Reflections on the role of Canada’s military

Over the summer we will occasionally be re-posting material from MCC colleagues and partner organizations. Here’s the first one: from Project Peacemakers, the Winnipeg chapter of Project Ploughshares. They describe themselves as “a body of people who are working for peace from a faith perspective.”

With chaos erupting all over the world,  as it has throughout all of human history, it is time that we ask ourselves, as Canadians what our role really is in the international community, how we can best perform that role, and whether we really need permanent standing military forces.

It is a question that sounds naive, utopian, maybe even ignorant. Some might say that despots don´t respond to diplomacy. How could the world have rid itself of Hitler, skeptics might ask, or more recently, of Mubarak, or Gadhaffi, or settle what´s happening in Syria?


Military conflict over the 20th century took on especially extreme connotations. The grim realities of trench warfare during World War I (WWI), the sheer magnitude of death, decay and destruction during World War II (WWII), and, of course, the apocalyptic overtones of the constant threat of nuclear holocaust during the cold war are great reasons to consider an alternate position.

Even world peacekeeping missions, the very same ones that were undergone under the “leadership” of the Canadian armed forces, show us that to try and achieve peace through war is paradoxical, and end up serving the intervening countries more than those buried in conflict.

Under the leadership of our Nobel Prize Winning Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, our military became a symbol of hope for countries immersed in deadly conflicts around the world, or so we, the public, believe. Yves Engler, in his latest book “Lester B Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt,” gives us just what it says it does. An unsettling truth at the least, and an outright painful one at the most.

Standing militaries have existed in nearly every country throughout the world for all of recorded history. There is no shortage of people who defend the necessity of permanent standing armed forces, even among peace activists, and there is no shortage of people who consider military occupation, or military conflicts as the only way to solve international disputes. People like to think that humanity has come a long way since its brutish, violent past. But we’ve really only intensified, and even de-personalized, our destructive tendencies.


It’s 2012, it is time that we ask ourselves what role the military should play, and whether it is an absolute necessity.

It is difficult for people to even think of a country without a permanent standing army, but there exist a few examples. While many of them are served by British or American forces, there are some striking, positive and encouraging examples of countries who have consciously decided to de-militarize, and have actually become great examples of what the world could, potentially, look forward to.

Costa Rica: a country without a military

One great example is Costa Rica. After their bloody Civil War, which ended in December 1948, President Jose Figuerres Ferrer enacted legislation to actively abolish the military forces. To this day, Costa Rica has no permanent standing army, but they do have small forces capable of law enforcement and foreign peacekeeping.

As a result, previous military spending was re-distributed and dedicated to things like education and culture. Costa Rica is now a country that has managed to reach a significantly higher level of development, according to UN standards, than most other countries at the same income level. It has also generally enjoyed greater peace and more consistent political stability compared with its neighbors in Latin America.

Many international organizations devoted to peace are headquartered in Costa Rica, including The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations University of Peace. On top of that, Costa Rica is also considered to be one of the “greenest” countries in the world.

But it has not been without disputes since abolishing its armed forces. The difference is that Costa Rica has opted to settle them without the use of force.  It has also re-established diplomatic ties with countries like Cuba and China, which had been strained for decades. Costa Rica also looked to the international courts to settle a dispute with Nicaragua over use of the San Juan River. An agreement was reached without a single shot being fired by either side.

Costa Rica is a great example of how a country can operate without a permanent standing military, and how a country can settle foreign relations problems without resorting to violence.

It is obviously a small nation, and critics will say that it is unfair to compare Costa Rica with other countries. True, the situation is completely different, but Costa Rica can provide a model for what a de-miliarized country could look like, and how military budgets could be put to better use.


It is easy to say, in hindsight, that diplomacy could have saved the lives of many millions of people over the course of history. We are continually presented with opportunities to try a more diplomatic approach to international conflict resolution, and yet out leaders continue to revert to the same old models,  reaffirming old, ineffective, counterproductive “solutions.”

Pacifism is often presented as idle, instead of being active work. It is important that we ask ourselves challenging questions, and explore the responsible use of violence, if it is in any way possible. Governments hold the monopoly over the ´´legitimate´´ use of force. If it can’t be used responsibly, then we really need to look in to other options.

The Department of Peace Bill would shift emphasis from the military perspective. Wars are obviously destructive, and the personal impact on victims and “victors” alike tragic.

This is not meant to be a treatise, it is simply an attempt to start a long overdue conversation.

Maybe we need a separate branch of the military, specifically designated and trained for peacekeeping missions, ready for deployment whenever the bell tolls. There is still use for a well-disciplined, young, healthy force to help our fellow world citizens in their times of need, as well as to protect our national interests and the freedoms we hold dear.

But it is absolutely unclear why we should ever be aggressors.

Examples of more peaceful countries exist in the international community. Decreased military spending means more money for education, culture, and healthcare – services that help the public by building communities rather than destroying them.

The more arms that are produced, the more paranoid we become. WWI was the result of an arms race unprecedented in human history, it was a powder keg ready to be set off. WWII is widely considered a continuation of WWI, and the cold war only filled the power vacuum left behind in Hitler´s wake.

By channeling one of nature´s most fundamental processes, we created a weapon that was destructive far beyond what was thought possible. If we could only channel one of the most fundamental human processes, communication, the world could be a better place.

Military action in the name of peace has been tried and tested, and it has largely led to failure.

There is a train of thought where pacifism morphs into protection, finally falling into militarism. It is a slippery slope, but if we could dig our heels in we could stop ourselves before we hit the bottom.

Originally published on their blog.

Hubris, Wisdom, and Political Judgment

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

When MCC’s Ottawa Office was established in 1975, one of its primary functions was to serve as a listening post, seeking information on developments in the federal government “affecting the life and work” of supporting churches.

This function still looms large at times. When I speak with colleagues (not to mention family and friends), I am frequently asked for my perspective on the latest political drama playing out in Ottawa.

In most cases these people are already reasonably well informed about the issue in question. They read reputable newspapers. They listen to reputable radio programs. Some are even self-described political junkies.

So I am tempted to think that what they are really looking for is something they can’t get from the media. Perhaps they are hoping for a tidbit of information or even gossip from a presumed “insider” who will give them the scoop on how things will shake out.

My conversation partners shouldn’t hold their breath, according to the American political psychologist Philip Tetlock.

In his book Expert Political Judgment, Tetlock argues that experts often lack political judgment. Indeed, his data shows that the more political expertise someone possesses, the less likely they will be able to accurately predict the outcome of a political debate or conflict.

There are many reasons for this, including that fact that experts

  • “can talk themselves into believing they can do things that they manifestly cannot”;
  • “are reluctant to acknowledge that they were wrong and to change their minds”; and
  • “fall prey to the hindsight effect. After the fact they claim to know more about what was going to happen than they actually knew before the fact.” (p. 161-62)

In sum, experts have a problem with hubris. And the more they know about a subject, the deeper their level of expertise, the more this problem tends to rear its head.

At times this list describes me well!

However, I do have a problem with Tetlock’s definition of political judgment. I simply don’t agree that the measure of political judgment should be predictive accuracy.

At the risk of sounding defensive (or overly concerned about justifying the existence of MCC’s Ottawa Office!), I would argue that political judgment is brought to bear in a whole host of ways that have nothing to do with assessing the likelihood that various scenarios will, or will not, come to pass.

For a start, the marks of effective political judgment are things like wisdom or savvy rather than forecasting ability. Beyond discerning the probability of future events, judgments more often need to be made about what is true or good, and what is possible or desirable.

After all, the point of political analysis is to be able to figure out how to maneuver within a particular context—how to create the space to play a constructive role in a particular scenario—not to simply watch things unfold from the outside.

Thus MCC’s partners and constituents are served well not by employing pundits or prognosticators in Ottawa who serve up political commentary, but by employing policy analysts and advocates who are politically engaged.

The point of having a listening post is not only to listen well, and then help others make sense of what is going on, but also to help MCC know how to act well.

There are times toward the end of his book where Tetlock seems to agree. For example, in commenting on the general decline of public intellectuals, he notes (with regret) that the psychological function they now serve

“is not the pursuit of truth but rather enhancing the self-images and social identities of co-believers….We right-minded folks want our side to prevail over those wrong-headed folks.”

Not surprisingly then, “the psychology [of political debate] is that of the sports arena, not the seminar room.”

And thus political judgment serves the needs of partisan spectators preoccupied with the drama of politics itself.

I must admit that this can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment as contentious issues are being debated. But the Ottawa Office has always been motivated by the pursuit of truth, not political triumph, even as we recognize, along with Tetlock, that this pursuit is “a precarious balancing act” and “no easy art to master.” (p. 215)

These are the kinds of things I try to remember when people ask “So what are you hearing in Ottawa these days?” There may be times when I am tempted to play the role of a political commentator. There may be times when I overreach and presume I know more than I really do about a particular issue.

But at the end of the day, the measure of the Ottawa Office’s political judgment is found in our ability to provide insight that goes beyond the limited intellectual terrain mapped out during Question Period or debates over a particular piece of legislation, and that goes beyond the lifespan of any single Parliament or the interests of any single nation.

Clamping down on refugees: Is Bill C-31 reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?

By Ed Wiebe, MCC Canada Refugee Assistance Program Co-ordinator

This month Canada will admit some 1,000 newly arrived refugees from camps all around the world. Another 1,000 or so who came here directly to make a refugee claim inside Canada will be declared “eligible to stay” since they indeed had a bona fide reason for requesting refuge. On the face of it that sounds pretty good, quite generous.


But that is far from the whole story, and does not indicate the direction Canada’s compassion arrow is pointing. Less than a few decades ago, we did double those numbers. No one ever said we could not afford it any more, or that there were too many “bogus” refugees trying to cheat their way in.

Now, as Bill C-31 is about to become law, even the UN Refugee Agency is cautioning that Canada is risking falling into a status of non-compliance with respect to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, given the international treaties, conventions and other statues we have signed on to over the years.

Those agreements were entered into in our reach for stature on the world stage where Canada enjoyed an almost revered place as a good guy who always had a kind word or deed to offer to the world’s dispossessed or downtrodden.

What happened?

In part, that lofty position may not have been entirely warranted even then, since we also had a few black eyes when it came to treatment of the other. Note our lack of compassion for the refugee-laden ship, the St. Louis, which we turned back to the high seas with its desperate cargo of Jewish refugees from Europe. Or how we interred the Japanese on our own soil and only recently have offered a mumbled, belated “sorry” over that period.

Yet Bill C-31 is set to clamp down in even more harsh ways, no matter what the evidence is, or what others are now saying about us as a nation. This new bill will see us throwing new arrivals into jail – not immigration detention facilities, but jail! – upon arrival, and for up to 6 months.

No exceptions, even for women or children.

That will cost exorbitant amounts of money each month. Until recently, we gave such arrivals a quick screening on security and medical grounds, and in most instances, sent them on into communities with a temporary work card so they could pay their own way while we sorted out their refugee claims.

Polls over the past eighteen months, however, have indicated a hardening of opinions over immigration in ways that seem new in our country and more akin to the trends in Europe.

While there have often been dips in the attitude towards immigrants and immigration, the general trend in Canada over the decades has always settled back in to a state of general agreement that immigration is good for us.

What is changing now?

For the first time in my long memory, we have a government that is vocally and repeatedly negative about overall immigration. This is especially so regarding the small portion we call humanitarian and compassionate admissions such as refugees.

As the new Bill becomes law within the next short while, maybe it’s little wonder that the public is souring on “the least of these” [Matt.25.31-46] as well.

Is the government’s clamping down on refugees reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?

Credibility and truth-telling: Why MCC Middle East visits Ottawa yearly

Guest blog posting by Daryl Byler.

Cindy and I have served as MCC representatives for programs in Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel since 2007.  Every year we spend four to six weeks visiting the MCC advocacy offices (Ottawa, the United Nations and Washington, D.C.) and speaking in Mennonite schools and churches in Canada and the United States.

Is speaking in North America an effective use of our time when there is so much work to do in the Middle East?  Aren’t there school kits to deliver, and water and peacebuilding projects to attend to?

For MCC partners in the Middle East, education and advocacy in Canada and the United States is a high priority.

MCC partner explains to MCC learning tour participants how the separation wall divides Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

They rightly believe that the Western media does not offer a full and accurate picture of the realities on the ground in the Middle East.

  • Too often, for example, the media highlights suicide bombings or other individual acts of violence
  • without mentioning structural violence like military occupation, house demolitions, land confiscation and sweeping economic sanctions.

Furthermore, MCC partners remind us that the policies of the Canadian and U.S. governments have consequences for the lives of ordinary Middle Eastern folks.

  • They want policymakers to be aware of the implications of their decisions.

In early 2010 we traveled to Gaza with the leaders of MCC’s three advocacy offices.  One of MCC’s partners there told us pointedly that

his organization did not want MCC’s money for health care and job training projects if we are unwilling to do advocacy highlighting the economic blockade that suffocates life for many Palestinians in Gaza.

The chairperson of MCC’s Palestine advisory committee recently shared a similar sentiment.  Samia Khoury, a Palestinian educator who has been a tireless voice for justice and peace, expressed great appreciation for MCC’s 63-year presence in the region.

But she added a word of caution.

  • “I wish to emphasize how important (it is) that the prophetic courageous voice of MCC is heard (in North America),” Samia urged.
  • “Otherwise MCC work in our region would be a cover up for the reality on the ground that can go on forever with no hope for liberation, and MCC will lose its credibility and purpose of being in the region.”

In our visits in Ottawa last week, May 28 and 29, we had an opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament and other policymakers, articulating the concerns of MCC’s Middle Eastern partners and listening to the perspectives of Canadian officials.

Manar (5), Awad (3 months) and Mohammad (8) Abu-Samra, children of a family that raises rabbits through Al Najd’s MCC-supported food security project.

Later, we spent several days interacting with MCC constituents across Alberta, again sharing the stories and perceptions of MCC partners in the Middle East.

This kind of public engagement augments MCC’s work on the ground.  It also allows us to return to the Middle East and share information with MCC partners about the broad spectrum of views that North Americans have about the Middle East.

Credibility and truth-telling: this is why we yearly visit Ottawa, Washington, and churches across Canada and the U.S.

By J. Daryl Byler, MCC Representative for Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine