Monday, November 05, 2007

Dallaire! The Musical: On Canada's conflation of Rwanda and Afghanistan

When the Toronto International Film Festival opened this past September, the dramatization of UN force commander Romeo Dallaire's spectacularly failed* peacekeeping mission in Rwanda - titled Shake Hands with the Devil, as it's based on Dallaire's book of the same name - garnered plenty of attention, in Canada at least. Not all of it was good. NOW Toronto gave it a middling review, the critic noting that this was "the third kick at the can" for Dallaire's story, including the original memoirs and a Dallaire-guided documentary - though not including the incorporation of a character based on Dallaire in Hotel Rwanda, nor an earlier documentary that features interviews with him - and closes the the festival guide blurb by sarcastically suggesting next year we'll see Dallaire! The Musical.

The closing comment might be in bad taste, but the joke nonetheless identifies a baffling eagerness to fill Canadian bookshelves, television screens, and movie theatres with the story of this now-iconic hero. It is not a coincidence, I think, that each version seems more successful than the last and that Dallaire has turned into something of a mini-industry as Canada's participation in ostensible 'peacekeeping' missions in Afghanistan lose public support. There's no comparable hero in Afghanistan - General Rick Hillier seems to make more news butting heads with the governing Conservative party than he does through Canadian military action - so Dallaire has been marched out as some symbol of selfless Canadian sacrifice in the name of keeping peace.

I suggested during a class discussion that Dallaire failed in his mission, but quickly came to realize that it was actually something of a success. Not with respect to the estimated 20,000 people that he managed to save, but in a much more ideological sense - his failure to avert disaster but to simultaneously secure some small victory in spite of the odds is itself very consistent with a hegemonically Canadian sense of the nation's self. Appropriating Dallaire for Afghanistan - even if it's never done explicitly - allows Canada to again deny its complicity in neocolonial wars abroad (even if only to its own citizens), to race to innocence where Americans struggle to avoid being saddled with the guilt of a neoimperialist agenda. Dallaire's failure - illustrative as it is about the costs of being a peacekeeper, rather than a conqueror, in a country of 'devils' - allows the government to paint Afghanistan with the same brush - if Canada is failing to maintain order, it's because the 'devils' in Afghanistan are similarly beyond the reason of peace. One would imagine that Dallaire's underdog story can only be milked for so much sympathy - though the incredulous letters that the Dallaire! The Musical joke earned would indicate that it still has some mileage left.

* Granted, his peacekeeping force was reduced to something like 250 soldiers at one point, so he's hardly to blame for failing to stop a civil war in a country with a population numbering in the millions.

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