The Western occupation of Afghanistan, now longer than the Second World War, was slow to find traction in the Canadian publishing world. However, the past 18 months have seen a growing trickle of soldiers’ exploits, “how we got here” overviews, and tribute-to-the-troops titles.
Missing in action, though, has been a critical perspective operating outside of the mainstream assumptions that underlie so much of the discussion about the war. That vacuum could have been filled by James Laxer’s Mission of Folly, a slim volume that began as a monograph circulating on email lists just over a year ago. Laxer, a prolific Canadian nationalist professor and writer who first appeared on the political radar as a critic of what he deemed outdated NDP policies, would seem a good choice to journey beyond the often ankle-deep analysis that marks so much of the Afghanistan debate.
Unfortunately, Mission of Folly does not exactly answer that need. While newcomers might find Laxer’s work a useful and accessible introductory overview, it ultimately fails to provide the much-needed alternative voice that has been missing from this debate.
That’s not to say that there is not good material here. Laxer outlines the history of imperial invasions of the war-flattened nation, the role of the booming narcotics trade, the scandal of transferring detainees to torturers, and the smokescreen of human rights rhetoric that has underlined every invasion from the Brits to the Soviets to the Canadians. He also dedicates a chapter to a resurgent Canadian militarism that lies behind much of the support-the-troops rhetoric.
But the work as a whole lacks a thematic throughline that would help readers understand the whys and wherefores of the war and Canada’s role in it. Laxer’s main thesis – that Afghanistan is our way of staying friends with the Americans – seems too easy, a kind of sop to those who need a dollop of Bush-bashing to sugarcoat our own self-examination.
Like many a Canadian nationalist, Laxer still buys into the idea that Canada has certain special values that can be shared with the world, but those values are never defined, much less presented in a rational, well-documented discussion. Instead, the firebrand critic who once took apart leftist shibboleths seems to be preaching from a very familiar pulpit, touting everything from the much-criticized “Responsibility to Protect” policy of “humanitarian intervention” to calls for UN reform, increases in foreign aid, and building a military fleet to patrol the Arctic.
The structural political, military, and economic imperatives underlining this war, ripe for analysis, are largely ignored here, and will have to await another tome. Given recent troop extensions to 2011 and beyond, there is still has plenty of time for that to come to fruition.