Saturday, March 21, 2009

We never should have closed down our German bases

Last night, we learned that four more soldiers have been killed in the line of duty for Canada: Master Corporal Scott Vernelli and Corporal Tyler Crooks of November Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment; and Troopers Yack Bouthillier and Corey Joseph Hayes of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. Eight others were wounded and reported in "stable" condition.

That brings the total death toll to 117 -- 116 soliders and one diplomat -- killed in the line of duty since 9/11. Two Canadian aid workers have also been killed.

Obviously, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And it is truly infuriating that most of NATO is still not pulling its weight in Afghanistan. Only five countries have full time combat operations there right now: Canada, the US, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands. Other countries put so many conditions for the rules of engagement for their fighting men and women that it makes joint operations that would be more effective, impossible to execute. As NATO marks 60 years next month, the success or failure of the operation could well depend on whether more countries will be persuaded to jump in.

However, there is one aspect of the situation -- the wounded -- that still bothers me.

While we have a modern field hospital at the base in Kandahar City that is fully capable of handling critical injuries -- for our troops, our allies alongside, and even our enemies who we capture as POWs -- it is, at its "base" a critical care facility (in and out, so to speak). To handle the more serious injuries that will take a longer recovery period, we have to transfer our WIAs to an American air base facility in Ramstein, Germany. Their physicians, nurses and other specialists are just about the best there is and there is no question our soldiers are in good hands there. And it also helps that there are Canadians posted there on a full time basis (as well as troops from 10 other NATO members), to help keep the wounded company.

But the fact is we had our own base in Germany for decades -- the base at Baden-Soellingen, in addition to facilities in Lahr and Zweibrüken. These were not only staging areas for conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, they also had the facilities you'd expect back home including top-notch medical personnel. Zweibrüken was closed after the three branches (army, air force and navy) unifed their command in the late 1960s, but the other two remained open -- until Mulroney ordered them closed in the early 1990s under the guise of budget constraints. Canada wasn't the only one, other countries pulled out of Germany too with the end of communism in most of Europe.

But many world leaders totally missed the shifting paradigm. It was no longer East versus West as in Eastern vs Western Europe. As the Cold War ended and Europe was becoming more united (with customs-free borders beginning in 1995) the Eastern boundary had now shifted, to the Middle East, South Asia and the Asia Pacific -- and small but well armed and financed groups who were prepared to fight unconventional war against us.

They also missed the opportunity to have battle ready people able to move in in several hours notice, not having to organize a deployment months in the making (as is the case now), fly them half way around the world, and then having to ship the wounded half-way back to a foreign country's facilities. It's insane -- we had our own army hospitals in Germany, good ones, and we shut them down and have the Americans bill us (and we know how expensive their health care is!)?

Too: Having a continued presence would have strengthened Canada's hand in dealing with the EU. We're finally into free trade talks with them now, but this could have been done a decade or more ago -- when we pulled out it was like we were snubbing the people we helped liberate in World War II so they had no reason to reason, particularly during the cod and turbot "wars." Why do you think America can be as tough as it is with the EU, and vice versa? It's because of the physical American presence in Europe.

The other thing is all those "support our troops" stickers you see on bumpers. I'd like to ask them if support means supporting PMS and his policies, or does it mean really supporting our troops -- giving them the best and most up to date fighting equipment possible, not Bay of Pigs relics? Does it mean subletting long term care of wounded soldiers, airmen and sailors to the Americans, or having them in our own army hospitals? Does it mean just giving soldiers their LTD when they get back -- or also emotional, financial and every other support they're going to need, for a lifetime? "Support our troops" in the context presently being used is a sinister one and it is costing our troops dearly. You don't fight terrorists equipped with Kalashnikovs and Berettas when all you have are the equivalent of starters' pistols which is basically what we're doing right now.

I support our troops. Supporting them means they get it in every way, and that includes treatment of the injured by Canadians, from start to finish. Again, I admire the work that the men and women at Ramstein do and I think we should thank them for their friendship and service; but we really need to have Canadians treating Canadians. Flying them home all the way would be impractical, so a mid-way point would have been nice. Closing Baden and Lahr was about the stupidest thing we could have done. And we can't have them back either -- they were sold and redeveloped commercially.

Not too surprising, given conservatives -- progressive and regressive conservatives -- have a penchant for selling top class land at fire sale prices.

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