The solitary, tortured nobility of Romeo Dallaire

July 13, 2000


We all know about Romeo Dallaire. He is still pictured in newspapers as a proud general. It's difficult and sad to imagine him as he was found two weeks ago, drunk under a park bench. He appears to be a man whose life is shattered.

 His 35-year military career met a shameful end in Rwanda. As commander of a misnamed ''peacekeeping'' mission, he was charged with the impossible task of securing a non-existent peace. His urgent requests for reinforcements were ignored by his superiors, Canadian general Maurice Baril and Kofi Annan at the United Nations. When he was denied permission to take aggressive action, he was left under-armed, hand-tied and powerless.

 It was as a soldier obeying orders that Gen. Dallaire stood by and watched as 800, 000 Hutu and Tutsi civilians, along with 10 Belgian peacekeepers, were tortured and killed. Now it is as a lonely man that he suffers the consequences.

 His failure became front page news; the genocide horrified the public. The Belgian Senate branded Dallaire ''careless and unprofessional. '' Reportedly, like soldiers through the ages, he has considered death, his own death by suicide, as a solution to the disgrace, the shame and the guilt.

 The overwhelming feelings -- an unfathomable mixture of rage, pain, loneliness and utter despair -- given the magnitude of what happened in Rwanda, suggest to me that he is a good man   legitimately devastated by what happened.

 Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I think there is something noble about a man who cannot accept that he watched, rather than fought, as people around him were being tortured and killed. I wish that we were not, as a society, so caught up in the idea that the problems are in his mind and that what he needs is to go through a healing process. It sickens me to realize that we have turned Romeo Dallaire into a psychiatric patient. And to realize that he is now caught up in that debilitating role to the extent that he talks of ''his personal battles with the fallout from his mission in Rwanda'' and believes that getting drunk and sleeping under a park bench is merely an indication that his therapy hasn't worked yet.

 In a letter read on CBC Radio's This Morning, General Dallaire said the problem ''appears, it grows, it invades and it overpowers you. In my current state of therapy, which continues to show very positive results, control mechanisms have not yet matured to always be on top of this battle.''

 Psychologists say the major goal of therapy after trauma is to achieve ''cognitive completion,'' to somehow bring together the stressful experience with enduring beliefs about the world. It seems absurd to reduce Dallaire's suffering to simplistic theory and to label his condition as a disorder that ''good psychological treatment'' could cure.

 To help, to pathologize this man, is to trivialize and depoliticize the issues. When we hear Dallaire speak, we no longer hear an esteemed general who could talk of ill-planned peace missions, poor military strategy and bad judgment at UN headquarters. Instead, we hear a psychological invalid who has learned to use words like stress and healing. Gen. Dallaire has lost his voice as an experienced soldier and now serves as a spokesperson for the therapy industry.

 I, for one, would like to hear him speak about the horrific reality of the situation and the inability of western political and military strength to intervene in ancient ethnic conflicts. I would like to know what he thinks about peacekeeping when there is no peace, and what he might say about the 11-year-old Rwandan boy, whose only surviving relative is a five-year-old sister, found among the bodies of their parents and other family members, and who said: ''I will hunt the killers to the end of the world. I will kill their children when I grow up. I know the killers; even 70 years from now, I will remember how they and their children look.''

 General Dallaire may be paying the cost of the UN trying to do something in a situation where nothing will help. Perhaps, if his attention were not so inwardly focused, he could help us face the reality of war, thereby avoiding future ill-fated peace missions.

 But this is not what our government would want in this era of international co-operation. And so we label him as a patient, bind him in therapy, belatedly declare him an ''exemplary general,'' and leave him in silence as we watch another genocide erupt, this time in the neighbouring Congo.


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,