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.

A Century of Poppies…and Larks

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

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

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”

The 100th anniversary this year in May of Lt. Col John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” has been marked by many. For all of its lines, the one that sticks in my head is not about torches or poppies, but about the larks, still bravely singing, that fly over the battlefield.

They are evidence of the tenacity and resilience of life, the continuity with the earth and the rhythms of nature, precisely at the time when the destructive powers of humanity are at their most devastating.

The guns pulverized the landscape, churning the soil so that the lime underneath made it inhospitable to other plants, while encouraging the poppies to flourish. Incoming or outgoing, the noise of artillery shattered thoughts as easily as eardrums. One withstood the barrage, survived the noise, waited for the space that followed the crump and crash of shells, knowing that the sounds of silence meant survival – for now.

It also could signal the start of an attack, as the barrage lifted, so one needed to rush out to the firestep to be sure, peering through the fog, the mist, the dusk or dawn, perhaps to see light glinting from the bayonets of a charging enemy.

In the midst of such muddy chaos, it was impossible to look beyond the moment, to think beyond the instinct for survival. Yet in the letters written home from the trenches, the sketches, the poems, some still did — preserving their own identity and humanity in the midst of an experience implacable about erasing both.

Where 1914 included the initial euphoria of those off to the grand adventure that would bring them home for Christmas, 1915 settled into the mud of Flanders. There was bitter and inconclusive fighting, Ypres, poison gas, the disaster at Gallipoli and the realization that no one would be going anywhere soon, except to the cemeteries that were already filled with more casualties than Europe had seen since the Napoleonic wars.

In that context, McCrae looked around at the poppies and then up to the sky, seeing and hearing the larks.

Remembrance Day ceremonies always move me. Where I attend, pomp and polish are usually missing, the printed program as stumbled with mistakes as the ceremony — and the delivery of words and messages as faltering as the veterans who march past.

But if the service is dusted off each year, along with the old blazers and racks of medals, much younger ones now join those old faces. Canada was at war in Afghanistan longer than in any other time in its history – those veterans walk among us, every day. They are at soccer practice and swimming lessons, waiting for ballet to wrap up or the instruments to be put away at the end of rehearsal. Their children have grown up worried whether about daddy or mummy will come home from the war. Their families continue to deal with the stresses back home of the effects of war on their own identity and humanity.

I don’t know how many of my Royal Military College students have been there and back, just that too many have. None were among the 158 fatalities, for which I am thankful, but I am sure that others have come home with physical and mental scars to mark their service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So however garbled the local ceremony, however awkward the procession, my thoughts always rise above the event, like the larks in McCrae’s poem. Remembering what I have never experienced, imagining places I have never been, seeing people whom I have never met, it matters that I am there. It’s what keeping faith means.

At the end of the service, I always pin my poppy to the green artificial turf at the base of the white cross that serves as the portable memorial at the civic ceremony in Winnipeg. I remember when it first started to happen – how it took organizers by surprise – but it became more moving than the dignitaries laying their plastic wreathes. Ordinary people, tears in their eyes from thoughts and memories unshared, old and young, mark their own place in that remembrance.

By coincidence, I was in Ottawa for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and placed my poppy on it at the end of that ceremony, becoming part of a tradition that I expect will continue regardless of what else happens on the Hill.

It’s more than a sign of respect. It is a reminder that we need to live each day committed to the spirit of sacrifice, out of concern for others — caring about principles that will lead to a better world for everyone and not just for ourselves.

That kind of act, in the midst of whatever battles we are fighting, whatever the sound of the guns in our own lives, whatever dread comes upon us in the silence, is how we rise above the din of daily conflict that can otherwise overwhelm us.

Like the larks, still bravely singing, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are and where we are headed, because there is much more to life than what we find in Flanders’ muddy fields.

Peter Denton, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada, whose students he has been privileged to teach since 2003.