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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Climate is changing quickly, and it’s up to us to act

(June 22, 2018)

In the same week that Doug Ford won the provincial election in Ontario, scientists announced that the Antarctic ice shelf is melting three times faster than they thought.

While it is true that Ford’s election victory has generated more heat than light, it is his opposition to Ontario’s carbon tax that will speed up such melting in the future. Yet a year ago, neither event would have been predicted by the experts.

In other words, whether we like it or not, things change.

On top of the recent heat wave in the Arctic (during which Churchill hit 30 C) — and record temperatures across Canada for this time of year — the news from Antarctica is particularly disturbing.

Global warming, leading to extreme weather around the planet, is disrupting predictions as well as the lives of millions of people. In situations where political rhetoric (instead of science) drives decision making about the environment, however, facts don’t seem to matter.

So we spend billions more than it is worth to buy an old, leaky pipeline, and billions more to build the Pipeline to Nowhere to ship bitumen that should be left safely in the Alberta oilsands. We sign agreements with Argentina to “study” whether fossil fuel subsidies are a good idea, when smart money has already divested and reinvested in alternatives.

If our scientific predictions are not keeping up with the accelerating effects of global warming, our political performances are 50 years behind reality — and slipping further.

We need to see these decisions for what they are: cynical investments in business as usual, betting against a sustainable future for everyone in order to make money for a few people today. You can make a lot of money predicting the decline of stocks; in fact, you could probably calculate it is easier (and faster) to make a pile on the stock market by shorting stocks rather than by waiting for them to gain in value.

In a volatile world market, in which a presidential tweet can send stocks crashing in an hour, there is money to be made in disaster.

In comparison, however, Mother Nature can change market trends just as quickly — and in a time of global warming, those changes could be catastrophic and irreversible.

Predictions about what happens when the Antarctic ice sheet breaks away or melts vary wildly. Some of the worst forecast a rise in sea level (with continued high greenhouse gas emissions) of up to 2.4 metres by 2100.

Think about it: 2.4 metres. For the metrically challenged, that is more than 71/2 feet.

If the models are not keeping up with the data, and if we continue to build and use pipelines, that end date will be a lot sooner than 2100.

Most people, especially younger ones, are not sure what they will be doing in 2050. At the rate things are going, billions of people around the world could be swimming by then.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of a small group of people that is providing a technical review of the global version of GEO 6, the latest Global Environmental Outlook prepared by the United Nations Environment Program, which is due to be released in March.

Watching colleagues around the world wrestling with the data — finding it, interpreting it, putting the pieces together — reminds me how difficult it is to know exactly where we are or where we will be even in 10 years.

But trends are clear. It is also clear that we do not have to do anything to ensure a high-carbon future, one where the dangerous effects of global warming change the conditions of life for many people on the planet.

Some will be floating; others will suffer from extreme heat (of more than 50 C) in which nothing can grow or live.

The politicians in office now, including the Doug Fords, are the ones who have the power to make decisions on our behalf to change that grimly inevitable future. Mother Nature does not attend campaign rallies, nor does she have a Twitter account.

What we say doesn’t matter; if we don’t change how we live together, the planet will simply do it for us — more rapidly, it seems, than even the scientists think.

Yet our political systems, even in a democracy, are failing us faster than the Antarctic ice is melting. Far more people in Ontario stayed in bed on election day than those who gave Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives their majority government.

Refusing to vote because you don’t like the choices is not a morally superior position. At such a critical point in the history of our civilization, it could be disastrous.

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