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Afghan commemoration shaping up to be 'a quickie,' says historian

OTTAWA - At combat outposts and forward operating bases across sun-scorched Kandahar province, an often-heard expression betrayed the growing cynicism of soldiers about apparent public indifference towards the war in Afghanistan.

"The army is at war; the nation is at the mall."

Today, the army is home, but much of the nation will likely be at the mall or elsewhere on Friday as the Harper government commemorates the sacrifices of the 40,000 troops who took part in the 12-year-long guerilla war.

The Conservatives took an initial step towards carving the conflict into history Thursday with word that the dates of the war, which took the lives of 158 soldiers, will be etched into the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

Billed as a national day of honour, Friday will feature a solemn pageant on Parliament Hill with the families of those who died. But outside of the national capital, the exercise is shaping up as a loose patchwork of community events and intimate acts of appreciation.

"I just hope and pray Canadian citizens will wrap their arms around our veterans and our serving members," said Gordon Moore, the Dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, which has been scrambling to organize events with only two weeks notice.

One legion branch only received its notification from the federal government on Wednesday.

"You can't put something together with only one day's notice," said Moore.

"They've know about this since last year, and (had) they ... communicated with us — not just the Royal Canadian Legion but other veterans groups — we would have been able to help right from the very start to put this program together and do it right."

Those legion branches that have put something together are planning a splash of different events, ranging from ceremonies at cenotaphs to home-style community suppers in honour of individual soldiers.

It is even more spotty in municipalities outside of Ottawa.

A parade will take place in Trenton, Ont., where the remains of Canadian soldiers were regularly repatriated, as well as in the central Ontario city of Owen Sound, where a bronze plaque will be unveiled. Not far from Trenton, the town council in Cobourg held a moment of silence at its weekly meeting and encouraged the community to pause on Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET, when the national commemoration is underway.

Some legion branches — notably Summerside, P.E.I. — will wait until Saturday to hold their event in order to guarantee a crowd.

There could be a political price to pay among grassroots Conservatives if the smaller homegrown events prove to be a bust, Moore said.

A relay involving soldiers wounded in the conflict was greeted Thursday at Ottawa city hall by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called the trek from Trenton "symbolic of the bravery, personal strength, sacrifice" of all Afghan veterans.

Parliament Hill will play host to a full-on spectacle, complete with a parade of up to 700 soldiers and veterans, helicopters, armoured vehicles, artillery guns and giant Canadian flags.

The guest list for the ceremony includes some glaring omissions, among them the majority of the battle group commanders, and even some of the overall mission leaders.

There was also uncertainty early on about whether to invite former prime ministers such as Jean Chretien, who first ordered Canadian soldiers into Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Many soldiers, both serving and retired, have been left with the impression that the federal government is undertaking the commemorations half-heartedly — even grudgingly.

"I suspect what's being done is a quickie, in a sense," said historian Jack Granatstein.

"The government, it seemed to me, since 2007-08, has wanted to put this all behind it. Afghanistan was not a political plus for the government. My guess is that this the minimum they can do."

The cost of Friday's event is unknown, but it is expected to pale in comparison to the $28 million the government spent marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

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