Monday, September 22, 2008

Revisiting Dallaire's legacy

Back in May of this year, Canadian celebrity-general and current senator Romeo Dallaire publicly compared the actions of the USA and Canada in Iraq and Afghanistan - especially with regard to their prosecution of alleged terrorists and Omar Khadr in particular - to the actions of the people they were fighting. Just as terrorists "don't play by the rules", Dallaire argued to a governmental committee in Ottawa, the USA and Canada are "operating on a law of their own". Some of his comments, though, were not nearly so subtle: "The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties in order to say you are doing it to protect yourself […] you are no better than the guy who doesn't believe in them at all."

Needless to say, Dallaire would end up walking straight into a trap. When a Conservative MP asked him if he was equating the actions of Canada with those of al-Qaeda, Dallaire was all too willing to play that game and provide the "black and white" answer that would surely end his political influence: "You are either with the law or you are against the law [...] You're either guilty or you're not."

Dallaire is, of course, absolutely right to suggest the absurdity and hypocrisy in chastising the ostensible bad guys for resorting to unethical and illegal modes of warfare when the supposed good guys are only too willing to respond with criminal gestures of their own.* But it's also not surprising that his party quickly moved to distance themselves from such a politically poisonous remark - there is no room for ambiguity when it comes to issues of us and them, after all. No one would bat an eye when Dallaire's successor, Rick Hillier, would reduce the Taliban simply to “detestable murderers and scumbags.” If you're going to speak simply, the lesson seems to be, just make sure you don't muddy the established good-evil divide. (Interestingly, though, Liberal leader Stephane Dion implied that Dallaire would face a punishment or reprimand of some kind. To my knowledge, that never happened - publicly, at least.)

When this first happened, I delayed in commenting on it because I wanted to see what else would develop. The answer, it seems, is nothing - Dallaire still does humanitarian work and serves on the Senate, but my guess is that he won't see any more committee work. His professional political career was over the moment his lived actions compromised his symbolic power as a national hero. The government still needs that symbol, so the living man will just have to be muzzled.

Dallaire also provided the following quote, which is interesting for all sorts of reasons that are close to my research interests and work: "It [the aforementioned illegal war activities] makes us look like a damn bunch of hypocrites, nothing less. It emasculates all of us who are Canadian, who are trying to work in areas like eradicating child soldiers." I'm reminded of how Sherene Razack conceptualized the Canadian peacekeeper as "anti-conquest man", a figure who tried to walk the delicate line between war-maker and war-victim and was constantly at risk of becoming one or the other - depending, in part, on whether the anti-conquest man becomes the emasculated or the emasculator. Just another reminder that we can never underestimate the tremendous caché (legitimacy?) that ownership (and the ability to distribute, which is implicit in Dallaire's remark) of military masculinity carries.

* I realize that terms like 'unethical', 'illegal', and 'criminal' in this context are loaded and deserve to be better unpacked. I'm using them in the same sense that Dallaire and the UN would - with reference to UN conventions that govern the legal and ethical process of making war. Which is, I know, kind of fucked-up in and of itself - but I won't actually tackle that in this space. That's a discussion for another time.

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