Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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Sept. 11 Reminds Us To Find A Peaceful Way Forward

(September 19, 2016)

I will never forget 9/11. I had raced to the University of Winnipeg for an 8:30 a.m. class, not listening to the radio en route, and had gone straight from class into a meeting.

I emerged to watch the second tower fall, just in time for my first lecture in a course on science and society.

It was more group therapy than lecture, as we reflected on the fact our world had just changed — and not for the better.

Over the next eight months, we talked about many things, including the problems of elites, colonialism, power and control, democracy and what lay ahead for our generation on a planet struggling to find a route to a sustainable future.

It would have been nice to check back with that class at five years, at 10 years, and today, to see how their lives had been shaped by the events of 9/11, even though we watched the towers fall from afar, safe and secure in Winnipeg.

Since that time, we have seen a global surge of anger on many fronts relating to ecological and social injustice.

Perhaps we have reached some collective tipping point, where the collectivity of the Internet has allowed people to gain strength and solidarity by standing together around the world, but there are rough waters ahead.

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Worse is Always Possible

The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where humans decided thousands of years ago that the grass was greener somewhere else...and so went on to fill the planet.

The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where humans decided thousands of years ago that the grass was greener somewhere else (and the thorns not so sharp)…and so went on to fill the planet.

The immediate aftermath of the #Brexit referendum pushes me to think of John Donne’s poem, Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), changing the first words to “no island is an island, entire of itself.”

It is a catastrophic mistake, but when people truly are given a choice, there is no assurance that they will make the right one. Circumstances have not been good in Britain lately, but the #Brexiteers don’t seem to have understood that things can always get worse.

Nor, in the wave of “me do it myself” sentiment that propelled them to a narrow victory, did they process the fact that leaving the European Union means the British are still subject to the same forces that have shaped their economy and society, but now with less influence over the decisions that are made.

It also means within five years at the outside that the clock will be rolled back even further to 1706, as Scotland and Northern Ireland (both of which strongly supported remaining in the EU) now have even better reasons to reduce the United Kingdom once again to the Kingdom of England (and Wales).

In economic, social, cultural and especially environmental terms, there are no islands anymore – at least none that can stand against the forces that life in the 21st century arrays against it. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) know this only too well, as they watch their coastline eroded by rising sea levels and more extreme storms, making their physical independence from the mainland a dangerous reality because of the effects of climate change.

The decision to leave the EU is troubling for many reasons. The nearly 30% of Britons who did not vote casts a question on the total numbers, but (in the aftermath, of course) one wonders whether a referendum was a good idea to start with. Clearly, the results were driven by ignorance and anger (witness the commentary throughout), but this is not markedly different from any recent election campaign.

Democracy itself is in trouble – fortune favours the demagogue who can reduce complexity to simple “us versus them” language, coloured by negative emotions and fueled by fear.

Things can always get worse – and that troubling thought should give Americans something to think about, as the rhetoric gets even nastier with the two presumptive nominees for President slinging whatever they can find at the other.

I can’t influence American politics any more than I could a British referendum, but whatever decisions are made, there are consequences for the rest of us. Entropy is a political as well as a physical reality; it takes more energy to hold something together than it does to take something apart.

Focus on the differences among us, at every level, and there are myriad reasons to fragment and separate and go our own ways. Whether or not any of those differences are significant becomes irrelevant to the emphasis that is placed upon them. The politics of unity will always be trumped by the politics of division, unless some stronger force holds the group together.

It would be nice if that stronger force was love – love of the other, love of the stranger, love of the world around us – but love always seems to be in shorter supply than anger, and fear more obvious than compassion.

Perhaps this is just appearance, an appearance driven by power and fueled by anxiety to manipulate us into conflicts that would not otherwise take place. Certainly there is much money to be made from fear and conflict – it is hard to sell assault rifles in a world ruled by peace and administered in love.

While the world always needs more love, these days it especially needs less carbon. The unifying force that may drive us together, rather than apart, is fear of what climate change will bring in the near future as global warming changes the landscape – and seascape, for islands of whatever size.

What will be called the failure of the European Union points to the flaws in a political and economic union, however rational, because it did not deal with the social, cultural and emotional dimensions of that union.

It means that those undertaking efforts (like the Pan-African movement) to unify other regions will have a steeper path to climb. If European tribalism fatally undermined the EU, just imagine how much more powerful those sentiments would be in Africa – even assuming, for a second, that countries in Africa would ever be allowed a real chance for self-determination by past and present colonial powers.

We are not masters in our own house, none of us. In a climate-changing world, thrashing about in a tangle of international trade agreements, political and military alliances, compounded by differences in social, cultural and religious practices and institutions, there is no room for “me do it myself.”

Whatever we do, wherever we are, affects the lives of people elsewhere as well as in the future.

When the #Brexit tune is applauded by folks in the United States who have similar thoughts about leaving the United Nations (the only organization, however flawed, where everyone has a seat at the table), we should be worried.

For any number of reasons, things are going to get worse all around the only planet on which humans are able to live. Some things we can change – and must. Other things, we need to survive, somehow.

We will either find a way together, or not at all. There are no islands anymore, places in which to find refuge from what lies ahead. Independence – in a globalized society on a round Earth – is a dangerous illusion.

So, while we had no say in the outcome, #Brexit just made things more difficult for everyone.

That poem by John Donne? Modernized in language, when you hear the funeral bell ringing from the church steeple, don’t bothering asking for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for you.