Disservice to the Troops?


Four fallen Canadian soldiers’ bodies returned to Canada from Afghanistan this past week. Normally this would not stir up too much controversy with the exception of the “peacnicks” who despise anything to do with the military.

But the return of these soldiers stirred controversy at CFB Trenton. The CFB Trenton airfield was closed to the media and non-family members so that a private return service could be held. The media of course went ballistic saying the public had a right to know.

The Toronto Star came out with an editorial that denounced Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to close CFB Trenton for the return of the soldiers’ bodies to a family only affair:

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to bar reporters and television crews from covering the formal military ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Trenton was a disservice to the troops, their families and friends and the public. His rationale — that the return is a private family matter — is unpersuasive, given the public military ceremonies that surround such transfers. It has been challenged by Tory MPs and the families of fallen soldiers.
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Harper never politicized the return of the troops to Canada. Harper merely noted that the media get to observe the loading of the troops in Afghanistan onto the plane for the return home to Canada. Do the media need to see the flag draped coffins being offloaded a military plane in Canada? Probably not.

Harper’s argument is quite right and persuasive. The families that have come to see their son’s or daugther’s tragic return to Canada should be able to do so in private. Who in their right minds would want to have their faces splashed accross the country on the nightly news, the internet or the fronts of newspaper boxes the next day?

As far as banning the general public or friends of the family from attending the air force base where the plane carrying the bodies of the fallen soldiers is another matter. The family should have the right to invite friends of the family to come and see the return of their fallen soldiers if they so wish. The families should then provide a list of invitees to the military so that the military would know who is expected and who isn’t. In respect to the families in their time of grief, this plan recognizes the need the for their privacy.

As far as the openess of the war in Afghanistan in terms of both the media and political pundits (like my former University of Ottawa History Professor Dr. Michael Behiels) claiming “censorship,” that is proposterous. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been one of the most media covered wars in the history of mankind. What other two conflicts has seen the media “embedded” with the soldiers carrying out operations? These conflicts have seen both the Canadian and American militaries open up to the media like they have never done before. I know more about the conflict the in Afghanistan and Iraq than I have ever known before of any other conflict.

The media present us on a nightly basis with coverage of various conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan on a nightly basis. You can even review current operations by reading the newspaper, visiting news websites and watching the news on television. Everything is being analyzed by both journalists, academics and former military personelle on a daily basis. We even get to see the location and sometimes even the footage of the soldiers being killed. The footage depends on if there was a journalist there at that time. The journalists can’t be in all the places at one time so sure some of these events are missed. But that is only through the human impossibility of not being able to be in two places at once. So where is this “censorship”?

However, what the media fails to understand is that the whole world cannot be open to the public. There are going to be times when the media and general public’s eyes need to be kept away. All Prime Minister Harper is requesting, on behalf of the grieving families, is this time for privacy. The least the media can do is recognize this very reasonable request and give the families a private moment to sadly welcome their loved ones back home. The media canmerely note that the bodies did return to Canada on that day. The media and historians need to note that sometimes it is beneficial that all events in history need to be caught in sound bites or in picture form.

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4 thoughts on “Disservice to the Troops?

  1. A balanced, thoughtful post, Michael.

    My only quibble is with this statement:

    The families that have come to see their son’s or daugther’s tragic return to Canada should be able to do so in private. Who in their right minds would want to have their faces splashed accross the country…?

    The Conservative government never asked the families for input. When the media asked them what they thought, some of them disagreed with Harper’s decision to ban the media. They didn’t regard it as an intrusion on their private grief. Presumably they regarded it as a public tribute to their sons, a recognition that the sacrifice of their lives was noted and appreciated by the Canadian public.

    The Conservatives made an executive decision to bar the media and then justified it by saying it was in the families’ best interests. But it’s rather paternalistic to decide what’s in the families’ best interests without asking them their opinion!

    This gives people reasonable cause to question Harper’s explanation and ask what really motivated the decision.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s censorship, exactly. But Harper is evidencing profound distrust of the media. I think his basic attitude is, The more access they have, the more trouble they will make for my government. So his default position is, Let’s keep the media out.

    This particular decision is just part of his general policy, or bias against the media. The media don’t like it, of course. The more important question is, what should we citizens think? Is Harper justified in reducing media access, or should we regard it as an undemocratic approach to governing?

  2. By the way, this is the 200th post on Art of the Rant. Congratulations to Bill in particular, as well as the rest of us who contribute material to this blog!

  3. I agree that the media should understand that freedom of the press does not equal the right to invade privacy, but it should be up to the families who attends the funerals, not the military or the government.

    I have to admit that it never occured to us to ban the media from my brothers funeral (he was not in the military, but was silly enough to die in unknown circumstances just five days before the election that he was standing in….), but neither were we unhappy that they were there, or that the funeral was covered in the press. In fact, in some ways, it was nice to think that people knew the pain we were going through. There were a few unfavourable reports, but at a time of loss it’s pretty easy to ignore such rubbish. Even though it as obviously a political “situation”, neither the gov’t or the party had any say in where, when, how, or who attended the funeral.

    Still, when you join the military, you are giving them full control over your body for your life and beyond. It is something people would do well to remember – these people are being paid to fight & die for their country, and the country feels it has bought the right to most aspects of that person.

  4. There is a huge misperception out there. The media can cover whatever it wishes in Canada, within reason. All the government did was ban reporters from the arrival tarmac at No. 8 Wing at Canadian Forces Base Trenton. Nothing more. This happens in many cases. The media are used to having boundaries. If the media wants to stand outside the gate and shoot video, it may. If the media wants to stand outside the church and shoot video of the pallbearers carrying a soldier’s body in and out, it may do so as well. No one’s approval is required. The whole issue is being drummed up by a small but vocal few who wish to embarass the government. By the way, the government has the right to make paternalistic decisions, without consulting us. That’s what governments do. It happens all the time. Get over it. YOU have the right to vote against them next time around.

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