Lenten Meditation 2009 (for Bloor Street United Church)

In February 2009 I was asked to contribute a short text to a collection of Lenten Meditations that members of the congregation of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto were bringing together. (The invitation came, I suppose, because in the preceding several months I had delivered three public lectures at the church, two of them in the Reel Activism series organized by Karin Brothers.) The terms were quite strict: meditations were to be less than four hundred words in length, were to incorporate reflections on one or more of three set scriptural passages (in my case, Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42), and were to be followed by the author's name and a short prayer. The result was this rather elliptical text—which I supplemented, some months later, with an Afterword which unfolds some of its implications. The present version incorporates a small correction in the third paragraph, for which I'm grateful to Lia Tarachansky. The Afterword has not previously been published.


In late 2002, one of my students, knowing that I had been speaking out in public against the impending American invasion of Iraq, sent me, as encouragement, a quotation from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I found this moving. Perhaps because I knew my efforts to help expose the fraudulence of the coming war would likely be futile, I valued all the more this incitement to courage and stamina, with its reminder that what counts—what is obligatory—is our participation, now, in an unassuming practice of justice and mercy.

Though my student didn’t say so, this Talmudic text is a midrashic expansion of words ascribed to the early-second-century Rabbi Tarfon, in the Pirkei Avot (or Ethics of the Sages), 2:16. Tarfon is elsewhere said to have debated with Rabbi Akiba the question of which was greater, ma‘aseh (deeds or action), or learning. Tarfon said action, and Akiba said learning; they concluded that learning is greater, because it leads to action (Kiddushin 40b). The same ethical imperative seems again to be implied.

This may seem a peculiar way to enter a meditation on the texts proposed to me: Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42. But I would note that all three passages represent, as action, an undaunted proclamation of a message that the speaker takes to be both true and obligatory. Jeremiah is threatened with death for prophesying (bar penitence) the destruction of Jerusalem; Paul, quoting Elijah, implies that his own life has been sought for proclaiming the fulfillment of prophecy; and John represents Jesus as threatened with stoning for his proclamation of divinity.

These texts cluster around experiences of historical catastrophe. Jeremiah anticipates (or his redacted texts remember) the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. Paul—Saulus before his conversion—served the Temple authorities in repressing the messianism that culminated in the rising of C.E. 66-70 (and Romans 16: 11 suggests a link to the colonial elite, the Herodians). John, writing a generation or more after the cataclysmic siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple, is striving to revision events that preceded a war of genocidal intensity.

Rabbi Tarfon, one might add, lived through the final convulsion of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in C.E. 135-36.

Michael Keefer is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies of the University of Guelph; he lives in Toronto with the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer. The prayer he would suggest is from Act III, scene iv, lines 26-36 of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this scene, the dispossessed Lear insists that his Fool enter ahead of him the hovel that his few loyal followers have found for him as shelter from the storm:

In boy; go first. You houseless poverty— 
Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep. 
[Exit Fool into the hovel.] 
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, 
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, 
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, 
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; 
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, 
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.


An Afterword

Though there wasn’t space in Bloor Street United Church's Lenten booklet to say so, this is an unusual prayer. Instead of invoking some higher power, Lear addresses his words to the homeless, the abject, the defenseless. He reproaches himself for failing to attend to their needs when he had the means to do so. And he exhorts those who now have position and power to learn about the suffering of the wretched of the earth—by sharing it, as Lear himself is being forced to do—and then to transform what they have learned into action by another kind of sharing, a distribution to the needy of “the superflux,” what they possess beyond their own needs.

The last line is perhaps the most startling: Lear is telling us that our sense of the justice or injustice of the cosmos arises out of our own human enactments of justice or injustice. The idea feels modern, so we may be surprised to encounter it in a play written four centuries ago.

But perhaps Rabbi Tarfon (or his midrashic commentator) was on to something similar one and a half millennia earlier. You want to live in a world governed by justice and mercy? Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.

The words of King Lear suggest that to act upon these imperatives we must first learn experientially what it means to suffer injustice and oppression. Lear proposes no more than a modest sharing out of superfluities, but declares, realistically enough, that action of this kind needs to be impelled by an empathetic understanding of what people who are oppressed and impoverished have to endure.

Yet as Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba seem to have recognized when they debated the matter, another kind of learning is equally necessary as the basis for just action. What, for contemporary purposes, would this learning have to incorporate? Ethical principles, to be sure, but equally importantly, an understanding of what is actually going on around us.

Take the example of Haiti. Canadians would no doubt like to think that we are, collectively, behaving justly and with mercy towards Haiti: after all, on a per capita basis, Canada is by far the most significant donor to that tragically impoverished country.

Would it alter our perceptions to know that in 2004 the Canadian government organized, and Canadian troops participated in, the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected government and its replacement by a reign of terror? That Canadian, American and French troops occupied Haiti with an illegal Multinational Interim Force, one of whose first actions was to shut down Haiti’s only medical school and turn its buildings into a barracks? That the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) gave generous support to a corrupted human rights organization which fabricated atrocity charges against senior members of the overthrown government, and that CIDA paid the salary of the deputy minister responsible for the appalling prisons in which these and other political prisoners of the coup regime were confined? That the RCMP took responsibility for training the Haitian National Police, which over the next two years repeatedly sent out sniper teams to murder participants in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations? That Canada continues to support a Haitian electoral system which denies participation to the Fanmi Lavalas, the party of the poor that commands the support of an overwhelming majority of the Haitian electorate?1

How just and merciful, to take another prominent example, has been the collective engagement of Canadians with the people of Gaza? Would most Canadians be proud to know that since 2006, when the Palestinians democratically elected a government of which our government disapproves, Canada has participated in an aid embargo against Gaza, and has provided diplomatic support to an Israeli blockade that has destroyed the local economy and deprived an already desperate population of food, fuel, medical supplies, and the materials needed to repair collapsing water supply and sewage systems?

And what of the fact that during the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, which subjected defenceless people to a storm of bombs, missiles, artillery fire and white phosphorus, killing 1,400 and wounding many thousands more, leaving tens of thousands homeless and wrecking their life-sustaining civic infrastructure, the Canadian government gave loud and unequivocal support to the aggressors?2

One remembers that Rabbi Tarfon, after exhorting us to do justly and love mercy, invites us to “Walk humbly, now” as we set about the work that we are not free to abandon.




1  For documentation, see the materials collected in Press for Conversion, issues 60 (March 2007), 61 (September 2007), 62 (May 2008), and 63 (November 2008), available at http://coat.ncf.ca; see also http://www.haitianalysis.com, http://www.haitiaction.net/, http://canadahaitiaction.ca, http://pih.org/inforesources/reading.html#Haiti, and http://www.ijdh.org.

2  For evidence that the Israeli Operation Cast Lead was unambiguously an act of aggression, see Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (London: Verso, 2010), pp. 311-17.   

Submission to the Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism

This short text was submitted to the Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism on August 31, 2009, the announced deadline for submissions. Although it seemed to me most unlikely (judging by the inflammatory statements contained in its invitation of public input), that the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism would invite people critical of its presuppositions to speak at its oral hearings, I thought it important to give them the chance to hear a scholarly presentation that would deal with matters of importance in combating antisemitism—the development of integrated anti-racist curricula, and data collection—as well as with issues raised by the CPCCA's own documents. I was not invited to make an oral presentation—and the CPCCA did not take the trouble of informing me of that fact until March 2010, after the conclusion of its oral hearings. This text has not previously been published.


August 31, 2009

Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, 
Room 440C, Centre Block, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
E-mail: monica.kugelmass@cpcca.ca


Dear Members of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism,

I would be grateful if you could give consideration to the following remarks in your deliberations; they have been prepared specifically for the Inquiry. I should emphasize that I am writing to you as an individual, and not in connection with any organization. I have read widely on the subjects you will be addressing, and have touched on them in some of my published writings (most recently in a short essay, “Antisemitism in Canada, Part 1: A Disgraceful History,” published this month at the website of The Canadian Charger, a new online journal of commentary and analysis). However, I have no specialist scholarly expertise on these matters, and write merely as a concerned citizen.

Due to pressures of time, my comments here will have to move as rapidly as possible from one issue to another. Though I will number them for the sake of easy reference, no particular order of priority is intended by that numbering.


1. Combating antisemitism in Canada through education

An informed understanding of the horrors of the Shoah should be one of the central goals of any decent education system. I believe it is equally important for young Canadians to come to a critical awareness of the shameful history of antisemitism in our own country. There is a large body of excellent historical research on the subject. I would hope that the recommendations of the CPCCA’s Report will include detailed discussion of this subject, as well as of ways in which this material can be integrated in a wide-ranging anti-racist curriculum. The Canadian history I was taught as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s was stultifying. Our history should be taught in a manner that can, among other things, stimulate and develop children’s moral imagination.


2. Collection of data on antisemitic incidents

One of the tasks of the Inquiry will be to assemble and collate data on the prevalence of hate crimes and other antisemitic incidents in recent years.

I would recommend that the Inquiry follow the example in this regard of the Community Security Trust (CST) in Britain, which has been collecting such data since 1984. As is noted in the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (London, 2006), the CST does “not always accept the belief of a victim that an incident was antisemitic in the absence of some supporting evidence. In 2005 they rejected 194 reports of incidents which could not reasonably be shown to have been motivated by antisemitism” (paragraph 38).

A much looser standard was recommended by the U.K. Macpherson Report, which proposed defining a racist incident as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” Such a definition is unacceptable because it does away with any requirement for supporting evidence. It is crucial that data on an issue of such importance must be subjected, as in what appears to be the practice of the CST, to scrupulous critical analysis.


3. Antisemitic intimidation on Canadian campuses

I would urge the Inquiry to recognize that while there have unquestionably been some recent cases of antisemitic intimidation on Canadian campuses, it is also the case, within the Canadian academy and elsewhere, that false and deceptive accusations of antisemitism have been deployed on a number of occasions as a means of intimidation.

Analysis of widely-publicized cases of purported antisemitic intimidation in American universities has in a significant number of instances revealed the complaints and accusations to be groundless; I can, if the Inquiry wishes, provide detailed citations on these matters. (The situation is in some respects analogous, I would note, to accusations and counter-accusations of intimidation current in the North American academy during the so-called “political correctness debates” of the 1990s. This is a matter on which I do possess expertise, since I gave this issue extended analysis in my 1996 book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars.)

I find it a matter for regret that—prior to having conducted research on the matter—the CPCCA declares on its website that “On campuses specifically, Jewish students are being threatened and intimidated to the point that they are not able to express themselves or are even fearful to wear a Jewish skull cap or star around their necks.” I would be interested to know what evidence the CPCCA possesses that would justify a blanket statement of this kind. To the best of my knowledge (and I make efforts to keep myself informed on such matters), the statement is wholly inapplicable to my own university. It is, in my opinion, injudicious and inflammatory.


4. The question of a “new antisemitism”

Much has been written on this subject since the early 1970s—most of it, in my opinion, uncritical and tendentious. I would be happy to substantiate this claim in detail.

For the moment, I would urge the members of the Inquiry to give close attention to two recent critical analyses of claims regarding the existence and dissemination of a “new antisemitism”: John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Toronto: Penguin, 2007), pp. 188-91; and Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 21-85.

I find objectionable the manner in which the CPCCA website in its “Frequently Asked Questions” asserts the existence of a “new antisemitism.”

The claim is made there that antisemitism, though an age-old phenomenon, “is always re-invented and manifested in different ways. For example, while accusations of blood libel are still being made against the Jewish people, instead they are being directed against the State of Israel, such that anti-Zionism is being used as a cover for antisemitism.”

I am familiar with historical scholarship on the blood libel (which, given its role in the legitimizing of countless massacres and pogroms, I regard as a matter of the utmost seriousness). I am aware that the blood libel has been resuscitated on some recent occasions in the Muslim world—one of these being a 2003 Syrian television series, Al Shatat (The Diaspora), which is mentioned in the U.K. Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (paragraphs 95, 99). But I am not aware that this mention of the blood libel has any relevance to contemporary Canada. Does the CPCCA—once again, prior to having commenced the formal process of evidence-gathering—have information to the effect that Canadian antisemites have been circulating this disgusting calumny?

The sentence on the CPCCA website looks like a transparent attempt to identify criticisms of the widely-abhorred policies of the State of Israel as antisemitic.


5. Antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and criticisms of Israel

I will comment only briefly on this issue. In its “Frequently Asked Questions” section, the CPCCA website seeks to reassure readers who may suspect that the CPCCA “is really about limiting legitimate criticism of the State of Israel” by remarking that “dissent and opposition to individual actions of the Israeli government are both permitted and encouraged in and outside of Israel, just as political dissent is permitted and encouraged with respect to any democratic nation.”

What then are we to say about criticism not just of “individual actions,” but of long-term and entrenched policies of the State of Israel? The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) states in its Working Definition of Antisemitism that “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is antisemitic; “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

I share these opinions only to the degree that I think that Canadians who are not also prepared to offer rigorous criticisms of our own country’s rapacious and unscrupulous treatment of First Nations people, and of Canada’s participation in gross violations of international law in our engagements in Afghanistan and Haiti, should out of decency if not shame keep their mouths shut on the subject of Israel’s behaviour. (I have, by the way, publicly made such criticisms of our country.)

Beyond this point, I would reject the EUMC’s position, on the grounds that Israel’s behaviour is not that “of any other democratic nation.” Israel is a nuclear-armed state, yet anomalous in that, with assistance from its Western allies, it participates in the fiction of not being one; it is not a signatory of the treaties which attempt to govern the behaviour of states possessing nuclear technology. Throughout the 1990s, Israel was accused by well-documented reports of human rights organizations of systematic, extensive and judicially-approved torture of Palestinians. And so on. I will spare you further details.

The point I would make is this. Some criticisms of Israel are undoubtedly hypocritical; some are also made by people who wish to seduce their listeners or readers into antisemitism.

But the issues of Zionism, antisemitism, and criticisms of Israel have been seriously muddied by the partisans of Israel, often in a way that betrays the great ethical traditions of Judaism.

I would hope that in engaging with these matters, the members of the Inquiry will seek guidance from writings by the best and most humane of contemporary scholars and critics. In addition to those I have already mentioned, these include, to my mind, such figures as Marwan Bishara, Jonathan Cook, Baruch Kimmerling, Michael Neumann, and Ilan Pappe.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,

Michael Keefer, D.Phil., 
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph. 
Former President, Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English. 
E-mail: mkeefer@uoguelph.ca


A Canada Day Meditation: Standing on Guard for What, Precisely?

First published in The Canadian Charger (7 August 2009), http://www.thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=87. The present version incorporates several small changes. In the third-last paragraph, I've added the comment on a possible mis-hearing of the French words of “O Canada”: though I don't remember this example occurring in Les insolences du Frère Untel, it's the kind of error that was lamented in that classic of Québec's révolution tranquille. In the penultimate paragraph of the present version, I have added mentions of the robocall vote-suppression scandal in Canada's 2011 federal election, and of Pierre Karl Péladeau's Sun Media and Quebecor. 



There was an Old Person of Tring
Who when she was called on to sing
Replied, “Ain’t it odd, 
I can never tell ‘God
Save the Weasel’ from ‘Pop Goes the King’.”

“Tring” sounds like a name made up for the rhyme—but there really is such a town in England, in the Chiltern hills in Hertfordshire. Tring has a pretty High Street, and it has rugby, cricket, and football clubs, as well as a microbrewery to serve the needs of all those athletes. Famous past inhabitants include George Washington’s great-grandfather and the second Lord Rothschild, an amateur zoologist who founded Tring’s Natural History Museum, but is better remembered for having released the edible dormouse, a foreign species, into the Chiltern countryside in 1902, and for his disconcerting habit of driving about Tring in a carriage drawn by zebras.

Whether or not the Old Person’s confusion of weasels and kings resulted from distraction by all the exotic fauna, I can’t help feeling some sympathy for her, since for much of my life I’ve had lesser difficulties with our own national anthem.

In my early childhood the anthem, for Tring and Toronto alike, was “God Save the King.” But before my fifth birthday it changed to “God Save the Queen.” I remember from shortly afterwards a little me in short pants, double-breasted pea-jacket and wooly beret waving a paper Union Jack glued to a stick, while clutching my mother’s skirt with the other hand, as our new monarch swept down Toronto’s Bayview Avenue in her royal limousine, preceded and followed by rumbling herds of helmeted policemen on Harley-Davidsons. (Who could have predicted that this shy white-gloved young Elizabeth II would achieve the remarkable feat, after a long decline in her horsy middle years, of ageing into a passable likeness to the brilliant and beautiful Helen Mirren?)

By the time I was six, I could entertain visiting aunts and uncles and annoy my older siblings with a piping-soprano repertoire that included “God Save the Queen,” as well as “Michael Finnegan”1 and “A Capital Ship.”2 And in school I was learning “The Maple Leaf Forever,” a happily-forgotten song that for generations of bigoted Ontarians served as an unofficial anthem—principally because of its emphasis on “Wolfe the conquering hero,” and its determined omission of Québec’s fleur-de-lys from the garland of Scottish thistle, Irish shamrock and English rose that by some botanical miracle had entwined themselves to produce “The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear.” The definite implication of this song was that if Papists and Frenchies had any place after the battle of the Plains of Abraham in a country whose anglophone provinces aspired to be, next to Ulster, the most fervently loyal appendage of the British Empire, that place would have to be a dim and subordinate one.

In school we were also learning “O Canada,” which a quarter-century later, in 1980, would become our one-and-only official national anthem. (“God Save the Queen” persists, in a typically Canadian compromise, as our “official royal anthem,” whatever that means.)

I must confess that the words of “O Canada” puzzled me.

Even the first line was a teaser to a first-grader who couldn’t yet read, and who in the Toronto manner gave unstressed vowels a nasal sound like the subdued honk of a Canada goose. “O Canada, our home ’n native land!”: was that “in native land,” “on native land”—or, less probably, “and native land”? The third alternative is the correct one, but in 1954 the first-graders of John Fisher Public School sang a muddled mixture of the other two—thus inadvertently producing meanings both subversive of the line’s intent and also historically more responsible.

“Home and native” blends two distinct terms into a conflated meaning. Canada, the line says, is not just a place where we live; it’s one to which we primally belong. But we first-graders reversed this conflation: Canada’s our home all right, but it’s on or in “native land”—what as adults we might come to recognize as land purchased, in some cases, and more often simply stolen from the First Nations people who are its aboriginal, ancestral and native inhabitants.

The second line of “O Canada” was more purely mystifying: “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” Now who’s doing what to whom here? I heard “sons” as a possessive, and took the line to signify that all of Canada’s young males somehow had “true patriot love” in their power, or at their command. (We could inspire it, then? If I commanded true patriot love in Alice Maclean, would she play with me at recess?)

The opening lines of “O Canada” actually mean something much stranger. What misled me was the sentence’s inverted syntax: in fact the words are asking our personified nation to “command” an authentic patriotic fervour in all its sons. But the trope of apostrophe, in which we speak directly to abstract concepts, body parts, recalcitrant computers, or collectivities like Canada as though they were living beings possessed of agency and intention, has uncanny implications. An apostrophic address (O destiny! O hands! O you horrible machine! O Canada!) summons these things into active existence as agents upon whom our words have conferred quasi-human powers of thought and action—which they are then able to exert on us.

That is what our national anthem is doing. Summoned into being by the opening apostrophe, Canada is exhorted in the syntactically inverted second line to “command” authentic patriotic love in all its sons. We then declare ourselves to be inflamed by this same love as we witness the Canada our words have invoked rise up before us:

O Canada, our home and native land! 
True patriot love in all thy sons command. 
With glowing hearts we see thee rise, 
The True North strong and free!

Lines three and four could be taken to mean no more than that we’re happy to think of our country prospering in strength and freedom. But their direct meaning is the weird and uncanny one I have been suggesting. We have called up Canada as a magician invokes a spirit, and in summoning this Canada we have asked it to exert a power of command over Canadian men. We then register the effects of our own incantation: we feel in ourselves the emotion we have exhorted Canada to inspire in us, and at the same time see this True North rising up before us. Shades of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus or Shakespeare’s Prospero waving a magic wand? I think so.

Robert Stanley Weir, the Montreal lawyer who wrote the English lyrics to “O Canada” in 1908,3 seems to have run out of steam after the first four lines:

And stand on guard, O Canada, 
We stand on guard for thee! 
O Canada, glorious and free, 
We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee; 
We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee!

There’s something a bit silly about Weir’s apparent obsession with guard duty—as though Canadians were to imagine themselves as perpetual occupants of sentry boxes watching out forever over the True North’s borders.4 It did make matters easier for primary schoolers, who after learning the opening lines could get through the rest by mumbling “We stand on guard” until it was over. But when “O Canada” was officially adopted as our national anthem on July 1st 1980, the spells of guard duty were halved in number. The last five lines are now: “From far and wide, O Canada, / We stand on guard for thee. / God keep our land glorious and free! / O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. / O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

One of the things about this national anthem that it’s hard not to like is its textual flexibility. We have the charmingly antiquated French original, which seems to be invoking Canada as a piece of classical statuary: “Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux” (“Your forehead is bound with wreaths of glory”). Or as an alternative we have the variant forms of Weir’s text, which after the first seven words makes no effort to translate the French. There’s also an Inuktitut version, which has official status in Nunavut. (The territory’s name, which means “our land,” recurs in its opening words: “Uu Kanata! nangmini nunavut!” Sung by people whose ancestral attachment to the land goes back thousands of years, this can’t help but convey meanings quite different from those of the Kabloona versions of southern settlers.)

Add to these the Cree version, which is evidently moving toward official status (it has been sung at the opening of a Calgary Flames hockey game), and an Ojibwa version which will no doubt follow it.

And then there’s the happy fact that English Canadians tend to sing whatever words they please. Those who object to having God in the national anthem stick to the pre-1980 version; those who choose to remember whose native land this really is sing “our home on native land”; while the French version remains available for anyone who feels like some harmless ancestor-worship (“O Canada, terre de nos aïeux”) or an uncritical celebration of the excitement of Canadian history (“Ton histoire est une épopée / Des plus brilliants exploits”).

The French text also provides a useful hint as to what in particular English Canadians, if they insist on standing perpetually on guard, might think of defending. Here are its closing words:

Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, 
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits, 
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.

Québécois schoolchildren who heard this as “deux fois trempée,” may have been puzzled by the notion of “double-dipped valour.” Correctly understood, the lines mean: “Your [Canada’s] valour, steeped in faith, will protect both our homes and our rights.”

What rights might these be? Our right to free socialized medicine, unchallenged by the sneak attacks of liberal or conservative politicians who don’t feel like conserving this central achievement of Canadian social democracy? Our right to national elections free from partisan interference (as in 2006) by the national police, and from vote-suppression robocall fraud organized (as in 2011) by the governing party? Our right to a foreign policy that reflects the decent impulses of most Canadians, as opposed to the neoconservative hypocrisies that in recent years have sullied Canada’s international reputation? Our right, in a period of high unemployment, to timely assistance from the national unemployment insurance fund paid for by our contributions and our taxes? Or our right to critical, intelligent news media free from crass manipulation by monopolistic ideologues like Conrad Black, the Asper family, or Pierre Karl Péladeau (the CEO of Sun Media and Quebecor)?

Guard duty in the abstract sounds tedious as well as silly. But we do possess rights worth defending. Though the French text composed by Adolphe-Basile Routhier in 1880 suggests that a personified Canada will protect our rights, we might do better to take on the job ourselves.




1  “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan, / He grew whiskers on his chin-egan, / Along came the wind and blew them in again, / Poor old Michael Finnegan.” That’s all there is, barring an exhortation to the singer to begin again, which puts the song, like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, into an endless loop of repetition.

2  “O a capital ship for a sailing trip / Was the Walloping Window-Blind. / No gale that blew could disturb the crew / Or trouble the captain’s mind. / The man at the wheel was taught to feel / Contempt for the wildest blow, -ow, -ow, / And it often appeared when the weather cleared / That he’d been in his bunk below.” I’ll spare you the rest. The three melodies in my repertoire shared with the tunes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” a common origin as eighteenth-century drinking songs.

3  Weir’s 1908 text has as its second line “True patriot love thou dost in us command”; he changed this in 1914 to the version I have commented on.

4  In 1928 Weir added a fourth stanza to his text, in which guard duty acquires apocalyptic overtones: “Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer, / Hold our Dominion in thy loving care; / Help us to find, O God, in thee / A lasting, rich reward, / As waiting for the better day / We ever stand on guard….” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Canada for Weir’s complete text.    

Canada in Afghanistan

The first item in this sequence was published in the letters column of the Guelph Mercury (19 November 2008), and re-published in eVeritas, the online journal of the Royal Military College of Canada Club.


This sequence of letters began with one I sent to the Guelph Mercury on November 17, 2008, which that newspaper published two days later. Re-published in eVeritas, the online journal of the Royal Military College of Canada Club (see www.everitas.rmcclub.ca/?p=2900), the letter attracted some commentary there. It also received a much fuller response in the form of public correspondence from Peter Ludorf, one of my RMC classmates (we studied and trained there from 1966 to 1970). I reproduce here my original letter, the responses to it in eVeritas, and my exchanges with Peter Ludorf, and finally, some comments on the last of the responses published in eVeritas

My comments include a reference to the College's motto: “Truth, Duty, Valour.” Peter Ludorf and I signed our letters with our college numbers, as did the RMC graduates who sent responses to eVeritas. (These numbers began with the first class that entered the college in 1876: my great-grand-uncle Harold was number 17 in that Old Eighteen; my father Thomas, whose class entered in 1932, had the number 2330.) The footnote I have added to my second letter to Peter Ludorf corrects an error of fact.


1. We mustn't participate in 'criminal follies'

Guelph Mercury, 19 November 2008

Thanks to Rob O'Flanagan for his thoughtful and eloquent column (“Too many things make me sick of war,” November 15, 2008).

I've been thinking about war myself lately, in part because November 10 is the anniversary of my father's death—and in his last days nearly twenty years ago, my father's thoughts often went back to his service in World War II, and to the deaths of his three closest friends at Dieppe and in the Normandy campaign.

My father was in uniform for ten years—six during the war, and before that four years at the Royal Military College of Canada. His only brother served in the Royal Navy as an MTB captain in the English Channel and the Mediterranean; a decade after the war, still suffering from what we'd now call post-traumatic stress disorder, he committed suicide. A much-loved honorary uncle on my mother's side also served in the Royal Navy from shortly before the outbreak of World War II until its end.

My two grandfathers each spent more than ten years of their lives in uniform. One served in the British army before World War I, and in the Canadian Corps during that war. The other, who was an important presence in my childhood, narrowly escaped the fate of his best friends, all of whom died in the Gallipoli campaign or on the Western front; he re-enlisted in World War II and directed the Royal Army Medical Corps hospital system on the Burma front.

My two older brothers and I also graduated from RMC; two of us were reserve entry officer cadets, and therefore free on graduation to pursue careers in government and academe; my eldest brother's time in the Canadian army included service with the UN peacekeeping force on the Gaza strip.

What does this enumeration of the men closest to me by blood and affection add up to? Among other things, it means that eight men in my generation and the two preceding ones—none of whom thought of the military as a career—spent a total of more than sixty years in uniform during the early and middle years of the last century.

Some of that service—I'm thinking of the First World War—was no doubt deluded. But none of it involved the flagrant illegality of the present war in Afghanistan, or the very particular horrors of a war that pits civilian insurgents against a foreign army of occupation.

The American invasion of Afghanistan was a direct violation of international law; the ensuing occupation is likewise illegal. The deaths of a hundred young Canadians in such a cause, and the grievous injuries suffered by many hundreds more, should horrify us all. These losses, together with the still more appalling losses being inflicted upon Afghan civilians by the occupying forces, are the legacy of the Bush regime's now wholly discredited policies.

Canadians must refuse any further participation in these criminal follies.

Michael Keefer
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph


2. Responses in eVeritas

3584 Archie Beare (November 25, 2008):  It is regrettable that some, perhaps few, feel as Michael Keefer and the Guelph Mercury writer he quotes. The UN sanctioned, NATO endorsed operations in Afghanistan are a long way short of being “illegal” and to state that it is, is an insult to all of our troops who have [served] and will serve in Afghanistan. [….] To besmirch those outstanding Canadians is an injustice that should result in an apology by Keefer.

4155 George Kinloch (November 26, 2008):  International law is reasonably clear on what constitutes an illegal war, and it is difficult to find a reading of the law which would make the invasion legal, no matter which organization of nations might sanction it. It is because Keefer values the lives of our soldiers that he finds the squandering of their lives an insult. There is no hint, in his letter, of denigration of the lives of our soldiers, quite the opposite. He owes no apology. But an apology is owed to the tens of thousands who, like so many members of Keefer's family, lost their lives in fighting for a world in which we had the rule of law. World War II, after all, touted itself as being the “War that would Really End All Wars.” [….]

4270 Sean Henry (November 26, 2008):  Mr. Keefer displays the ignorance and misplaced sentiments of many of his fellow Canadians. They are not to blame in their own right. From the beginning the government has not made it clear that Canada's national interests are at stake in the war on terrorism being waged in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The mission is to defeat the Taliban and other Islamic radicals to prevent the re-establishment of a haven and training ground for terrorists. To achieve this end it is also necessary to rebuild Afghanistan into a functioning state. In this respect those Canadians who have died in Afghanistan have been defending Canada and their fellow citizens in equal measure to their forefathers in previous wars. [….] Finally, the military operations in Afghanistan were approved by the UN and NATO and the allied forces are there at the invitation of the Afghan government. It is not an illegal war and the troops are not occupiers. These definitions are spread as disinformation by misguided members of pacifist organizations.

4135 George W. Hosang (November 29, 2008):  Rob O'Flanagan, in his Guelph Mercury Nov. 15, 2008 article certainly reflects the opinion of many who despise war and who wish it would go away, even just disappear instantaneously from the human consciousness. He seems to display, however, a total ignorance of history. For example, if the British and all those who came to their aid had not mounted an effective opposition to Hitler and Nazi Germany, we probably all would be speaking German today because he was getting pretty close to having intercontinental military capabilities. [….]


3. Letters from an RMC Classmate

Reply to Mike Keefer's Anti-Afghanistan Article (Circulated to the RMC Class of 1970, 25 November 2008)


Despite having known each other almost 50 years, from public and high school in Toronto to RMC, I don't think we know each other at all. Your comments on our Canadian Forces' participation in the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan not only shocked and depressed me, it also showed me how wrong you are. You were always the artsy left of centre guy that we aspiring Generals at the College could goad into a good argument, but this article of yours is really beyond the pale. Let me remind you that the UN sanctioned the US attacks on the Taliban post 9-11. In Oct 2001, the UN authorized creation of a NATO force, the International Stability Assistance Force (ISAF) which, incidentally, has a large number of non-NATO nations who volunteered to join. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that this is not Bush's war. It is the international community responding to the continued attacks on the west and on the more progressive Muslim states by the radical Taliban Islamists killing thousands and wanting to kill ALL “infidels,” the inhumane treatment of Afghani women and the well publicized goal of forced fundamental Islamisation of the ENTIRE WORLD.

What is it about the Taliban that we should be allowing to continue? Is it the burning of Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Teams-built schools? Is it the poisoning of our Canadian drilled wells? Is it the keeping of all girls from any schooling? Is it the forced burkas, forced marriages, forced rapes, forced childbirth? Is it the explosives training to attack western countries? Is it the throwing of acid into the faces of schoolgirls? Would you have us simply pull out of our commitment and write off the deaths and injuries of our people as being in a lost and misguided cause?

Mike, it is a horrible and nasty business in Afghanistan. It must, however, be done lest we surrender to radical Islam. The statement “better to fight them there than to fight them on our main streets” might be seen by you as being trite but it is seen by many of us as being the truth. The Taliban and Al Qaeda must be pacified or eradicated. Simple as that. The ISAF mission is not illegal. It is there at the invitation of the democratically elected Afghan government. It is sanctioned by the UN. Simple as that. Afghani military and police forces are being trained to carry on this fight themselves. Your calling this crusade a “criminal folly” is not only an insult to those who have fallen but also to those who continue the fight.

I doubt I have convinced you to change your mind but I simply could not allow your anti-Bush and anti-Canadian Forces rant to go unchallenged. I am asking our Class Secretary to send your comments as well as this reply to our entire class. They can decide whether your comments reflect honour on your family's honourable military tradition.

8542 Peter Ludorf, Former Class of 70 Class Secretary


A First Reply (26 November 2008)

Dear Pete,

Thanks for your note about my letter that appeared in the Guelph Mercury (and was re-published in eVeritas). Do by all means circulate your comments to our classmates.

I'll have a response for you shortly, in which I'll hope to show you and anyone else who's interested that much of what you take to be fact is no more than propaganda and misinformation; that what you believe to be simple is really quite complex; and that a military occupation you understand as legal is actually in flagrant violation of international law.

For the moment, two quick points.

The first word of the RMC motto directs us, I believe, to a shared commitment to Truth: let's see whether that helps to move us beyond overheated rhetoric about being “anti-Bush and anti-Canadian Forces,” and toward a lucid consideration of what's at stake here.

Secondly, you conclude your message with a reference to honour. I do not think there is anything honourable about sending young Canadian men and women off to war on false pretences. 

The real insult to their courage, their sacrifices, and their suffering comes from the politicians and propagandists who have lied to them.



8430 Michael Keefer, D.Phil.,

Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph


And a Riposte (26 November 2008)


If I were corresponding with Taliban Jack Layton (as he is widely called by our troops) or Elizabeth May, I could understand and simply dismiss the left wing nut element, but with a classmate who invokes Truth, Duty, Valour, I am compelled to continue the debate. I assume you are one who insists that 9/11 was a US (read, George Bush) inside job. You must be shattered by the fact that Obama intends to increase the US contingent in Afghanistan [by] anywhere from 7,000 to 70,000 troops. This left wing politician is likely also lying to everyone and is covering up the illegal invasion and repression of the poor misunderstood Taliban who are, after all, simply defending their country (which it is not) from the infidel invader (which we are not). Mike, what are you smokin'? You did not reply to my points about the inhumane treatment of women and the fact that Al Qaeda continues to use Afghanistan as a training ground for renewed attacks on those not exactly like them, attacks just like New York, London, Bali, Amman, Islamabad and Madrid, or do you consider these attacks to be lies and propaganda as well?

I maintain that our Forces are doing an honourable job in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They are responding to the very real attacks and inhumane treatment of others. That would be Truth. They are doing what our government demands of them. That covers Duty. They are truly fighting for our freedom since a withdrawal like you advocate would see increased radical Islamicization throughout the civilized world. That would be the Valour. Mike, God bless our democracy and our ability to think as each one wants. It is our Forces in concert with our allies that allow that to happen.



4. Canada's Afghan 'Crusade' and its Deceptions: Letter to an RMC Classmate

Chris Ford, Class of 70 Class Secretary December 13, 2008

Dear Chris,

Here’s the full reply to Peter Ludorf that I promised. I’d be grateful if you could kindly circulate it to our classmates.

For the sake of anyone who’s only now taking notice of our conversation, here’s the back-story. On November 19th, the Guelph Mercury published a letter I had sent them remembering the military service of members of my family, and condemning Canada’s involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. My letter was noticed by Bill Oliver, editor of the RMC Club’s online newsletter, who republished it in eVeritas on November 24th. Peter Ludorf read it there, was “shocked and depressed” by it, and wrote to me in rather harsh terms. He wrote as well as to Chris, asking him to circulate my Guelph Mercury letter and his reply to the Class of 70. I replied briefly to Peter’s first message, promising a fuller response later. I’m still very much tied up with end-of-the-academic-term work, but don’t want to keep him waiting any longer.

Best wishes, 
Michael Keefer


Dear Peter,

Please forgive my delay in responding in detail to your messages: the end of the teaching semester is a busy time of year for academics.

In my brief reply to your first message, I noted that the first word of the RMC motto directs us to a shared commitment to Truth—which I suggested might help to move us beyond overheated rhetoric and toward a lucid consideration of what’s at stake. Let’s see then if we can sort out truth from propaganda, disinformation and outright falsehood in the case of the occupation of Afghanistan.

You believe that what you call our Afghan “crusade” (a term the people of that country, whatever their politics, are unlikely to appreciate) is legal, necessary, and defensive in purpose; and you think my comments dishonour “[my] family’s honourable military tradition,” and are “an insult to those [Canadians] who have fallen” and “to those who continue the fight.”

I believe you are wrong on all the major issues of fact out of which these judgments arise. And as I said in my previous brief response, “I do not think there is anything honourable about sending young Canadian men and women off to war on false pretences. The real insult to their courage, their sacrifices, and their suffering comes from the politicians and propagandists who have lied to them.”

Let’s consider first why the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001. The purported reason is that the Taliban were harbouring Osama bin Laden, who organized the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban were indeed harbouring Bin Laden, who had effectively declared war upon the United States. We can agree that the Taliban regime was loathsome, and that Bin Laden is (or was) a terrorist. But did Bin Laden’s minions carry out the atrocities of 9/11?

As you guessed in your second missive, I’m among those who believe 9/11 was an “inside job.” But before you jeer or scoff about “conspiracy theorists,” I’d suggest you take a look at the website Patriots Question 9/11, where you’ll discover that scepticism about the official story of 9/11 has been publicly voiced by a significant number of senior US military officers, military research scientists and intelligence officers, as well as distinguished academics in many disciplines, and more than six hundred architects and engineers.

Check out the people listed there, and see if you think they’re all fools. They include Raymond McGovern, former Chairman of National Intelligence Estimates, CIA; Lt. Col. Shelton Lankford, USMC, a former fighter pilot with over 300 combat missions; David L. Griscom, PhD, a distinguished research physicist with decades of service at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington; Paul Craig Roberts, PhD, former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and William E. Simon Chair of Political Economy at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies; Capt. Russ Wittenberg, a pilot with over 30,000 hours flying time, including over 100 combat missions and 35 years as a commercial pilot; and Lt. Col. Robert Bowman, PhD, another former fighter pilot with over 100 missions, and Director of Advanced Space Programs Development under Presidents Ford and Carter. (I had the honour of sharing a platform with Bowman at an event in Toronto this past July. Should you be interested, a video of our lectures is available on the internet; a documentary film of a discussion we had together on the same day, The Fighter Pilot & the Professor: A Conversation About 9/11 [Snowshoe Films, August 2008], is available on DVD.)

You might also want to check out some of the books the people listed on the Patriots Question 9/11 website refer to in their statements and writings. They include:

Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11, 2001 (Tree of Life Publications, 2002). 
----, Behind the War on Terror (New Society Publishers, 2003). 
----, The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation, and the Anatomy of Terrorism (Olive Branch Press, 2005). 
Michel Chossudovsky, America’s “War on Terrorism” (Global Research, 2005). 
David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor (Olive Branch Press, 2004). 
----, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (Olive Branch Press, 2005). 
----, Debunking 9/11 Debunking (Olive Branch Press, 2007). 
----, 9/11 Contradictions: An Open Letter to Congress and the Press (Olive Branch Press, 2008). 
----, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited: 9/11, the Cover Up, and the Exposé (Olive Branch Press, 2008). 
R. T. Naylor, Satanic Purses: Money, Myth, and Misinformation in the War on Terror (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006). 
Michael C. Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil (New Society Publishers, 2004). 
Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11 (University of California Press, 2007). 
Paul Zarembka, ed., The Hidden History of 9/11 (Seven Stories Press, 2008). 
Barrie Zwicker, Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11 (New Society Publishers, 2006).

In these books, and at websites like those of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, a large body of evidence and of critical analysis is available. This evidence and analysis shows, I think conclusively, that if people associated with Bin Laden were in any way connected with the events of 9/11, it was as patsies.

The key elements of the events of that day were organized by the people who financed Mohammed Atta’s group (notably General Mahmoud Ahmad, head of Pakistan’s ISI, who was in Washington on 9/11 for meetings with senior US intelligence officials); by the people who effectively disabled the US air defences by means of multiple exercises scheduled for 9/11 (including air defence exercises that shifted fighter aircraft from the northeast US to Iceland and Alberta, and hijacking exercises which cluttered the screens of military air traffic controllers); and by the people who planted demolition charges in World Trade Center buildings 1, 2, and 7 (despite the obfuscatory efforts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the evidence of demolition is irrefutable).

Whoever they may have been, these people were quite certainly not Al Qaeda operatives.

Add to this the fact that despite Colin Powell’s promise of a White Paper demonstrating Bin Laden’s guilt, the US never produced evidence of that guilt. The famous “confession video” that surfaced in November 2001 after the invasion of Afghanistan may be evidence of Bin Laden’s malice, but it contains nothing that was not already public knowledge. Perhaps that’s why, in 2006, the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ page on Bin Laden contained no mention of 9/11: a journalist who noticed this peculiar fact was told by the FBI’s Director of Investigative Publicity that this was because the agency had no hard evidence linking him to the attacks.

So what’s left of the rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan? You claim in your second message that Al Qaeda “continues to use Afghanistan as a training ground for renewed attacks on those not exactly like them,” and mention as examples the terror attacks in London, Bali, Amman, Islamabad, Madrid and Mumbai.

But the notion of a significant connection between Afghanistan and any of these atrocities is without foundation. And since you ask—yes, there are indeed problematic features to some of these attacks. Survivors of the London underground bombings reported that the explosions blew up the floors of the carriages from below (which contradicts the official story of suicide bombers with backpacks). Senior Indonesian politicians have claimed publicly that state intelligence agencies were responsible for the Bali bombing. Photographic evidence suggests that the bomb in the Amman hotel was planted in the ceiling rather than carried into the building and detonated at floor level. And the diary of one of the Madrid bombers contained the private phone number of one of Spain’s most senior anti-terrorism officials. I draw no conclusions, but don’t you think it might make sense to call for serious inquiries into such matters?

There’s another rather more convincing explanation for the US invasion of Afghanistan. It has to do with energy geopolitics. When the Taliban came to power, there were serious negotiations for a Unocal pipeline from the Caspian Basin oil and gas fields across Afghanistan and into Pakistan and thence to the Indian Ocean. After the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa and retaliatory Tomahawk strikes into Afghanistan, these talks stagnated and finally collapsed. There’s good evidence that in the summer of 2001 US diplomats threatened the Taliban that continued obstruction of the pipeline plan would result in heavy-duty bombing, and their overthrow, by October 2001 at the latest (see Chossudovsky, p. 66).

The events of 9/11 very conveniently brought US and world opinion into support for the already planned attack on Afghanistan.

Of course, the notion that energy geopolitics had anything to do with the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been scoffed at by American and Canadian government officials. But in June 2008 the distinguished petroleum economist John Foster (whose four-decade career has included stints with British Petroleum, the World Bank, Petro-Canada, and the Inter-American Development Bank) published a monograph entitled A Pipeline Through a Troubled Land: Afghanistan, Canada, and the New Great Energy Game (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, June 19, 2008)—and suddenly it was being generally acknowledged that a $7.6-billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline was indeed going to be constructed, at American insistence, in 2010—and further, that Canadian forces in Afghanistan would be assigned responsibility for protecting the pipeline, which is to pass through the Kandahar region in which most of the Canadian army’s casualties have been suffered. (Should you care to check this out, you’ll find articles by Shawn McCarthy, “Pipeline opens new front in Afghan war,” and “Would help protect pipeline, Canada says,” in The Globe and Mail [19 and 20 June, 2008].)

Let’s talk about honour, then. How honourable is it to tell young Canadian soldiers that they’re putting life, limb and sanity at risk defending us all from attacks by terrifying Afghanistan-based terrorists—when the story of an Afghan connection to the crimes of 9/11 is a fraud, and when what we actually want them to do is to protect a pipeline?

Is it honourable to tell our soldiers, as a fall-back position, that they’re protecting the rights of Afghan women, who were being oppressed and tormented by misogynist theocrats? Yes, Taliban fanatics have done the vile things you mentioned, from denial of schooling to murderous violence against women. But misogynist theocratic fanatics in the puppet government the US put into power have done and continue to do many of the same things. (Have you forgotten Sima Samar, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, who was driven from office by death threats from fundamentalists, among them the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who charged her with blasphemy, a capital crime?)

And what about the opium trade, which the Taliban had very nearly eliminated, but which came roaring back once the war-lords and drug-lords of the Northern Alliance were in power?

And democracy? It’s a cruel mockery of the word to claim that the puppet government of Hamid Karzai and his associates has anything to do with democracy. In the Wolesi Jirga (Parliamentary) elections of 2005, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) identified debilitating technical problems, and observed widespread intimidation, vote rigging, electoral fraud, and miscounting of ballots. (If you care to find out about these things, one starting place would be Press for Conversion, Issue 59 [September 2006], which reprints a large number of articles from the mainstream and alternative press on the subject of “The New Face of Terror in Afghanistan: How so-called 'Democracy' Empowered our Allies, the Fundamentalists, Warlords, and Drug Barons.” The website is http://coat.ncf.ca.)

Is it honourable to litter someone else’s country with depleted uranium? Isn’t that what happens when our troops, or those of other NATO detachments, are attacked by Taliban insurgents, and call in US air support? Setting aside the criminality of exposing civilian populations to this horrible and permanent toxicity, do we have no concern about its effects on our young soldiers? (Do you want details? Check out Michael Clarke, “Doing the Wrong Thing in Afghanistan: Depleted Uranium: The Definitive Moral Paradox,” Uruknet.info [29 August 2006], http://www.uruknet.info/?p=26240.)

Is it honourable, finally, to have our troops handing over prisoners they’ve taken to Afghan authorities which our government knew and knows has been subjecting them to torture and to summary execution? That is, unambiguously, a war crime. (Our government very certainly did know: see Paul Koring, “What Ottawa doesn’t want you to know: Government was told detainees faced ‘extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial’,” The Globe and Mail (25 April 2007), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070424.wdetaineereport0425/BNStory/Afghanistan/home.) “If this report is accurate,” University of British Columbia law professor Michael Byers declared, “Canadians have engaged in war crimes, not only individually but also as a matter of policy.”

Even if there weren’t incriminating evidence that senior figures in the Canadian government had been informed of what was being done to these prisoners by the puppet government’s police, it would still be a violation of the Geneva Conventions to hand prisoners over. We’re an “Occupying Power,” together with other NATO countries, and prisoners taken by our soldiers are therefore subject to the Geneva Conventions. As Neil Kitson—an activist who has worked hard to save the honour of our country—has written:

Articles 10 and 12 of the Third Geneva Convention make abundantly clear that prisoners taken must be cared for by the “Detaining Power,” and if transferred to a “Transferring Power,” such transferring power must be a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has not signed any Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, Article 10 of the Third Geneva Convention makes clear that signing agreements with local authorities when the country is ‘occupied’ is illegal. Therefore, Canada’s agreements with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding prisoners are invalidated by the Geneva Convention they claim to uphold.

(Kitson, “The War of Fog: Canadian Prisoners in Afghanistan,” Antiwar.com (7 February 2008)1

Here’s a final judgment for you, from Francis A. Boyle, a respected authority on international law:

The Bush Jr. administration’s war against Afghanistan cannot be justified on either the facts, a paucity of which has been offered, or the law, either domestic or international. Rather it is an illegal armed aggression that has created a humanitarian catastrophe for the twenty-two million people of Afghanistan and is promoting terrible regional instability.

(Boyle, Destroying World Order: U.S. Imperialism in the Middle East Before and After September 11 [Clarity Press, 2004], pp. 119-20)

That’s what I was saying—very briefly—in the Guelph Mercury letter which caused you such distress. Perhaps this longer response will only shock and distress you further. But who ever said that the truth isn’t sometimes unwelcome, and painful?

I’d like to insist that this isn’t a matter, as you seem to think, of being politically left-wing or right-wing. I very much doubt that any of the distinguished Americans whom I mentioned above as being among those listed on the Patriots Question 9/11 website would classify himself as a leftist, or even (with the possible exception of David Griscom) a liberal. Robert Bowman, the only one of that group that I’ve met, is a staunch conservative. But these are people who’ve made a thoughtful and unflinching assessment of the evidence, and have then had the courage to stand up in public and say aloud what they believe to be the truth.

That is behaviour that I respect, and honour, and admire. I hope that with time, and study of the evidence, you may come to share my opinion of it.

Best wishes,

8430 Michael Keefer
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph


5. Coda: A belated eVeritas comment on “We mustn't participate in 'criminal follies'” (and my response)

16142 J.J. Smith (July 7, 2010):  As a lawyer and law academic I appreciate Professor Keefer's well reasoned opinion piece. But his conclusion that the 2001 invasion and continuing occupation under the aegis of a NATO mission [are illegal] is, regrettably, incorrect. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter applies here to make the use of Security Council sanctioned force entirely legal. And, for greater effect, NATO is the invitee of a democratically elected government, whatever its present frailties may be. The use of force in generally proportionate ways and the presence of foreign armed force in Afghanistan is, to the contrary, entirely legal and manifestly correct under the new world order put in place in 1945. Better, perhaps, to address continuing illegal occupations that threaten the arrangement of sovereign nation-states, including the cases of Palestine and Western Sahara, to name two in which CF personnel have served under UN mandates.


This comment deserves a response (not least because I addressed the question of legality only very briefly in my correspondence with Peter Ludorf).

The UN Charter permits the use of armed force by one country against another (1) in self-defense, or (2) with the authorization of the Security Council.

(1) The US invasion of Afghanistan was not an act of self-defense. By the US government's account, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were carried out by a non-state organization, Al Qaeda, and no claim was made either that any of the nineteen men identified as suicide-hijackers were Afghans or agents of the Taliban regime (fifteen of them in fact were Saudis), or that the US faced any imminent threat of attack by Afghanistan. The Taliban was indeed sheltering Osama bin Laden, but offered to send him to a third country for trial, asking only for what would amount to prima facie evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks—evidence that the US refused to provide. (It would have been appropriate in this regard to have recourse to the Montreal Sabotage Convention, of which Afghanistan and the US were both signatories.)

(2) The US was not authorized by the Security Council to use military force against Afghanistan. George W. Bush wanted such a resolution, but Security Council resolutions 1368 and 1373 did not authorize military action. The fact that NATO accepted the US's invocation of article 5 of the NATO treaty (thus activating the organization's collective security provisions) gives no cover of legitimacy. Chapter VII of the UN Charter thus does not apply; the US attack was illegal.

It is a mistake to claim that NATO entered Afghanistan at the invitation of an elected government: NATO forces were there before any post-Taliban government was elected (and under article 10 of the Third Geneva Convention, any ex post facto invitation by the puppet government of a country under occupation is vacuous).

The question of the legality of the ongoing occupation is more complicated. It could be claimed that an otherwise illegal occupation was legitimized by the actions of the UN Secretary-General and Security Council. On December 5, 2001 the UN produced the Bonn Agreement, which provided for the establishment of an Interim Authority on December 22, to be replaced within six months by a Transitional Authority established by an Emergency Loya Jirga convened by former king Mohammed Zaher, and, following elections held within a further eighteen months, a Constitutional Loya Jirga charged with adopting a new constitution for Afghanistan. On December 20, 2001, Security Council resolution 1383 ratified the Bonn Agreement, authorizing the establishment for six months of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); and on October 13, 2003, Security Council resolution 1510 authorized ISAF to operate beyond the immediate region of Kabul, calling on ISAF “to continue to work in close consultation with the Afghan Transitional Authority and its successors and the Special Representative of the Secretary General as well as with the Operation Enduring Freedom.” The language of this resolution seems designed to offer retrospective legitimation to the invasion as well as to the occupation of Afghanistan.

These resolutions are evidence not that the occupation is legal, but that the Security Council acted corruptly, betraying the principles of international law in the lawless interests of the global superpower in a largely monopolar world.

Other instances of the same corruption include the Security Council's failure to condemn the illegal invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003; its failure to condemn the no less illegal overthrow of Haitian democracy by the US, Canada, and France in 2004; and its resolutions ratifying, after the fact, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the occupation of Haiti. The notion that actions which are in themselves criminal can be whitewashed in this manner violates elementary and fundamental principles of law.

Some relevant analyses by specialists in international law:

Francis Boyle, Destroying World Order: U.S. Imperialism in the Middle East Before and After September 11th (Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2004). 
Marjorie Cohn, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law (Sausalito, CA: Podipoint Press, 2007). 
Alex Conte, Security in the 21st Century: The United Nations, Afghanistan, and Iraq (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2005). 
Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage, and Crimes Against Humanity (London: Pluto Press, 2004). 
Myra Williamson, Terrorism, War, and International Law: The Legality of the Use of Force Against Afghanistan in 2001 (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2009).

I agree with J.J. Smith's suggestion that we should attend to other “continuing illegal occupations” in the Western Sahara and Palestine—though we should so not instead of, but in addition to attending to the illegal occupation of Afghanistan.

A UN mission (MINURSO) has since 1991 maintained a buffer zone between the two-thirds of the Western Sahara occupied by Morocco and the remaining part administered by Frente POLISARIO, but no Canadians are currently serving in MINURSO, and it may be doubted that Canada has much leverage in the UN's rather pallid attempts to nudge Morocco towards accepting a plebiscite.

The situation with regard to Palestine is quite different. Canada has been deeply complicit in the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, providing both diplomatic and financial support to the occupation, and Canada was the first country in 2006 to join in Israel's blockade of Gaza. A shift in Canada's position—toward demanding an end to the blockade, a withdrawal of Israel's settlements in the West Bank, the removal of Israel's apartheid wall, and an end to the occupation, would be of major importance.




1  Kitson's statement here needs some correction. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regards itself as a successor state to the Afghan government which in 1956 became a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. (It can be added that in late 2009, nearly two years after Kitson wrote, and a year after I wrote this letter, Afghanistan acceded to the 1977 Additional Protocols I and II, which protect victims of international conflicts and civil wars.) It remains the case, however, that Article 12 of the Third Geneva Convention is categorical: “Prisoners of war may only be transferred […] to a Power which is a party to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention.” It is clear from the statements both of senior Canadian diplomats and of Amnesty International, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the US State Department, and other sources, that the Canadian government, far from having “satisfied itself” that the Afghan regime would treat prisoners properly, knew that the regime made a regular practice of torturing prisoners. For details, see my article “Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Canadian War Crimes in Afghanistan,” published by the Centre for Research on Globalization (24 April 2011). Kitson's remark about Article 10 of the Third Geneva Convention is valid: Afghanistan is a country under military occupation, and agreements signed by the occupying powers with the government they set up following their overthrow of the preceding regime have no more legitimacy than agreements signed in the early 1940s between Germany and the Norwegian government of Vidkun Quisling.