I intended to write this post last week, but it's taken some time to digest. I saw General Romeo Dallaire
give a speech at the university; if you are not familiar with him, he was the Canadian general who was the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide in 1993-1994. His mission was hamstrung by a lack of support from the UN and member states; he managed to save many lives through his actions, but the fact that he was powerless to stop the wider genocide resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, and a suicide attempt. He has since started to recover, and gives lectures on his experiences.
I have been consistently following the Rwanda story: a pretty comprehensive documentary was the PBS Frontline episode "Ghosts of Rwanda"
. Several video segments are available on the web
: if you have a fast connection and 40 minutes to spare, I'd strongly recommend you watch it. I also have the full episode on VHS.
One particularly galling sequence was video of a White House spokeswoman at a press conference, desperately trying to sidestep calling the situation in Rwanda a 'genocide,' despite pressure from reporters. Basically, the UN and member states are required to react to something recognized as a genocide; she soft-pedaled around it, saying "acts of genocide may have occurred…" thereby keeping the US uninvolved. Note that Rwanda unfolded soon after Mogadishu, so the Clinton White House was desperately trying to avoid military involvement in Africa.
The local art house theater showed the film Shake Hands with the Devil
, a documentary showing Dallaire's return to Rwanda after the genocide, based on his book. Also, they showed the fictionalized Hotel Rwanda
. Both are strong recommendations.
But back to the lecture: I was a bit thrown at the beginning, since I was expecting a speech specifically on the genocide and the UN response. Instead, he spoke on "The New Leadership: A Humanistic Approach." It was meant to apply to the broader audience of graduate students who will be moving into leadership positions in their fields and the country.
One of his core points was that good leadership sees upcoming trends and shapes their organization to influence and meet them, as opposed to reacting to them and only realizing that change is happening at the same time as their subordinates. Specifically, he was referring to the state of the military in the 1990's, which required a shift from the cold war mindset to the murkier world of peacekeeping missions and nation building.
He told an anecdote also cited in a web article ("The General and the Genocide"
):"Thirty years ago when I joined the army, if somebody mentioned human rights, we immediately equated them with communists," Dallaire now says. The former career officer has come to believe that, along with the ability to attack and kill, soldiers must learn peacekeeping, negotiation, and human rights preservation. That belief is reflected in the war stories he chooses to tell. Rather than tales of derring-do, he offers anecdotes that plumb the moral ambiguities of modern soldiering.
"A young officer is entering a village," Dallaire recounts. "The village has been wiped out except for a few women and children still alive [in a ditch filled with bodies]. There is 30 percent AIDS in that area. There is blood all over that place, no rubber gloves. Does the platoon commander order his troops to get in there, into the ditch risking AIDS, and help?" The question, it turns out, is not an exercise in armchair ethics. "When I asked the platoon commanders, those from 23 of the 26 nations that sent forces said they would order their troops to keep marching. Commanders from three nations- Holland, Ghana, and Canada-were saved the complexity of the question because by the time they turned around their troops were already in the ditch."
One quote that stuck in my mind was that he stated that humanitarian missions are highest calling for a military force. It echoes what has gone through my mind: what would be a military situation/political cause that I would be willing to risk my life for? Definitely not Iraq. But the peacekeeping deployment to the Balkans to stop that unfolding horror story?—yes, I think so.
Speaking of Iraq, Dallaire had an interestingly nuanced viewpoint on the situation. To paraphrase, he believed that it was a mistake to have invaded in that manner, and was glad that Canada had nothing to do with it. But the world was letting Iraqi people down in terms of the humanitarian crisis resulting from invasion.
He also spoke out against use of paid mercenaries, as used in Iraq (see yet another Frontline documentary
) and other hot spots. He didn't even use the common euphemism of "private military contractor," favored by governments and the press. His biggest objection is that they are not accountable to the rule of law, in terms of humanitarian abuses. This viewpoint would not be surprising coming from left-leaning journalists and politicians, but coming from a retired general, it had some added weight and authority.
Overall, I don't know whether his viewpoints are an extreme for the Canadian military, or if they might be held by a fair portion of the forces. But after seeing him speak, I have to say that if I were Canadian, I would be proud to be one.