Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

National Archives of Canada

A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian’s grave near Vimy, France, in June 1917. A century after it ended, many question why the war was fought.

National Archives of Canada
A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian’s grave near Vimy, France, in June 1917. A century after it ended, many question why the war was fought.
Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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Voters should look to local heroes

(October 23, 2018)

When election time rolls around, I really do my best to avoid repeating the lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson in my head:

“Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it, you lose…”

Politics of all kinds these days, not just the American variety, leave us wondering where the heroes have gone, why the leaders we have today seem so far removed from the ones we remember.

When people reminisce with fondness about the arrogant disdain Pierre Trudeau had for mere mortals, or hail Jean Chrétien as the “green” prime minister, or remember Stephen Harper for his humility, there is something seriously wrong with our political compass — and with our moral compass — as well as with our memory.

Marvel Comics has touched a nerve in the last decade with all of its various superhero films. Our world does need heroes, of all sorts, but the ones we see in the news most frequently are the ones most lacking in leadership essentials.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees (Oct. 8), combined with Category 5 hurricane Michael hitting the Florida Panhandle as the worst ever recorded there, provided a fitting context for American economist William Nordhaus sharing the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on carbon tax and greenhouse-gas emission reduction.

Flip to Manitoba the same week, and Premier Brian Pallister flops by cancelling his Made in Manitoba Climate and Green Plan’s carbon tax — apparently to the surprise of his caucus, as well as the dismay of Manitobans of all political stripes. We now have no carbon tax, as well as no plan what to do with carbon tax revenues to reduce emissions if the federal government follows through on what it promised.

The rest of that Green Plan will now probably be kicked to the curb, because Manitoba can’t afford any of it without carbon tax revenue, but Pallister can still weakly claim that he tried.

At least when Alberta’s Rachel Notley makes a hash of things, she does it with some literary flair. She pompously announced, “In Alberta, we ride horses, not unicorns,” to a bunch of teachers who have already figured out that Albertans don’t ride nearly enough horses to save the planet, as that province is Canada’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly from fossil-fuel combustion.

Ontario’s Doug Ford, on the other hand, is crying into his now-more-expensive beer. Climate change will wreck barley production and drive up the price of what Ontario voters seemingly wanted more than a healthy future for their children.

As another example of the fiscal responsibility we have come to expect from recent Conservative governments, Ford’s fit of pique in cancelling the cap-and-trade system and other green initiatives will cost Ontarians upwards of $3 billion and, for next generations, much more down the road.

Throughout all of this political nonsense, Mother Nature just keeps on warming, ignoring our seriously misplaced sense of self-importance and leaving us to sow the seeds of our own doom.

It doesn’t have to be this way — but that would mean finding leaders who really lead, on the issues that threaten the world as we know it.

Sometimes I wonder if we are looking too high up the ladder. Perhaps we should be looking not for global heroes, but for local ones.

Canadians are not alone in this predicament. Elsewhere, when national governments fail repeatedly to address the causes of global warming and climate change, regional governments are stepping up. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to sue California and other states to stop their climate initiatives, essentially saying the federal government has the right to endanger their children, too.

When regional governments also fail, local governments — especially in cities — are still stepping up to make a difference. More and more people live in cities, and in many ways the global effort to change course will be won or lost in the places where most people live.

The mayor of Winnipeg (who is elected directly, unlike the premier) manages the lives of three-quarters of Manitoba’s population. City councillors are responsible for a very large budget, in a defined local area, where they have the authority to do some things differently, if they choose, regardless of what the province says.

If the mayor and council (and the Manitoba Capital Region municipalities) decide to work together for a sustainable future, it would give everyone a place to contribute, right here where it matters most — close to home — however inadequate the provincial effort might be.

On election day, get out and vote for some local heroes — for people who want to make a real difference where they live, who will work for serious change and not just continue to do business as usual.

Heroes? We need them.

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Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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