Acquittal on murder charge reveals dangers of military ethos

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a man with Canadian military training, any threat requires one to shoot first and consider other alternatives later.

Recently, the Supreme Court called for a retrial in the acquittal of former army reservist Peter Khill. He was charged with second-degree murder for firing two shotgun blasts that killed an unarmed Jon Styres of the Six Nations of the Grand River.

Khill’s “former military service and training was central to his claim of self-defence”, reported the National Post. The defence argued that when Khill was woken by an individual who broke into his truck in the middle of the night, his four years as an army reservist kicked in. Rather than stay inside his locked home and call 911, he instinctively ran out of the house with a loaded shotgun. In his closing address, Khill’s lawyer said soldiers are trained to “neutralize” threats. “Soldiers react proactively, that’s how they are trained,” noted Khill’s lawyer about a killing that left deep scars in indigenous communities.

In 2018, a jury found Khill’s defence compelling, acquitting him of murder in the second-degree. But the Supreme Court ruled that the presiding judge should have directed the jurors to consider Khill’s “actions, omissions and exercises of judgment throughout the entirety of the incident” rather than simply the “mere instant” at which Khill believed Styres had a gun and killed him. The top court doesn’t appear to have weighed in on Khill’s Armed Forces defence.

In my recently released Stand on Guard For Whom? — A People’s History of the Canadian Military I cite Khill’s defence as a troubling example of the aggressive ethos in the Canadian Forces. Instead of seeking to avoid violence, they turn disputes that could be resolved through negotiation, flattening inequities or other means into devastating conflicts. As part of its enthusiasm for war fighting, the CF promotes what some euphemistically describe as “forward defence”.

Drawing a dubious hockey analogy, former commander of the CF Rick Hillier claimed “the best defense for Canada is a good offense. We must play a significant part in the world to prevent that violence and conflict coming home.” Echoing this thinking, the Trudeau government’s 2017 “Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy” claims the CF has to “actively address threats abroad for stability at home” and that “defending Canada and Canadian interests … requires active engagement abroad.” This is a logic that can, of course, be used to justify participating in endless US-led military endeavors.

The CF’s predilection for war periodically seeps into the press. “We’re going to be warfighters”, were the words Adam Moore, commander of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Infantry, used to dismiss a new crop of soldiers in 2018. In 2012 the chief of the defence staff publicly demanded a new war. “We have some men and women who have had two, three and four tours and what they’re telling me is ‘Sir, we’ve got that bumper sticker. Can we go somewhere else now?’” General Walter Natynczyk told Canadian Press. “You also have the young sailors, soldiers, airmen and women who have just finished basic training and they want to go somewhere and in their minds it was going to be Afghanistan. So if not Afghanistan, where’s it going to be? They all want to serve.”

It is remarkable that the head of the military felt comfortable telling the media he wanted a new war. But, it’s not dissimilar to the defence Khill employed to avoid murder charges. The military instills this type of thinking among its ranks.

But do Canadians want more individuals whose reaction to someone rummaging through a vehicle is to grab a shotgun, head out the door and fire away? Do we want a leader of a powerful institution calling for a new war? Do Canadians want to spend $30 billion a year on a military promoting these attitudes?

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