COVER/ESSAY

THE HOPE AND THE HEARTACHE

BOB LEVIN December 17 1990
COVER/ESSAY

THE HOPE AND THE HEARTACHE

BOB LEVIN December 17 1990

THE HOPE AND THE HEARTACHE

COVER/ESSAY

HUSSEIN STARTS TO RELEASE HIS HOSTAGES, BUT THE THREAT OF WAR STILL LOOMS

The hardest thing in coming over here was writing my will, deciding how to split up what I had. They send you into a war zone and you have to think you might die.

—Canadian Cpl. Dale Warren at a desert airbase in Qatar

I still can’t feel it totally, not until I see Fred. That’s all I want for Christmas.

—Jeanne Skovberg of Calgary, whose husband, Fred, has been held in Iraqioccupied Kuwait; she was reacting to President Saddam Hussein’s announcement last week that he will release all remaining hostages

Perhaps it will end peacefully after all. Perhaps Saddam Hussein will withdraw his forces from Kuwait, and the enormous international contingent arrayed against them will leave the Persian Gulf, sparing thousands of lives on both sides. Suddenly last week, that possibility, once apparently faint, began to seem like more than just wishful holiday thinking. The Iraqi president’s announcement that he is releasing all hostages in Iraq and Kuwait, including more than 41 Canadians, unleashed a rousing cheer from his socalled foreign guests and their families. He may also have improved the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis, and perhaps even the chances for negotiations on the larger issues dividing the Middle East (page 32). Perhaps.

For now, the gnawing uncertainty remains. And the fear, and the waiting, and the fact that war—high-stakes, high-tech hostilities—is still a chilling possibility. President George Bush continued to insist last week that Hussein’s forces withdraw by the UN-imposed deadline of Jan. 15, which is surely one of the first times that a potential war has actually been scheduled. But a new issue loomed: would support for warfare, both overseas and among North Americans, dwindle following Hussein’s hostage concession, particularly with U.S. and Iraqi officials’ contemplating direct talks as early as next week?

That was the striking paradox in the strongman’s manoeuvre. He detained the foreigners

in the first place, he said, to prevent attack by using them as human shields at strategic military and industrial sites. Then, with the fear of war rising around the world, he was clearly calculating that releasing the hostages was his best hope of avoiding an assault.

But for the nearly 1,700 Canadian troops in the Gulf, and for their families and friends at home tuned nervously to the news, the prospects for combat remained painfully apparent. Those lights twinkling way below the streaking Canadian CF-18S are dangerously close to Iraqioccupied Kuwait City, and those Gulf waters that the three Canadian warships patrol are the world’s vital, and potentially volatile, oil lanes (page 34). There is also a nightmarish possibility that the Iraqis would employ deadly nerve and mustard gases as they did in their war with Iran and against their own Kurdish minority. And there was the grim fisting in the November issue of an Ottawa publication called Government Business Opportunities, tendering a contract for 800 body bags—“pouch for human remains, water and rot resistant.”

If fighting does erupt, the Canadian Forces, traditional peacekeepers, will become warriors for the first time since the Korean conflict of 1950 to 1953. There were other battles earlier in the century. Canadians manned the trenches

of the First World War; 60,000 were killed, including 7,000 casualties at Ypres, Belgium, where some were engulfed by a cloud of German-fired chlorine gas in the modem era’s first chemical attack.

In the Second World War, 907 Canadians died in a single, ill-considered assault on the high German-held cliffs at the French port of Dieppe in 1942. But Canadians went on to play a successful part in the daring D-Day invasion of Normandy two years later and in other

operations, while Canadian flying schools trained Allied pilots and aircrews. By war’s end, about 42,000 Canadians had been killed and the country’s 471-ship Navy was the world’s third largest after the American and the British.

By those epic standards, Ottawa’s Gulf deployment, three ships and 18 warplanes, is relatively small. But amid the tumultuous rattling of big guns and tanks, many Canadians, both in the streets and in Parliament, have added their voices to the spreading antiwar sentiment in America. They ask why the alliance seems to be rushing towards war without giving worldwide economic sanctions more time to force Hussein out of Kuwait. Critics also question whether oil supplies, sovereignty or democracy issues are the real cause of the conflict. After all, neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia is a democracy. Washington has offered one explanation after another. Ottawa officials, meanwhile, insist that they have not just blindly followed the Americans down the precarious path to confrontation.

The reactions of the Canadian troops themselves range from bewilderment to bravado. But for the moment, they are fighting not Iraqis but a numbing boredom and the gaping unknown—“like walking down a darkened hall-

way,” said Lt.-Col. Edward Campbell, commander of 409 Squadron in Qatar. And so the waiting continues. The hostages prepare to come home at last. The UN deadline draws nearer, the end-game diplomacy plays out on a knife-edge between war and peace. And as the holiday season approaches, the service families cling to their hopes—with a special, personal intensity this year—for peace on earth.

BOB LEVIN