Bruce Cockburn sang against U.S. imperialism in Guatemala. He sang for the revolution in Nicaragua. He is now singing for Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan. Our movement is weaker for it.
In the 1980s, Central America was in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution. The signature event was the 1979 overthrow of the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, an overthrow led and organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). That revolution was bitterly opposed by the Generals who controlled many Central and South American states at the time, and the United States which had long backed military regimes in the region. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, funded a bloody proxy war against the Sandinistas, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Building solidarity with the Sandinista revolution – and with the other resistance movements in Central and South America – was a central political task for activists in the Global North in that decade.
Cockburn did his part. In 1983 he traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua, “with several other Canadian artists at the invitation of OXFAM, the world hunger organization.” The result was a beautiful and moving 1984 album, Stealing Fire, many of whose songs were inspired by the repression and resistance he encountered on his trip. “Nicaragua,” “Dust and Diesel” and “Yanqui go home” are explicit tributes to the new society being wrenched from imperialism’s grasp in desperately poor and embattled Nicaragua. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is the best-known track from the album, famously covered by Bareknaked Ladies.” It is not explicitly political, but when he calls out that you’ve “got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” we knew what he meant.
Bruce has now stumbled into the darkness of support for Canada’s war effort in Afghanistan. His brother is a Captain in the Canadian military, and part of Canadian forces in Afghanistan. In early September, Bruce went to the country, visited his brother, and performed for Canadian troops while he was there.
“It’s a long discussion on whether we should be in Afghanistan” he said, “whether anyone should be in Afghanistan … but since we are, and since we’ve gone this far, I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave at this stage.”
This won’t do. Many of us have friends and relatives in Afghanistan. All of us want them to come home unharmed. All of us want them to come home without having done harm to others. But all of us – Cockburn included – have to ask ourselves the hard questions.
Are Canada’s troops – troops that include Bruce’s brother, two of my cousins, one of my close friend’s brother, and thousands of other Canadians either in Afghanistan or on their way – are these troops risking their lives for democracy and freedom?
What if the answer is “no?” What if we realize that the regime Canada is supporting is far from democratic (as the farce of the recent elections has clearly shown)? What if it is true that Canada is there for the same reason the U.S. is there, for the same reason the U.S. was, and is, in Central America – to expand the spheres of influence of the Great Powers in the region? And what if, as a brutal bonus, we conclude, as many military experts long ago concluded, that this war is not winnable?
For people of Bruce’s generation these hard questions might be hard to answer. In the 1980s, the progressive movement in Canada was dominated by “left nationalism.” Thousands in Canada understood the horror that was U.S. imperialism and joined movements to oppose it. But at the same time, many of those same people thought that Canada too was a victim of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. was bad, but Canada was good, peace-loving and democratic.
Cockburn’s confusion on Afghanistan represents the confusion of an older generation, looking to find the “good” Canada exporting its values abroad. Canada is at war in Afghanistan, and Canada is not the U.S., so maybe that makes Afghanistan “the good war,” a war to bring “Canadian values” to a far-off land? And besides, this war was problematic when it was conducted by the evil George W. Bush, but now we have the progressive Barack Obama in the White House. Surely Obama’s war is a good war?
Afghanistan is not a good war. The thing that made Afghanistan the wrong war was not that it was being conducted by George W. Bush – it was the wrong war because it was a war for U.S. corporate power. At the end of the day, that is what Bush represents – and it is what Obama continues.
The bitter reality is, that Canada is not one of the countries oppressed by the United States – it is a partner with the United States in keeping the world safe for corporate profits. They have Exxon and General Motors. We have Magna and Research In Motion. The fact of a border does not magically make “our” corporations any less greedy and avaricious than those in the United States. Our government is in bed with these corporations just as much as the U.S. government is in bed with its own corporations. This is what their democracy looks like, and it is not pretty.
Let’s not choose a “good” U.S. imperialism under Obama over a “bad” U.S. imperialism under Bush. Let’s not choose “good” Canada over “evil” United States. Whether we live in Canada or United States, we live in the privileged Global North that for too long has lived off oppressing the impoverished countries of the Global South.
Cockburn’s signature political song from Stealing Fire was, without a doubt, “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” He sang it to “wild applause” to members of Task Force Kandahar, after which – in a grotesque parody of the song and of Cockburn’s whole anti-imperialist past – he was temporarily presented with a rocket launcher by Task Force Kandahar commander General Jonathan Vance.
Let’s not remember Cockburn for his new role as progressive cover for Canada’s imperial adventures abroad. Let’s remember him for his anti-war, anti-imperialist anthems from the 1980s. Let’s remember the helicopters which bring death and destruction to peasants and the poor in Guatemala, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Here’s your playlist to help in that process.
This article written in memory of anti-war teacher Wayne McCrank, 1960-2009.
© 2009 Paul Kellogg
 From “Et tu, Brute?” William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” Act III, Scene I, line 77 in Peter Alexander, ed., Tragedies: William Shakespeare (London: Collins, 1971). “Perhaps the most famous words uttered in literature, ‘Et tu, Brute?” (Even you, Brutus?) this expression has come down in history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one’s closest friend.” “Et tu Brute? Shakespearean Quotes,” enotes.com.
 “Songs: If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” cockburnproject.net
 Bruce Cockburn, Stealing Fire (Toronto: Golden Mountain Music Corp., 1984)
 Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan,” Sept. 10, 2009
 Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan”