A retired chaplain and Afghanistan veteran ponders Canada’s longest war
The rapid collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government this year following the withdrawal of U.S. forces and subsequent return to power of the Taliban have prompted discussion about the legacy of the war in Afghanistan. Canadian troops were deployed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, making the conflict Canada’s longest war.
Between May 2008 and February 2009, Canon Doug Friesen served in Afghanistan as the senior Task Force Kandahar chaplain. Now retired from the Canadian Armed Forces, where he was an Anglican chaplain for 31 years, Friesen is currently an active priest in the diocese of British Columbia and an honorary associate at Christ Church Cathedral.
With the approach of Remembrance Day, the Anglican Journal spoke to Friesen for his thoughts on developments in Afghanistan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What went through your head as you were hearing news about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?
A. I was sad and disheartened. We’d all hoped for a different outcome.
Q. Do you now feel that the war and deaths and injuries were in vain, or have you heard that from others?
A. That’s the central question. That’s the question I’ve been struggling with. My answer is no, they weren’t in vain, and here’s how my thoughts have gone over that.
First of all, when the government sends its military into an area like that, it’s not good. It’s a bad situation, chaotic. Other means haven’t worked, so the military goes in. There are forces at work that you have no control over, and Afghanistan was particularly bad that way. Trying to predict an outcome was just extremely difficult.
But I think that yes, most Canadian Forces members would rather have been there than do nothing and stand by on the sidelines. I think most members wanted to do something.
In one sense, the mission was successful. If the Canadian Forces is all about the defence of Canada, there have been no terrorist attacks on Canada launched from Afghan soil over the last 20 years. So in that sense, that’s good. That was a success.
Clearly there was a bigger plan, which was to use the Canadian Forces as one line of operation to provide some security to allow the Afghan people to develop their own institutions and their own national defence force—to strengthen and stabilize the country so that they wouldn’t be vulnerable or sympathetic to terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. That hasn’t quite worked out the way we’d hoped.
But then there’s another thing going on there. I know that for myself and other members of the forces that went to Afghanistan, you meet the people and you see the challenges they’re facing. They’ve been dealt a really bad hand and they want a future for their kids. They want education for their kids, they want a better future for their daughters, and they want an economy and jobs.
You meet the people and you see the challenges, and there’s a kind of a shift in priorities. You go there and you just think, “Geez, I’d really like to help these people.” I know that was the attitude of a lot of the service members—that they wanted to really help the people of Afghanistan build a better future. So in addition to making the place stable so there’s greater international security, they just wanted to help the people as fellow human beings. Those Canadians that died in Afghanistan, they were laying down their lives in service of others, literally. How do you get more meaningful than that?
When you see the images of Kabul and the chaos there, as a Christian, you look at Jesus’s crucifixion. That looked like a failure too. But surprise, surprise, things didn’t turn out that way. As a Christian again, I believe there’s another force at work here that’s not dependent on the American military or any other military. This story isn’t over yet. I don’t think we can predict the outcome even yet, and so I haven’t given up hope. I’m hopeful.
I think we can remember the troops that died in Afghanistan on Remembrance Day. It was an honourable death.
Q. Many veterans who served in Afghanistan returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Suicide is also an issue. Do you think Canada is adequately supporting its veterans?
A. That’s a tough one, and I don’t really have an answer to that. I know that when Canada went into Afghanistan, a number of initiatives emerged out of that experience—better training and preparation, for example. There was a program called The Road to Mental Readiness, which is about training people to build resilience in the face of stress. As a chaplain, there’s a whole section on spirituality, to draw on spiritual strength to help you face these stresses.
An entire new clinic [network] was formed during those years called the operational stress injury clinics, which were designed to assist folks who came back with PTSD and operational stress injury. There’s a chaplain on that team with specialized training.
Another organization that stood up around 2009–10 [is] the Joint Personnel Support Unit, [for] active troops. If they have a stress injury or PTSD, they can be posted to this unit, with the goal of either returning to work or transitioning out to other employment.
To your question, how are they cared for, those folks that transition out of the forces? What’s their care like? I just can’t tell you. I’ve lost sight of those folks, and I see in the news that more could be done. I’m sure it could be. But I just can’t comment on how they’re being treated.
Q. In a 2008 interview with the National Post, you said that you felt the war in Afghanistan was just and necessary. At the same time, you said, “I struggle with the role religion plays in the violence here…. I struggle with what to say to people who are mourning…. Sometimes, I think religion has been used as a crutch or a coping mechanism to deny the harsh reality of death and suffering.” Speaking to the Anglican Journal in 2010, you said you and other soldiers wrestled with questions such as, “Are we really making a contribution? Are we doing more harm than good?” Have your feelings about the mission and the role of religion in the war changed since then?
A. No, I don’t think so. I think that when you’re in a mission like Afghanistan, which is so complicated, and obviously the situation now is chaotic and complicated—it wasn’t the outcome we’d hoped for—people struggle with that. My own temperament is to struggle with these issues of faith. I think my role as a chaplain has always been to walk with people who are struggling with these issues and not diminish [them]. I don’t have any pat answers, for sure, but [I] try and search out deeper understanding in those.
I’d love it if religion made people better, kinder, more loving and just. Unfortunately, that’s often not what we see. For a Canadian Christian to go to Afghanistan—the way religion pervades their lives is very impressive and inspiring. We have this secular society in Canada, but in Afghanistan, their faith and religion and religious practice just pervade everything. Pray five times a day—it’s very impressive. So why aren’t things better for those people and why is religion a source of conflict?
But I guess also, as a Christian, part of my theology places a very prominent and real place for sin. In Afghanistan, you see the power of sin and death in very vivid, visible, graphic terms. It’s a reminder, I think, that we stand in need of God’s grace.
Q. Do you see God at work in any of what’s happened?
A. In Afghanistan, you saw people who were willing to lay down their lives for the service of others. That’s right out of John. Sure, we would have hoped for a better outcome. But these folks put their lives on the line unconditionally, regardless of the outcome, in the hope and the service of other people. So I see God at work there for sure.
Another area is the response to the news of death in the family. I’ve seen parents who have received the worst news imaginable, the death of a child. In response to their grief, they’ve carried on the work of their child in charitable work. Boomer’s legacy [Cpl Andrew “Boomer” Eykelenboom, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2006] is one example. There are others. Boomer was a medic who was killed, and his mother has just worked tirelessly for charitable work to help the people of Afghanistan. So I see certainly God at work in that kind of hopeful response to bad news.
But in my faith, I just see God in everything. God’s at work in all of it. I often don’t know what God’s up to, but God doesn’t owe me an explanation.
Q. What lessons should Christians and/ or Canadians draw from the war in Afghanistan?
A. Entering a war like that, the outcomes are unpredictable. There are so many ambiguities and so many forces at work beyond our control—there are no guarantees about how things are going to work out. Who do we want to be? I think, certainly once committed, military service members and chaplains wanted to do the best we could to help the people, because that’s who we are. That’s our values and that’s who we want to be.
Every day I’m grateful I live in Canada, that’s for sure. That’s a lesson we sometimes take for granted, but that’s an important one to remember. I’ll have to keep thinking.