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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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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The Gift

Looking out toward the Ngong Hills, where Karen Blixen began to write Out of Africa

Sitting at the millstone table where Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, I looked out at the Ngong Hills she loved, hazy in the distance.

I saw the movie in 1985, before I read the book. Africa had always been an exotic National Geographic place, far removed from my experience growing up on the flat Manitoba prairie.

Yet her stories somehow struck a deep chord in me.

We say writing is a gift, as though it is a personality trait. The real gift lies in what is written, offered freely to an invisible audience scattered across time and space.

Unlike the probabilities that otherwise shape our lives, there is no calculation to a gift – how could there be? A true gift is unexpected, unpredicted, something that appears out of nowhere.

It may only be accepted – a dangerous thing to do, because accepting a gift creates a new relationship, bursting with unpredictable possibilities.

When it comes to writing, the ideas shared between author and reader for the first time are just as full of such possibilities.

Fast-forward several decades after reading Blixen’s book. Having taught students for years that individuals can change the world by their choices, I made one myself: I wrote my own book, on sustainability.

It should have been called Into Africa, because twelve months to the day after I got the publisher’s offer in 2012, I was in Nairobi having a private conversation with the President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – from Sudan – to whom I had given a copy. We talked about UNEP’s role in caring for the planet on behalf of the United Nations, Muslim-Christian relations – and my book.

It deals with how a gift changes everything by the unexpected possibilities it creates. The book certainly did this for me, because its publication led to my election in Washington, DC, as a civil society representative to UNEP. Weeks later, I was on a plane to UNEP’s annual global meeting at its headquarters in Kenya.

It was a whirlwind time for me in Nairobi, working together with other civil society representatives to influence government delegates, from countries all around the world, to make better decisions about our environment.

I contributed through writing, helping various people to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively in English, the main UN language. Extraordinary possibilities for friendship and collaboration appeared with every gift of my words they accepted.

My family pushed me to get out of Nairobi afterward and see something else of Africa. With only 36 hours before my flight home, I reluctantly accepted their gift and left the city (and the Ngong Hills) far behind.

I flew over the Great Rift Valley (where we are told all human life began) and into the Maasai Mara. After one brief vehicle safari late afternoon, there was dinner and then the generator-driven lights were extinguished at sunset.

There was little sleep for me, though. The resort was next to the Mara River, right where a pod of some 70 hippos submerged during the day, coming out to graze by the cabins all through the night. The double-ended flatulence of so many hippos together was truly amazing – and deafening!

Bleary-eyed, I greeted the sunrise on safari, breathing crisp highland cold air that grew into driving heat by mid-day. The animals practically lined up for pictures and, after breakfast, I went on a walking safari across the savannah. Following a hippo track, my Maasai guards focused me on the small things along the path – a wild beehive, droppings from different animals (hyena droppings are white, by the way), plants used for medicines, and stories of drought among the Maasai and their cattle who lived up into the surrounding hills.

There was time for one last meal, at lunchtime, before packing my bags and taking a roundabout trip to the airstrip, where I would catch the light plane back to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and then make it (barely) to the international airport.

With no guests around, I was able to talk to the young Maasai man who was my waiter. His name was Joshua, and as the conversation grew, I learned a little about him and his community up in the Loita Hills. He asked me why I was in Kenya – few people paid the price for a trip to the Mara and spent only one night – so I told him about my book and what it meant.

I was astonished and humbled by how quickly he grasped the idea of the Gift and the possibilities it meant for relationships, so I gave him my last (battered) copy.

He told me then about his dream, how he wanted to bring the gift of water to his community. The women had to walk kilometres each day to bring back dirty water from holes in the ground – water shared with livestock and wild animal – and in a drought this made life precarious.

In the developing world, everything revolves around water. Without a clean and local source, there is never enough that is safe to drink. The women spend their days carrying water instead of going to school, tending gardens, or contributing to the family income.

He dreamed of what a well and clean water would mean – and when I found out what it would cost, I made a promise I did not know how to keep. Somehow, I said, we will find a way.

Looking out over the Maasai Mara earlier that morning, as the sun rose in the sky to light my way home to Manitoba, I had said under my breath: “I will be back – I don’t know how, or when, but I will be back.”

There have been five trips since – and two more books.

At home in Winnipeg, I kept in touch with Joshua by Facebook, though he had to climb a hill in Kisokon to get cell reception. I told anyone who would listen the story of Joshua’s Well – of his dream, of the importance of the Gift and the possibilities it releases, creating a pathway to a sustainable future for us all.

Within a few months, I had raised enough money. The next spring, I travelled into the Kenyan hills I have come to love, the Loita Hills, to meet Joshua’s people and sign an agreement between the communities involved.

The day the papers were signed – by younger women, too, who pushed their way to the table to sign with the older male elders – I was given a shirt, red for Maasai and green for the environment, hand-sewn by Joshua’s wife, Patricia. On the back was embroidered the title of my book.

It was a precious gift (though it made me look like a pudgy Christmas elf!). The shirt was accompanied by a Maasai name, offered spontaneously by people in the crowd: Olomunyak, which caused some consternation and much laughter. Someone politely translated it as “blessed one,” but I guessed its true meaning among the Maasai, who have a wicked sense of humour: Clearly not a normal person, I had somehow been “touched by the gods” – and had the shirt to prove it.

In the Loita Hills, with the book that started the journey

Today, however, three villages close to Joshua’s now share a hand-dug well, the first successful development project in that remote area, with biosand filters installed in as many huts as we could afford. Throughout a bad drought this year, about 450 women a day have been pumping clean water for their families.

His village is next, with hopes for a borehole well in a school compound, where children can also learn how to grow the foods they need to supplement a traditional Maasai diet based on the herd animals that suffer most from the drought. We are enabling small-scale community development, across all the barriers thrown up by language, culture, religion, politics, history and distance – and I have held my godson as a reminder of why that needs to continue.

I was honoured in two communities as an elder among the Maasai, learned that choosing a roadside “toilet tree” could be a lethal decision in black mamba territory, opened my tent flap to see Mount Kilimanjaro rise in front of me in the morning sun, and walked parts of the Loita Hills that tourists simply don’t visit.

I have looked into the eyes of wild animals and seen what our generation will cost the Earth, if we do not live differently and those animals disappear. I have sat with children whose parents make unthinkable sacrifices for their education in a place where schools are named “Osiligi,” which means “hope,” and wished I could do more. I have held the dry red earth and talked about what to do when the rains come, to protect against the drought that frequently seems to follow these days.

Throughout, I have experienced the generosity of friendship, of acceptance, not as a bringer of gifts, but as a strange cousin – Olomunyak – from elsewhere.

Scuffing the dirt with my boots in the middle of the Great Rift Valley on my last trip, it felt, finally, that I had come home.

This time, I could make no silent promise to return. While I don’t know what other doors might yet be opened, age and circumstance limit the gifts any of us have the opportunity to give.

But the farewells I received – from the Loita Hills to Nairobi – were the kind one offers to family who simply expect to see you again, out of affection for who you are, not for what you carry.

In a world where relationships of all kinds are threatened by fear, by difference and suffering, we are one in heart together, separated only by the mereness of space.

Four years ago on the UN campus in Nairobi, two friends forced a bracelet over my hand and onto my wrist. Intricately beaded, it was a birthday gift from Lucy, an indigenous Kenyan colleague, who remarked as they struggled, “I got mine three years ago and it hasn’t been off since.”

Apart from two stints in hospital, neither has mine. It marked the beginning of a relationship with the Africa that caught my imagination and overwhelmed my heart, just as Karen Blixen wrote how it happened to her 80 years ago.

That bracelet still looks out of place on my wrist as I teach my classes. Another one, from the women at the Murja well, joined it this past June.

They are physical reminders to me of the new, unexpected relationships that may be created simply by choosing to give or to accept a gift.

I have learned we should never underestimate the power of our words or how far they might travel. When two people are joined by the gift of the words they share, time and space disappear.

In a universe of relations, woven together by gifts, anything then becomes possible.

* * * * * * *

(submitted to the 2017 CBC non-fiction competition…finally got me writing again, even if it did not make the long list!)