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.

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