The Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien

What have we learned from war?

When I was young, war was a part of my life and the life of my family.

When Prime Minister Mackenzie King was elected during the World War II era,
he had promised that there would be no conscription. However, as the seriousness of the war developed, he changed his mind and held a plebiscite. Quebecers had all voted for King, and by that time France had collapsed and made peace with the Germans, so the real danger was in Great Britain.

The referendum results came as no surprise—over 75 per cent of Francophones voted against conscription. My father, however, voted yes. He felt that because Canada had declared war against Germany, it was our duty as citizens to fight for our country. In the villages around Québec, my father’s view represented a small minority. The result of the plebiscite created tension between neighbours.

The tradition at that time was to put a flag in the window when someone in a home was serving in the military. We were the only family in our group of row houses to have a flag on display. Although my father voted for conscription, there was no question any of his sons would be conscripted. He felt strongly that they should volunteer, and that is what three of my brothers did.

My sister’s fiancé also enlisted, and was stationed in London, England. As with many loved ones, she waited anxiously for letters from him. One of my family chores was to go pick up the mail. One day I wanted to tease her, so I hid all of her fiancé’s letters from her. She wanted to throttle me! Our family would send him care packages of candy, sucre à la crème, and occasionally sneak him a bottle of Canadian whisky. We were all part of the war effort, and we were proud of that.

It is never easy to convince people to go to war, and it is rare that people will vote for it. But sometimes war is necessary.

When the United States was attacked by terrorists on September 2001, I was one of the first foreign leaders to make the decision to use Article 5 of the NATO charter. Under the charter it states that if one member of NATO is attacked, we are all obligated to respond. The attack had originated in Afghanistan, so we decided collectively, and with the support of the United Nations, to go to war in Afghanistan.

As Prime Minister, you worry about the troops when you decide to send them into conflict zones, and into harm’s way.

It weighs heavily on you, and you reflect on it when you are alone, far away from the cameras and Parliament.

When soldiers or civilians were killed, I would quietly pray for them. At times of war, a Prime Minister makes decisions for the good of the nation, and soldiers know that when they sign up to serve, they may go to war, and they may die.

One thing you do not worry about is how your decision makes you look as Prime Minister. It is all about what is right and what is wrong, and if you waiver, you can make a lot of mistakes.

I was very skeptical about the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I told US President George W. Bush that if he did not have the support of the UN, Canada would not be going to war. We were briefed on almost the same information as the Americans, but I did not see any proof. A year before the US invaded Iraq, I told Mr. Bush that we wouldn’t go if they didn’t meet the conditions. In the end, the UN did not sanction the invasion of Iraq, so we did not go.

Deciding to go to war, or not go to war, has its consequences. If you lose the next election, so be it. When deciding whether or not to participate in the Iraq War, I had to take into consideration our economic ties with the US. Business people put pressure on me, saying the US would retaliate and stop buying from us if we didn’t join them. I asked them to “give me a list of all the goods and services the Americans are buying from us and they don’t need”. I am still waiting for that list. Business is business. People buy what they need.

Yes, it caused a lot of problems for some people, but now we can clearly see that my Government made the right decision.

I hope for future generations that we never see war on the scale of what we saw in the First and Second World Wars. War today in the 21st century stems often from ethnic, religious and regional tensions, which leads to borderless terrorism rather than traditional country vs. country warfare. Also, the tools of war today are technologically more advanced: drones, satellites, and the threat of global nuclear war.

So what have we learned from war? Not to have more wars. When people are educated and live well, they tend to be content. The recipe for unrest and violence is often rooted in poverty, misery, famine, the lack of basic health services and education. Therefore, we, as communities and countries, must take care of one another.

We have also learned that in order to deal with religious fanaticism, we need to have more inter-faith dialogue, not less.

In the end, we all worship the same creative force. Happiness and peace for everyone is something we all strive to achieve. As Prime Minister, I dedicated myself to this goal for the people of Canada at home and abroad.

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, PC, OM, CC, QC was Prime Minister of Canada from November 4, 1993 to December 12, 2003. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1963, and was re-elected 11 times. He served in many ministerial positions and won three majority governments. Mr. Chrétien was Prime Minister during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.