OTTAWA — The Conservative government staged an unprecedented military display Thursday on Parliament Hill to celebrate a rarity in modern armed combat — a quick, neat and painless mission that ended in unqualified success in Libya.
Ten military aircraft were flown in from as far afield as Shearwater, N.S., for a flypast as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and other top government officials stood before an honour guard under the Peace Tower.
The ceremony, the first of its kind despite Canada’s long modern record of military missions abroad, recognized the efforts of the men and women who took part in the NATO campaign that helped force Moammar Gadhafi from power.
Canadian warplanes flew hundreds of bombing missions over the North African country in the spring and summer, while Canadian frigates patrolled offshore.
It was a relatively tidy, unambiguous war for the Canadian Forces, which suffered not a single casualty — in sharp contrast to the lingering Afghan conflict that continues to claim Canadian lives even since Canada’s combat mission formally ended July 7.
An unabashedly proud Harper set the bar for future foreign interventions during a speech to the Senate, stating “heaven forbid that we should fail to do that of which we are capable, when the path of duty is clear.”
“Our government is not that kind of government,” the prime minister told an upper chamber packed with uniformed servicemen and women.
“Canada is not that kind of nation. And Canadians are not that kind of people.”
The spectacle outside — under leaden, late-November skies — included a 21-gun salute, a royal salute, marching bands, a lumbering Globemaster transport behemoth, and an impressive formation of CF-18 fighter-bombers surrounding a Polaris tanker.
But it was short on public spectators. Held mid-morning on a work day, the ceremony attracted about 100 onlookers, including a clutch of flag-waving Libyan expatriates.
Heavy steel gates were installed across the sidewalks leading up to the Centre Block and snipers in black were visible prowling rooftops in the parliamentary precinct.
Johnston, speaking in the Senate, lauded the military’s role in ensuring “Libyans can begin to imagine a future free of fear and suffering.”
His comments came as a leaked United Nations report found that Libya’s liberated victors have illegally detained thousands of people, including women and children, and alleging many have been tortured.
The vice-regal told troops assembled on the Senate floor: “Together, you embody our commitment to international law, to the rights and freedoms we cherish in a democratic society, and to the personal values of duty, honour, and service.”
The Harper government has made a very public effort to align itself with the military since coming to power in 2006 and Thursday’s expensive display of military air power, right over the seat of federal power, marks a new zenith.
Melissa Aronczyk, assistant professor of communications studies at Carleton University who specializes in government and country branding, said military symbolism may in fact be mankind’s oldest form of branding.
“There is so much symbolism. The uniforms, the perfect symmetry of what they’re doing. There’s just a lot of power in those images,” said Aronczyk.
“Politicians and parties see themselves as a brands, and every aspect of their bearing in society — and especially through the media — is a form of strategic communication,” said the academic. “What they’re wearing, where they’re standing, the backdrop behind them, all of those things are aspects of the brand and they’re all managed.”
In that respect, Thursday’s event was a tour de force.
But according to online military blogs, it left some Afghan veterans wondering when they’d get a similar parade for the quantifiably more dangerous mission that has taken the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers.
Commander Craig Skjerpen, who took part in the Libyan naval blockade off Misrata, said there’s no cause for controversy.
“I don’t know about setting a precedent, but I think it’s appropriate to recognize the type of people that do this, people who are willing to go into harm’s way to carry out the government’s wishes,” Skjerpen said in an interview on Parliament Hill just before the ceremony began.
As for the Afghan mission, “I don’t think this takes away from the absolutely incredible work that everyone has done in Afghanistan and are continuing to do there over the next three years,” said Skjerpen.
“This isn’t about us and them. This is about one aspect of recognition.”
The most visible recipient of recognition was Lt.-Gen Charles Bouchard, who commanded the entire NATO task force. The Governor General presented him the Meritorious Service Cross.
The citation for the medal said Bouchard brought great credit to Canada “with his demonstration of exceptional operational and strategic acumen.”
When he met later with reporters, a humbled Bouchard — who is set to retire after 37 years in the military — took a less bombastic tone than the prime minister.
Asked to compare Afghanistan and Libya, Bouchard said each situation is different.
“In the case of Libya, the people wanted their freedom and these were the ones who conducted the uprising,” he said, downplaying NATO’s role.
“Our job was to make sure that violence against civilians, especially defenceless civilians — men, women and children who were being bombed indiscriminately — our job was to make sure this would stop.”
The fluently bilingual general added in French, “I can tell you, hand on my heart, that our efforts were legal, ethical and moral.”