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.

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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Major coverage of a minor story

(July 18, 2018)

The world’s attention was riveted by the plight of the Wild Boars soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand, and the effort to bring them out.

The cave rescue even came close to moving the World Cup off the front page of the news, as hour-by-hour reports from the huge media team flooded in faster than themonsoon rains.

Like the World Cup, everyone was playing for a win. The time was short, the intensity had a deadline, and there was no prize for second place.

It was an event custom-made for media coverage, able to be captured in tweets by the moment that updated everyone on the plight of the boys and their coach, complete with pictures from inside the cave where they were trapped.

In a world beset by difficult problems, this one would not drag on for long. One way or another, it would soon be over. Accustomed to watching soccer players take dives on the World Cup pitch, these cave dives were for real— and dangerously so. The Thai diver who ran out of oxygen himself was instantly immortalized as a hero, and we will no doubt learn of other heroes after the fact.

It was all over before there could be competition from the final games of the World Cup. Hailed as a successful example of global co-operation, it was an international effort that transcended the differences that separate us.

And so on. You might detect a tinge of sarcasm here. While the rescue truly was heroic and amazing, the commentary tended to be overdone and rather self-serving. Most countries contributed media teams, not divers. While the “thoughts and prayers” were no doubt sincere, we will need to see whether that international partnership extends to paying the enormous cost of the rescue operation.

No doubt the media spotlight helped, but I was left reflecting on how many much-larger problems lack that special attention because they can’t be resolved so quickly. If there is no quick “win,” just a long and painful story, it gets pushed to the side — ignored, or soon forgotten, if new ways aren’t continually found to bring the issue back into the news.

So at the same time, the worldwas focused on soccer and cave diving, eight million people in Yemen moved closer to death from starvation, with far less fanfare.

We were concerned with 12 boys in a Thai cave, and several thousand children separated from their parents and kept in cages in the United States for being “illegal” migrants, but conservative estimates conclude that at least 50,000 children died from malnutrition and disease last year in Yemen alone.

With a military offensive underway by Saudi Arabia and allies against the Houthi militia, those horrible numbers will skyrocket if taking the port of Hodeidah remains the objective of their assault.

Local players might find a solution to the war in Yemen if they were not backed by outside agents (Saudi Arabia and Iran) that are essentially fighting the war by proxy. The recent escalation has apparently been endorsed by the American administration, making it complicit in this unfolding tragedy.

Whether his actions are deliberate or merely the result of impulsive early-morning tweets, U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been marked by acrimony, both at home and abroad.

Allies are poised to become antagonists, while supposed antagonists seem to have become friends.
In Trump’s decisions, however, there also seems to be a consistent curve toward encouraging conflict. Under moderate leadership, Iran could be a force for stability in an area where— looking at Iraq, Syria and Libya — there has been nothing but devastation for more than 25 years.

From moving the American embassy to Jerusalem to cancelling the Iranian nuclear deal, to cutting off the oil exports on which Iran’s economic recovery from decades of sanctions depends, Trump seems to be taking every possible step, short of declaring war, to ensure instability will continue in the Middle East.
Those eight million people at risk of death in Yemen seem about to become anonymous casualties of the politics of governments — or presidents — that don’t care.

Clearly, looking at the overwhelming public response to boys trapped in caves or children kept in cages, however, it seems ordinary people do care, once they know what is really going on.

We all have a responsibility to make sure the Yemen story continues to be told until something changes for the better.

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Premier’s green plan takes province nowhere

(November 2, 2017)

Under the guise of its “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan, the provincial government has referred our future to committee. All of the things we could, should and must do are now open for conversation and discussion by the whole province which, of course, will lead nowhere by the next election.

Committees are structures designed and intended for the dissipation of energy. No new idea, however good, will keep its momentum for change very long once a committee goes to work on it.

Any consensus on action regarding greenhouse gases or climate change that results from this “plan” will, therefore, have to be engineered, perhaps (once more) through those outrageously bad government feedback surveys that are conducted online.

Premier Brian Pallister has become the Leader Who Wouldn’t Lead. By the end of his term in office, much of the remaining global window to effect change to help steer the planet away from otherwise inevitable catastrophe will be gone.

It is an astonishing dereliction of duty, not merely some clever political ploy to play competing groups against each other. Governments of whatever ideological stripe have a responsibility to all the citizens, not just to all the partisans.

(To be clear, I am not trying to make a political statement here. The only party to which I have ever belonged — 40 years ago — was the Progressive Conservative Party.)

Pretending to have a perspective that considers the effects of its decisions out to the seventh generation, and then offering a document like A Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan, is simply offensive.

Launching it from the wonderful wild bird sanctuary at Oak Hammock Marsh either demonstrates the provincial government has a twisted sense of humour, or none at all. With this as our climate plan to combat global warming, take your pick of conclusions: either our goose is cooked or we are all dead ducks.

The provincial government does not need our ideas. It has been inundated with good ideas since the Tories came to office. They merely want to avoid decisions that might have a political cost, at least as far as that is calculated in the back rooms of the PC party’s headquarters at 23 Kennedy St.

For example, they chose to give the agricultural sector a free pass on greenhouse gas mitigation — as though farmers don’t live on the same planet as the rest of us or are somehow clueless about the effects of climate change and global warming.

“Can we afford to do it?” is the wrong question. “Can we afford not to do it?” is closer to an inconvenient truth.

To be clear, again, I am offering a personal perspective here, not one necessarily associated with any of the groups to which I belong.

After all, the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat — they are all personal. It is the same for you, for our children and grandchildren, and for all the children of Earth, present and future, who are the silent victims in this conversation.

Since Premier Pallister doesn’t like email, send him a letter, or a postcard, that identifies what is important to you:

I want to breathe clean air. Or, I want to eat healthy food. Or, I want to drink clean water.

Or, I don’t want my children or grandchildren to die because you have done nothing to change the future that is almost here.

Single stamps cost one dollar — perhaps the most important loonie you will ever spend.

The address is:

Premier Brian Pallister

204 Legislative Building

450 Broadway

Winnipeg, MB R3C 0V8

Mobilize your church, temple, synagogue or mosque to do the same. Your community club, agricultural association, curling rink, hockey team, book club, office or organization. Put a pile of blank cards out for customers, next to the till.

It’s about good business as well as wise choices. There is no profit in a healthy future that will not exist. Science and common sense must replace partisan politics and denial.

Premier Pallister, if you and your government are not just dodging your ecological responsibilities (as you have dodged them for the past 15 months), take a month to “listen” and then step up to do what you should have done from the start.

Make Manitoba the carbon-negative province it could be. Make us world leaders instead of laughingstock at home and abroad. Invest in a future the rest of us believe could be there if we work at it, even if you have lost hope and don’t believe it is possible.

Or resign, right now, all of you, and let someone else try before it is too late.

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