One of the leading rules of politics is to keep it simple. Reduce complex issues down to elementary terms that all earthlings, no matter what their degree of cranial endowment, can understand.

American Republicans have been especially good at this tactic. Most notably on the subject of the military, they have often played the patriot card effectively. Ronald Reagan, who owned more horses than books and who loved simple flag-waving messages, made a career out of it.

This may help explain why the Harper Conservatives have been going that route on the Afghan detainee file. Their pitch? If you believe diplomat Richard Colvin on detainee torture, you’re either a Taliban supporter or guilty of not supporting our troops.


This line of reasoning, they must know, is intellectually infantile. The Tories have no monopoly on patriotism. Opposition MPs are vocal supporters of the military. In any case, no one is above criticism, not even people in uniform. That kind of immunity is fine for dictatorships, not for this country. Military men and women are human, make mistakes like everybody else and should be subject to questions like everyone else.

But this didn’t stop Stephen Harper from telling naval officers in Port of Spain on Sunday that some in the political arena have been “throwing the most serious of allegations at our men and women in uniform based on the most flimsy of evidence.” Despite these ingrates, he said, Canadians “are proud of you and stand behind you and I am proud of you and I stand behind you.”

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was quick, as he should have been, to hit back, saying the innuendo suggesting Liberals were not behind the Forces was beneath the office of the prime minister. The PM didn’t show up in the Commons to answer questions yesterday. But stand-in John Baird was full of rage because Liberal MP Ujall Dosanjh had dared to criticize a former Canadian general’s testimony on the Afghan matter.

What the Tories are doing with their militarization of the country, said Keith Martin, the Liberal MP who used to sit with the Alliance Party, is build the military men into heroes and then demolish anyone who dares breathe an unfavourable word.

On the detainees’ question we don’t know which side is correct. The Conservatives are hunkering down. They are not releasing results of Canadian military police investigations in Afghanistan. They’ve stonewalled the Canadian Military Police Complaints Commission on the issue. They declare important correspondence off limits because of national security.
This gives the impression that they have something to hide on this file. It may well be the reason why they are playing their demagogic patriot game. It’s the best card they’ve got.

Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.