Former general Lewis MacKenzie visits Fellowes High 0
The United Nations may do a lot of things right, but promoting peace and security in today's world isn't one of them.
This is the view of retired Major-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who on Thursday spoke to Dan Sloan's history class in Fellowes High School on the hard lessons he learned while serving on peacekeeping missions.
Contrary to popular thinking, peacekeeping was never Canada's top priority, he said, noting through its creation in 1956 to 1989, this country had a maximum of about 2,000 soldiers deployed for UN missions, while 10,000 were encamped and equipped in Western Europe, ready to fight the Soviets and the rest of the Warsaw Pact.
This was the age of the Cold War, where placing lightly armed soldiers between warring countries worked as a way of calming tensions, which could blow up into a nuclear conflict.
With the ending of the Cold War in 1989, this division between the superpowers ended, as did the check on tensions within and without countries.
Regions disintegrated as old tribal, religious, ethnic and other feuds flared up, creating a wave of civil wars, which to this day still rage around the globe."
The UN Security Council is archaic," to deal with such a world, Major-Gen. MacKenzie said.
Traditional peacekeeping worked well when there was a Cold War on and both sides had a vested interest in keeping the peace, but is near useless coping with wars involving numerous factions battling each other."
One can deal with countries, but you can't deal with factions," in a reasoned way, he said.
But that is what the UN tries to do, relying on its old peacekeeping model, with the Blue Berets going in, if invited, only lightly armed, remaining neutral, doing nothing aggressive and only shooting back to defend their own lives and little else, he said."
With factions, you got to go in with enough force to at least protect the innocents," he said, but the UN doesn't have what it takes to do that.
"They couldn't cope with the idea you need to use deadly force to enforce the peace."
This lesson was brought home most strongly during Major-Gen. MacKenzie's mission in the former Yugoslavia, which tore itself apart in the early 1990s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had taken the cap off of centuries of ethnic and religious hatred, and the entire Central European region was soon awash in civil war.
Ordered into Sarajevo in March 13, 1992 to help head up the headquarters for a UN force within Croatia in the wake of a civil war a year previous, he found himself and the staff officers in the middle of another civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that broke out around them within a month.
"We found ourselves in a situation where the frontline troops (in Croatia) felt sorry for the headquarters, which was under fire," he said.
With different factions of Croats, Serbs and Muslims shooting at the UN as much as each other, it became terrible, especially for the civilians.
As a example, Major- Gen. MacKenzie described how the schools were shut down as the teachers were in the fighting, but students were determined to keep learning.
So, they would have the fastest one among their peers dash out to attract sniper fire, while the rest would run across the open spaces to try and steal books to use.
Inevitably, someone would get killed in the process.
The UN wouldn't allow the troops to enter the area to assist, so the headquarters' staff did what it could to help civilians, taking casualties as they did so. Then, they were ordered out.
Major-Gen. MacKenzie said they were humiliated and irritated by this action, so the staff officers took the initiative and arranged to take the airport, seeking the permission from the dominant Serb forces to do so. This way, at least some humanitarian supplies and assistance could be brought in.
But it was far from a perfect solution.
"We were not stopping the fighting, we were just feeding the victims," he said, comparing it to walking into the middle of the battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War and asking the Germans if they could bring food and bandages to the civilians.
Unfortunately, this is how the UN has been doing its peacekeeping missions, Major-Gen. MacKenzie said, and often waiting until it is too late before getting involved.
He left Sarajevo in July 1992, and the military a year later, with a new appreciation for how good life is in Canada and how we tend to be complacent about it.
One incident, which occurred before he left underscores this contrast. Major-Gen. MacKenzie was watching from his office in Sarajevo as a group of 13 teens waited for transport to take them to the remains of their families.
Before his eyes, a mortar round shredded all of them.
One girl was decapitated, three others disintegrated and the rest were horribly injured.
Their cleaning lady, who mopped floors for them and did laundry at the headquarters, performed amputations that day.
She had been a surgeon before the war started.
Two weeks later, he is in Ottawa and reads the paper, where the most pressing thing on the front page was the debate over the GST.
"I just teared up," he said, as he reflected on what he had seen mere days before returning to Canada.
Major-Gen. MacKenzie, who has visited Afghanistan since Canadian troops were deployed there, said this continues to happen, with people here unaware of how fortunate they have it.
He feels any blessings one has at home obligates us as a nation to reach out and work abroad.
In his opinion, these days the three groups of the bravest Canadians doing this are all in Afghanistan; the unarmed civilian workers with the non-governmental organizations doing development work, the police officers who are training the Afghan police, and Canadian soldiers, who "put up with all sorts of crap coming from home, yet remain focused on the mission."
Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer reporter