“Was It Worth It?” Canadian Intervention in Afghanistan and Perceptions of Success and Failure – Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1

The article that is the topic of this post notes that Sean M. Maloney, PhD, teaches History at the Royal Military College of Canada, and has also taught extensively in its War Studies Program. He is currently the historical advisor to the Canadian Army for the war in Afghanistan.

His article, “‘Was It Worth It?’ Canadian Intervention in Afghanistan and Perceptions of Success and Failure,”in the Canadian Military Journal Vol. 14, No. 1, is of much interest. I learned of this article from a tweet by Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail.

In the introductory paragraphs Sean Maloney writes:

  • In 2012, I was asked by the University of Manitoba to give a conference presentation on Canadian operations in Afghanistan, with an eye on the larger issues of Canadian and Western intervention during the past twenty years. I crafted a presentation based upon my preliminary work dealing with the history of the Canadian Army in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011, the project with which I am currently engaged for the Canadian Army. However, it was clear during and after my presentation that what I put together was too detailed, and it assumed too much knowledge on behalf of a diverse group. There was not enough time to establish common ground between me and the audience. Furthermore, in informal conversations, and when socializing in various venues leading up to and after my talk, it was evident that many people I spoke with were overly focused upon a specific political-media complex meme to the exclusion of any new information or insight I could provide, given the level of access I have had to the war in Afghanistan, both in terms of documentation, and from the personal experience of ten operational deployments extending from 2003 to 2011.
  • Needless to say, I was surprised that a media meme [1: A note at end of article comments: “A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture ~ Editor”] could be so overwhelming in such a grouping of academics and practitioners. I have been brought up in an academic tradition where ideas were debated and the search for different angles, new information, and fresh perspectives were the epitome of the profession. This was usually a contentious but professional process. Somehow, the amalgam of these things produced for us either confirmation of our prejudices or some kind of new synthesis that served as a launch-pad for another round of discussion. I did not see that in the Afghanistan case. I saw firmly-held views on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan that were dismissive of the facts, as they were, presented by a person charged with understanding our involvement in that demographically damaged, nearly post-Apocalyptic country. These were opinions shaped by existing academic models of how Canada behaves or has behaved or should behave on the international stage, as well as by media information. None of those models, however, adequately explains, or explains in only an extremely superficial way, why Canada was in Afghanistan and what Canadians did there. Certainly no measure of “worth” has been presented thus far that we can agree upon.

[End of introductory excerpt]


An Editor’s Note (p. 31 of the PDF printout of the article) notes that a meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.

We can add that, given that it seeks to encapsulate information, a meme demonstrates some of the features of a blurb.


The author notes, elsewhere in the text:

  • The one measurement of effectiveness we have on hand and in the public domain was the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS). The ANDS, dating from 2005-2006, laid out critical objectives with a timeline. A partnership between Afghans and Canadians, it was based upon hard-learned lessons in Bosnia. I have yet to see a Canadian media product that explains the ANDS and its importance to Canadians. To that end, I ‘locked horns’ with a journalist in Kandahar in 2007, and again in 2008. I challenged him when he claimed there was no strategy and no objectives, and pointed him towards the ANDS website. Did an explanatory article result? No. It was easier to count Canadian dead as if it was some grim hockey score, rather than to explain that the fact there was now a strategic plan in a near-post-Apocalyptic environment, and that this was in itself an achievement and it ‘could-and-would-and-did’ lead to better things. But strategic planning is boring. And people who use the media want to be entertained. Death and violence and excitement entertains. Creating a strategy that will give the Afghans governance structures so that the global community will be more inclined to provide monies in order for reconstruction to take place is not particularly entertaining, nor is it exciting. We are presented with a challenge: how do we move beyond the morbid death complex that our media, with societal complicity, has created, and find a means of explaining what we have accomplished in Afghanistan that is understandable to the common Canadian?

[End of excerpt]


Sean Maloney notes in his introduction: “I have been brought up in an academic tradition where ideas were debated and the search for different angles, new information, and fresh perspectives were the epitome of the profession. This was usually a contentious but professional process.”

The observation brings to mind the discussion in a previous post concerning the value of academic debate related to essentially contested concepts.

Debate within a framework of agreed-upon parameters is a great way to move any project or collaborative endeavour forward.

The author refers to the usefulness of providing data to back up pronouncements. There’s much to be said for the value of data and evidence. With regard to evidence, it would have been helpful if a reference were provided for the author’s assertion, at the conclusion of the article, that Germany has the highest standard of living in the world.

The broader point that Sean Maloney makes is that evidence-based practice is relevant with regard to how we deal with history, and how we perceive our lives.


With regard to military history, a Jan. 13, 2014 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Ontario farmer gets online reinforcements in feud with military over land grab.”

With regard to memes related to warfare, a Nov. 20, 2013 article by Deborah Cowen in The Atlantic is entitled: “The War No Image Could Capture: Photography has given us iconic representations of conflict since the Civil War—with a notable exception. Why, during the Great War, the camera failed.”

The article mentions a recent book by Jack Sacco, a 24-foot, line-drawn panorama, entitled The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme: An Illustrated Panorama (2013).

Another book by Sacco is Where the Birds Never Sing: The True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau (2003).

A Feb. 4, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “Why Ottawa ignored the military’s PTSD epidemic.”

A Jan-Feb. 2008 Literary Review of Canada article by Robert R. Fowler is entitled: “Alice in Afghanistan.”

A March 2018 Atlantic article is entitled: “The Devastating Paradox of Pakistan: How Afghanistan’s neighbor cultivated American dependency while subverting American policy.”


1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Nov. 17, 2023 CBC Front Burner transcript is entitled: “A buried history of Canada’s Afghan war.” Click here to access the Nov. 13, 2023 CBC Front Burner broadcast on which the transcript is based.

    An excerpt from the transcript reads:

    In 2007, in the middle of the war, the Canadian military commissioned a historian to write Canada’s official account of it. One of the things that stands out about that official history is that it was documented as the war was being fought in real time. The result is a three-volume book called The Canadian Army in Afghanistan, which was expected to be published in 2014. The other thing that stands out is that for nearly a decade, this book hasn’t seen the light of day. According to its author, there were concerns from within the military about what he had written. Not that it wasn’t accurate, but that it contained uncomfortable truths. The book was quietly released last summer, but a limited run that makes it more or less inaccessible for anyone who actually wants to read it. Today, CBC Defence and security reporter, Murray Brewster, on the long delay, what’s actually in the book and why historical accounts of war can be so divisive.


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