Men have always fought their wars in the name of women’s liberation. The Trojan War was ostensibly fought to free Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” But we all know that the real reason was to satisfy the ambition of Achilles, and that the “Trojan Women” were trampled on in the process.
The history of Canada’s war in Afghanistan proves to be no exception to this rule. As casualties mounted in 2006, with 36 Canadian soldiers killed in action, Prime Minister Harper claimed their sacrifice was justified because, “women are enjoying greater rights and economic opportunities than could have been imagined under the Taliban.”
It may come as a surprise to Canadians that we remain involved in Afghanistan, and continue to extol the progress of women, despite loud notices of a final troop withdrawal in 2014. Afghanistan is still a member of Canada’s Military Training and Cooperation Program, and our Peace and Stabilization Operations Programs in Afghanistan (PSOP’s), are considered “an important tool in the Government of Canada’s feminist foreign policy.”
One currently active PSOP is Canada’s contribution of $27 million USD to the construction of “Woman’s Police Town” in Kabul. According to the Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan: “Successful recruitment and retention of female police officers is vital for peace and stability in Afghanistan and will support NATO’s current training mission in Afghanistan, Operation Resolute Support.”
But will turning Afghanistan into a “Woman’s Police Town” lead to its liberation? According to a recent report of the UN, even after 20 years of fighting the women of Afghanistan are suffering now more than ever, regardless of such PSOP’s:
“Women and children continue to suffer disproportionately from the armed conflict. UNAMA documented 1, 202 women casualties (345 killed and 857 injured), an increase of four per cent compared to 2018.”
Canada’s War in Afghanistan also wreaked a terrible toll on women in our own country, and not just on the wives and mothers of the 158 soldiers killed and up to 2,000 wounded. There was one episode in particular that distills the tragic experience for Canadian women of the Afghanistan “quagmire.”
It might seem that Colonel Williams’ murderous crime spree in cottagey Tweed Ontario couldn’t have been further away from the events of the war. But “appearances can be deceiving” and Williams, a highly decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is a prime example of that adage.
The Canadian “forest primeval” became a very dark place indeed when he hunted down, sexually assaulted and murdered Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd in the middle of the night during the fall of 2009.
The question is, were it not for the war, would these murders and the sexual assault of two other women, have taken place? A harder question may be whether the war itself would have taken place were it not for a deeply rooted misogyny in certain elite Canadian institutions, and their counterparts in other Western nations. We criticize the Taliban, but this episode shows that we would do better to put our own house in order.
William’s was educated at the elite all-boys private school Upper Canada College (UCC) during a time when convicted pedophiles Clark Winston Noble and Doug Brown roamed unchecked. No doubt the “fagging system” whereby the “old boys” initiate new recruits, a ritual inherited from Eton and other institutional relics of the British Empire, provided many opportunities. In fact, Williams rose to the top of the “old boys” hierarchy at UCC, being selected as a “Prefect” in his senior year.
Williams also rose rapidly through Canada’s similarly sexist military culture. By 2004 he had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and Commander of 437 Transport Squadron, a unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force. If anyone has any doubts about the rampant misogyny in the military, they might consult the 1998 McLean’s magazine article, “Rape in the Military” in which a pioneering female fighter pilot, Maj. Dee Brasseur, initiated a series of disclosures that:
“… reveal a culture of unbridled promiscuity, where harassment is common, heavy drinking is a way of life, and women are often little more than game for sexual predators.”
From December, 2005 to May, 2006 Williams was appointed commander of Canada’s secret air base, Camp Mirage, in the United Arab Emirates. This posting gave him responsibility for ferrying Canadian soldiers and supplies to Kandahar, Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban insurgency had significantly intensified. He personally flew to Kandahar on a monthly basis during this period of heightened violence.
Williams had no criminal record prior to his posting at Camp Mirage but then, psychiatric investigator Dr. John Bradford said to the CBC, “something happened to him that has never been revealed to the public.”
Bradford himself acknowledged having suffered PTSD while working on Williams’ case, yet forensic psychologist Margo Watt carefully avoids the conclusion that Williams suffered the same.
She does agree, however, that something “triggered” Colonel Williams’ rampage. She refers to speculation by Dr. Vernon Quinsey, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Biology and Psychiatry at Queen’s University, “that Williams had these interests for a long time, but was able to control them until something set him off and he couldn’t control them any longer. Apparently, during one of his sexual assaults, Williams reportedly told his victim that he was attacking her so that he could “move on with (his) life.”
Of course, Williams’ “trigger” might have been pulled sometime before or after the war, and may have had nothing to do with it other than a chronological coincidence. This was the view taken in Globe and Mail reporter Timothy Appleby’s biography, A New Kind of Monster. Appleby argues that since Williams had no combat role during his time at Camp Mirage there was no possibility that the genesis of his crimes was some type of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. Rather, Appleby argues that rather late in life Williams consciously chose to indulge his private sadistic fantasies. C’est tout!
This view absolves the military from any responsibility, which may render it suspect. War-related trauma is not necessarily limited to combat experience. Based on a study of Norwegian veterans of Afghanistan, Psychologist Andreas Nordstrand suggests that being exposed to life-threatening situations results in fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms for soldiers than when they experience suffering and death without being in danger themselves. He cites “witnessing”, or seeing the war-related suffering or death of others, as an example of such non-combat war-related trauma.
Colonel Williams was “witness” to at least one traumatic death. Captain Nichola Goddard flew from Camp Mirage to Afghanistan in January 2006. On May 17th , as Canadian troops were moving into a mosque to capture 15 alleged Taliban members, several dozen hidden militants began firing from neighboring houses. Goddard, who was standing half-exposed in her LAV III during the firefight, was hit by two rocket-propelled grenades. She was the first female Canadian soldier ever to die in combat. Two other Canadian military women, Karine Marie Nathasha Blais and Kristal Lee-Anne Giesebrecht, also died in Afghanistan before the war was over.
Was Colonel Williams “witness” to other war-related trauma? It was reported by Valerie Fortney, in a 2012 article for Postmedia News, that in a letter sent home to her husband prior to her death, Goddard mentioned six rapes she says occurred at Kandahar Airfield base in one week in early 2006. Colonel Williams might have been witness to these war crimes, though Appleby argues that he was far too public a figure in his commanding role ever to be caught in such compromising circumstances.
The truth is hidden from history just as, according to General Richard Hillier, Prime Minister Harper’s Office ordered the military to hide the return to Canada of Captain Nichola Goddard’s body. They did not want her flag-draped coffin seen on the news. Williams’ also hid the bodies of his victims, and a “treasure trove” of mementos related to his crimes.
When asked about his motivations, Williams replied: “I don’t know the answers, and I’m pretty sure the answers don’t matter.” He ensured that we would also never know the answers by pleading guilty. This is not surprising given his confession of concern upon arrest for “the impact on the Canadian Forces.” He was a true corporate man right to the end.
In the final analysis, even if Williams’ crime spree was not directly a consequence of war-related trauma in Afghanistan, it does serve as a signpost for many others that were. For example, a “judicial fatality inquiry” is presently being conducted in the province of Nova Scotia into the case of Lionel Desmond. On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond bought a rifle and fatally shot his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, his mother, Brenda, and then himself. Desmond, a retired corporal who served with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, was diagnosed with PTSD after two particularly violent tours in Afghanistan in 2007.
The point is that women have suffered the most from another war fought in their name. Recent news of peace talks rings hollow 20 years later.