On Guard for Thee: Canadian Peacekeeping Missions – Introduction

The peace operations that Canada has undertaken since World War II have been a source of pride, honour, and national identity for our nation. Over 120,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel have served overseas in peace operations under the UN and NATO. Nearly 120 Canadians have sacrificed their lives on United Nations peacekeeping missions, in addition to over 150 men and women in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

This book brings together the voices of soldiers from major Canadian international commitments from the deployment for the Gulf War in 1990 to the operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere that continue today. The stories are those of regular soldiers from every region of Canada. Some were young privates or corporals at the beginning of their careers; others were senior officers nearing retirement. All served overseas amid conflict and strife, and all wore the maple leaf on their shoulder.

This is not a history of Canadian peacekeeping, or a complete picture of Canadian military operations in the modern age. Instead, this book portrays, on an honest and individual level, the reality of peacekeeping as the soldiers saw it. Together, they tell the story of the Canadian peacekeeper’s experience.

This book covers a period of great change, both in Canada’s military and international position and in UN peacekeeping in general. As the Cold War ended, the need to commit our military to NATO in Europe was drastically reduced, and eventually disappeared; the size and strength of our military diminished accordingly.

Meanwhile, new conflicts were arising throughout the world. About half of all UN peacekeeping operations in history have their start dates between 1988 and 1998, and Canada was committed in some capacity to nearly all of them. Canada made significant contributions in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa, as well as missions in Asia and, closer to home, in Haiti. Canadians have repeatedly received accolades for their service on their missions.

I interviewed veterans through the spring and summer of 2007, some in person and others on the phone. I asked them to simply tell me about their experiences, good and bad, from the preparation for their mission to their return home and beyond. Once the ball was rolling, it was often hard to stop them—if there’s one thing I know about the military, it’s that soldiers tell stories.

What I did not anticipate was the deep, wholehearted commitment, in every veteran I interviewed, to helping the less fortunate around the world. This was not some abstract notion of compassion or charity: they saw the worst the world had to offer, and they did everything in their power—to the point of risking their own lives—to change it.

In every country where they are deployed, in extremely harsh conditions, amid squalor and danger, Canadians put the people around them, ordinary citizens in a foreign country, first. They bring food and medical help to those who need it, they protect those in peril, and they often spend their scant free time helping to bring something to people who have so little—a roof over their heads, food and water, even toys for small children.

This deep emotional connection with the people they serve often leads to difficulties once the work has ended. Many of the soldiers I interviewed mentioned that they did not want to leave the areas where they were deployed, because they felt they could continue to do good if they stayed. There was a lot of pride, too, in programs that continued after they left, programs they created to better the lives of the people they saw all around them.

The darker side of these emotional bonds, though, are the psychological scars that some of them will bear forever. Many peacekeepers came back irreversibly changed, some so severely that they required time and help merely to readjust to their lives back in Canada. As more than one peacekeeper said, the Canadian Forces is taking much better care of its soldiers now—but we’d better prepare for those who are coming back from Afghanistan, as they’re going to have their share of problems, too.

That, in fact, is the purpose this book was written. Our pride as a country in our peacekeepers’ service too easily leads us to sentimentalize their work. It’s easy to imagine the square-jawed Canadian soldier, in a blue helmet, standing on guard for us. It’s a little more difficult to imagine the garbage and sewage, the angry mobs, the landmines and machine guns and tripwires, the people hacked and shot and murdered before their eyes. It’s hard to know what they go through without asking them.

So here are the words of the peacekeepers themselves.