoy her book as much as I did.