Assured Destruction in Two and a Half Minutes

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. That is where we are.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists clock is an indication of dangerous times. And these are dangerous times, indeed. The clock indicates how close humanity is to a catastrophic act of self-destruction – an extinction-level event – according to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. And before you dismiss their concerns as the unrealistic ranting of eggheads who never leave the lab (as noted Trump apologist John Podhoretz did in January), consider this: They’re not just boffins in white coats. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board consists mostly of international security experts, like Steven Miller (Director of the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), and Lynn Eden (Emeritus Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation).

If the people whose jobs are to actually study the state of global security – the people whose research directs government policy here, and around the world – say that our species is closer to Doomsday this week than it has been at any time since the 1980s (remember… when Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Moscow, and the USSR murdered the 246 passengers on KAL 007?), then we should probably take them seriously.

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Let’s think about that; let’s think about what has happened over the last two months.

The clock announcement didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper (either on paper, or on the Web). The sense of rising tension has been hard to ignore over the last few years. Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal war against his own people in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis, the terrifying black legions of ISIS, the onward march of xenophobic entho-nationalism, Russia’s rising imperialistic ambitions, the melting ice caps: if I believed in prophecy, I might think that W.B. Yeats was writing about our own times a century ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Talking tough

And here, in the United States, the President, the chief executive and commander of the world’s most formidable military, the most powerful person in the world, is talking pre-teen tough on Twitter, striding through international events like a schoolyard bully, looking to pick a fight with anyone who denies his ego and fails to turn over their lunch money.

Today, we all woke up to news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that “all options are on the table” with regard to the US’s growing confrontation with North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea with a ballistic missile program. The pariah state that, nonetheless maintains fairly friendly relations with China and India. Nuclear-armed China and India. No one likes the idea that Kim Jong-un has nukes; but you can be sure they’re even less excited that the United States (which unapologetically incinerated hundreds of thousands of Asian people with its nukes in 1945) might consider the nuclear option, when “all options are on the table.”

In case you forgot, it’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Can you hear the ticking?

At its press conference on in January – it seems so long ago now – the Bulletin was clear that America’s new president was not the only factor in the jump to two-and-a-half minutes. Things have been bad, and getting worse over the past year, and this “already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign” after which then-President-elect Donald Trump enthusiastically advocated nuclear proliferation. With tensions rising around the world, and with the international security situation poised to fly off the rails, this is not just crazy talk. It’s very, very dangerous, very frightening crazy talk: “In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

When I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, I used to have a recurring nightmare. I was always sitting in my family’s living room in suburban Montreal looking out the big picture window. All of a sudden, there would be a flash of light, as bright as the sun, but where the sun couldn’t be. Then I would hear a shrill whining noise that would build and build until the glass of the window would blow in. And I would wake up.

The Day After

It wasn’t such an unusual nightmare to have in the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1980 Olympics boycott, SDI, and the MX missile. I know many contemporaries who had the same dark dream – or something like it – over and over again. In my case, it was certainly reinforced by The Day After on ABC, and a classroom screening of Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama The War Game in ninth grade. What we felt then – and what I tell my students when I teach Contemporary American History – was not fear that a nuclear war might happen, but the expectation that it would happen.

I have been having the nightmare again; twice since Inauguration Day. The Doomsday Clock announcement only made me feel less crazy.

It has always been something of a wonder that we have never had a nuclear war. Since 1949, the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have been staring daggers at each other, armed with the most terrifying weapons human intelligence has ever devised, but not using them. There was the RDS-46, the B41, the Minuteman, and SATAN-2; and yet they were never launched in war. As the 20th century wore on, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, tested and built their own stockpiles. There are about 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, armed and ready for deployment – enough to obliterate the planet – but there were more than 60,000 by the end of the Cold War. Yet for all of this, no nuclear weapon has been used against humans since the US bombing of Nagasaki 71 years ago.

The reason is simple: the detonation of even one small-yield nuclear weapon in combat would invite retaliation and inevitably trigger a sequence of events that could destroy the planet. Our species has successfully navigated Scylla and Charybdis because our always-imperfect governments and leaders have understood the reality of Mutual-Assured Destruction, or MAD. No one, not Lyndon B. Johnson, Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mao Zedong, Harold MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle, or anyone else was willing to be the person to start a nuclear holocaust. Even if some humans did survive – a scenario addressed in a fascinating literary subgenre of the 1960s best represented by Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon hundreds of millions, if not billions would die, leaving the survivors to scrape through a toxic nuclear winter.

Atomic shadows

Even if a global nuclear war were winnable, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory. As flawed, arrogant, or oppressive the leaders of the nuclear-armed states might always have been, they all nonetheless recognized the moral enormity of nuclear weapons. They cannot be used without killing millions of both the enemy and their own people and, at the end of the day, they have recognized that these are people. Real people. Reagan described them as “Ivan and Anya, Jim and Sally.” Sting sang that the Russians “love their children, too.” What has kept us alive for all of these years is empathy.

And this is what frightens me: We have very good evidence that the most powerful person in the world, a man with 7,000 thermonuclear weapons at his personal disposal – weapons whose proliferation and use he casually advocates – is a narcissistic solipsist apparently devoid of empathy.

Nothing that President Trump has done or said as the chief executive, as a candidate, or as a private citizen, suggests that he believes other people are, in fact, people with their own lives, feelings, and needs. With a stroke of the pen, he barred all Syrian refugees from entering the United States, almost certainly condemning tens of thousands to misery and death. That he did so while simultaneously failing to note in his Holocaust Remembrance Day message that six million actual Jewish people died in the camps – not merely unnumbered, abstract “victims” – suggests that he cannot recognize or comprehend the suffering of others. And when the courts struck down his executive order, he just tried again. The news that TrumpCare will ultimately rob 24,000,000 people of their health insurance, while providing a windfall for his wealthy friends, doesn’t seem to worry the president at all.

Indeed, President Trump seems to regard other people as an abstraction. They exist as undifferentiated masses – the “million and a half people” he believes packed the National Mall on inauguration day, the “three to five million” illegal voters, the hordes of immigrant terrorists and murderers, even the nameless, faceless “Americans” of his imagination – but not as individuals. People are not subjects to President Trump, they are objects who exist solely in relation to his own ego. Even his daughter Ivanka, whom he says he’d “be dating” if he wasn’t her father, is a hot “piece of ass.” What is important are his delusions of persecution: by the free press, by President Obama, by anyone who doubts his greatness.


This kind of narcissistic solipsism is fairly harmless in a reality TV star, and it is very likely the secret of President Trump’s mythic success in the real estate business. But in the leader of the world’s greatest nuclear superpower it is the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. The solipsist denies the reality of what lies beyond his own mind; the narcissist is emotionally isolated and unable to feel empathy. How can we count on a man incapable of empathy to consider the consequences of Mutual-Assured Destruction?

The President’s staff and congressional Republicans seem to think they have everything under control. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer feeds President Trump’s narcissism and shrugs away his delusions, repeating them without explicit endorsement from the podium. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismisses the President’s allegations of massive voter fraud, but thinks “it’s fine” for him to indulge his self-aggrandizing fantasies with a special investigation, while using his cult of personality to advance a cold, callous, conservative agenda. They are playing at a kind of rodeo brinksmanship, and they will ride this horse for as long as they can, and as long as they get what they want.

They are courting disaster. They are riding a bronco to the brink, and when they go over, like Slim Pickens astride a hydrogen bomb in the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove, the consequences will be catastrophic.

It’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Maybe less.

Short Memories: Thoughts on Complicity

We have short memories.

They are selective. One of the running jokes in my family is my mother’s ability to recall how she dressed me on a certain fall day twenty-nine years ago, but not what we discussed five minutes ago. It is funny, then – innocuous things remembered, or simply gone. We would worry about incipient Alzheimer’s, except that she has been this way as long as I’ve known her.

Family memory works similarly. There’s an old story about how we ended up here, in the US, in an indefinite exile that turned into a permanent one. My great-grandfather’s cousin, or brother, or friend, depending on the rendition, had revolutionary sympathies. He may or may not have been part of a pro-independence organization once known for its terroristic tactics.

He was a kid.

He was pushed up against a wall and shot by authorities trying to protect the population from itself. The rest of the family got on a boat. We have not forgotten being marked, by our religion and accent, name and complexion. The injustice of it all colored my youth. For nearly a century after my ancestral homeland achieved independence, I avoided visiting the former colonial power, convinced that it would be unpleasant for people like me, and shocked when it was quite the opposite.

We remember the wrong of 1900. We remember what it was like to be marked as Other, and killed for the difference. Then we act like it only happened to us. We remember being perversely special, exceptional in our oppression. We forget in an instant that our Otherness was passed to other groups. We gave it to them, gleefully, when we walked into City Halls and police forces, and then we held the difference that we bestowed over the heads of the perversely special. We can’t let it go.

We have short memories.

My father was one of too many children. He was poor. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a saint. My father remembers being spat upon as a child, because he was destitute, and because he was the wrong ethnicity. His particular family misery was never individual. Too many kids, too much drink, too much abuse, too much foreign.

My mother’s mother had children out of wedlock. Everyone knew it. At school, my mother had to “confess” why she and her siblings needed a turkey from a religious benevolent organization. Her father, in one of her fuzzy memories of him, told her that she was a mongrel. She lived in a public housing project whose brutalities nobody escaped. She worried about making us look respectable, moved us to an all-white neighborhood, and cried when I took a Black boy to my first school dance. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she was always convinced that we might be pregnant – that we would be marked, again, by our origins.

My father almost never drinks. He moved us to a neighborhood where the white people are his white people, so he wouldn’t be the only one. By then, though, they all identified us with the racially-mixed place I’d grown up, and with its people of color – so the kids would hiss “Blackawanna” when I walked past.

My mother frowns at women who have children with different fathers. She shops at the second-fanciest grocery store in town, to appear afloat but not pretentious. She volunteers, like a proper middle-class white lady from the suburbs. When told her that I had found information about her muddy family history, she was overjoyed. When I told her what it was, she pretended not to hear me. When the pastor of the Baptist church where her great-great grandfather had preached told her – gently – that the congregation and its preachers had always been Black, she smiled. “No, we’re white.”

They have short memories. Or long ones. I’m never sure.

I was home for Christmas. My mother was talking about one of the women at the shelter where she works – a Black woman pregnant with her ninth child. My father shook his head. “Those people would be much better off if they’d stop having so many children.” I stared. I called him out. His mother had been one of “those people,” a generation ago. He conceded, that time. But he still doesn’t see it – how we got to be white. How we yanked the ladder up behind us.

My brother, who is affable, works in a prison. He looks like a cop. He believes that the people in his jail put themselves there. He feels bad for them, but he thinks that the justice system works. I want to ask him about our great-great-grand-uncle, and if the system worked when he was shot against a wall because of his religion, and his accent, and his complexion, but I know that he wouldn’t see the connection.

We have long memories, but they only work backwards.

We have short memories. We walk through the streets unmolested, because we know that nobody will shoot us like they shot great-great-grand-uncle. We remember our ancestral injustice and carry it like a banner of protection. It isn’t a very roomy cloak, but we’ll be grateful for it when we see the ones without it being shot in the streets, or strangled. We remember our roots, then get too entangled in them to see out. We forget that our root ball connects to a tree, or a water source, or even the soil. It’s just us, underground, blind to what we’re perpetuating.

Autumn Leaves

poppies-and-autumn-leaves_3249105I feel closer to my father in early November than at any other time of the year. It was then, in late autumn – when the fallen leaves lay in deep mats, or raked into towering piles in the parks and yards of Montreal, following the first killing frosts, and just before everything would be blanketed in the silent, white shroud of the Canadian winter – when he would open up about the War.

My father rarely spoke of his experiences as a tail gunner in a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. I had grown up seeing his photos, dashing and handsome in his RCAF uniform, tucked discretely in a corner of the downstairs family room. It was a memory my father honoured – an experience central to who he was, and who he became – but it was a part of his life that he rarely chose to revisit, despite my curiosity. “It was a long time ago,” he would say as he brushed my questions aside. “It was another lifetime.”

Yet, at this time of the year, as daylight hours grew short, and the cool breath of autumn turned to a chill that stripped the last leaves from the maples in our back yard, his memories of that other life came back to him. Perhaps it was the poppy on his lapel – we all wore poppies in early November – that jogged his memory, recalling the faces and voices of the comrades and friends he had left in the Commonwealth war cemeteries in Europe. Maybe it was the old soldiers, some bearing the scars of Vimy Ridge, Passchendale, the Somme, who still distributed the red poppies at kiosks at the local grocery store, or on the sidewalks Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

I felt an intimate bond with my father as he would take me into his confidence. I learned of the terror he felt as his aircraft threaded its way through the blossoms of flak blooming all around; I learned about the sang-froid masking despair with which he and his fellow aircrew toasted the memories of lost comrades on return to their base at Wratting Common; I learned the names Mark Goldwater and Robert Tait Roth. He told me about the night his aircraft went down over Witten, in the Ruhr Valley, about his wounds, his capture, and confinement in a German prison camp. He spoke of duty, of terror, and of the guilt he carried for participating in the slaughter of civilians.

My father was a good man – honourable, charitable, committed to social justice, kind, and gentle. He was the kind of person  I have always aspired to be, though I well know that I have always fallen short of the mark. I could not, however, imagine him as a soldier, an airman huddled behind four .50 calibre machine guns in a Lancaster’s tail turret, and it was in interrogating the disconnect between the father I knew, the steel-eyed young man in his RCAF portraits, and the frightened teenager on his POW index card, that I felt closer to him than I could ever have thought possible.

Although he wore a poppy every November and attended Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph in Dominion Square every year, my father’s wartime service was rarely a significant component of his public persona. He never joined the Royal Canadian Legion, and never sat at a table distributing poppies. Yet I know that the War was never far from his thoughts. It was only after he visited Europe with my mother, for the first time in 45 years, following his retirement in 1995 that he began to revisit that other life more consistently and more often.

They had visited his old bomber base in Cambridgeshire, and traveled to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. As his closest friends from the old neighbourhood in Montreal – Bill Maulton, Si Yasin, Bill Charad – each died in the following years, my father began to speak more frequently of the War. When my mother, the love of his life, died of cancer in the winter of 2006, he found fellowship and, I think, solace in the company of the old soldiers at the Veterans Centre in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. From then until the last months of his life, he dropped in several time each week to work out in the gym, drink coffee, and chat with his new comrades.

I had the privilege to meet them when my partner and I visited my home in the fall of 2010. They were extraordinary gentlemen. Henry had been a C-47 Dakota pilot flying supply missions from bases in India over “the Hump” of the Himalayas into Burma. Mo, 94 years old when I met him, had been General Bernard Montgomery’s driver in Europe. They laughed, joked, told stories of courage, terror, and ribald adventures. They were fascinating, charming and, like my father, noble. They were all strong, confident, and distinguished old men who, in their 80s and 90s, had retained or rediscovered the vigour of young men. Yet I could not then imagine them as young men any more than I could imagine the veterans of Hill 70, Cambrai, and Amiens who had distributed poppies in my youth as young men.

Henry, Mo, and my father – like Mark Goldwater, Robert Roth, the old soldiers of the Great War, and more than a hundred million soldiers and civilians who fell in the World Wars – are gone now. But this week, I think of my father and his comrades forever as young men, preserved in that moment of fear and resolve, as they faced the prospect of battle and, in many cases, the near-certainty of injury or death. I know they did it; I can’t imagine how they did it.


The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

The Cenotaph in Dominion Square

I only attended a Remembrance Day service with my father once. It was a damp, grey Sunday morning and I was not in school. I stood there with him in Dominion Square, holding his strong hand, alongside the men of his generation, and the generation before, in a sea of poppies as the bugler sounded the “Last Post.” After two minutes of silence, the piper played the ancient air the “Floors o’ the Forest.” The wreaths had been laid, the guns had fired their salute, the poppies turned, and my father and I found the car and went for a thoughtful lunch.

We sat quietly at a table at Murray’s at the corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria, and the nice Scottish ladies brought us post-Thanksgiving turkey pie. Men of my father’s generation sat at neighbouring tables, some in groups, some alone, some with sons and daughters of about my age. I remember the silence; it was profound, respectful, and peaceful. We had apple pie for dessert; my father had coffee, and I had tea.

Finally, my father looked at me and said very softly, “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.”

It was not an unreasonable hope at the time. By then, Canada had not been to war in a generation. Since the Korean War, the young men and women of the Canadian Forces had only seen action wearing the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers. Vietnam was then a tragic memory, and the Cold War was warming. Soviet troops were not yet in Afghanistan, the United States had not yet invaded Grenada or Panama, the Camp David Accords seemed to promise the real possibility of a permanent peace in the Middle East. Even media pundits opined that it looked like peace was “breaking out all over.”

My memory of that time seems unreal now; it is more like a dimly-recalled dream, or childhood fantasy. As we approach Remembrance day this year, it seems like Canada, the United States – indeed, the world – has been at war continuously since 1990… for almost a generation. It has not been one continuous war, of course, but many starting and ending and starting again… continuously. When there has been peace, it has been an uneasy peace; of a pause between rounds, as pugilists wipe the blood and sweat from their faces and prepare to enter the ring once again.

War has become so unexceptional that, when the United States, Canada, and their allies commit themselves to “combat operations” – a convenient euphemism that speaks of mechanical, bureaucratic efficiencies rather than blood, bodies, and horror – the questions most of us ask do not interrogate war itself, but how clean it will be, how much it will cost in dollars and cents, whether there will be boots on the ground. War itself is not the question, the ethics of killing are not up for debate; the question is whether we can get away with killing without having to face any serious consequences.

War has become normal; so much so that we almost expect young men and women to don their fatigues, to be ordered by old, powerful men to kill and, if necessary, to die. I was shocked when Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered while guarding the Cenotaph in Ottawa last month but, to my shame, I was not surprised. While it is still not clear, all of the pious rhetoric notwithstanding, whether this was a terrorist attack, violence – whether perpetrated by political extremists or legitimate governments – has become so mundane that it no longer surprises us. Not in the United States, and not even in Canada.

That sad, horrific, realization came to me as I prepared to begin my lecture at Rutgers University earlier this week. I looked out at a room full of inquisitive, motivated, idealistic college freshmen and sophomores, and my father’s words echoed  in my thoughts: “more than anything, I hope you never have to go to war.” That hope now seems unrealistic, even foolhardy.

I looked at Stephanie, a part-time soldier, like Cpl. Cirillo, who serves in the New Jersey National Guard. I have had guardsmen in my classes before, and I have seen many of them disappear from the classroom as they have been called up to duty. I looked at Hassan, with his passion for aircraft and flying, and wondered if, should it ever come to it, he might ever find himself on the firing line. I looked at Eric who, seeking me out during my office hours, off-handedly commented that he felt pressure to enter the service to pay for his education. That’s the pitch made by the signs and posters outside the recruiting office on Clinton Street.

I felt a chill in that brief moment as I imagined what it could have been like to stand before the college classes of 1914, 1917, 1939, and 1941, knowing that few of those hopeful, promising faces would return unscarred, if they returned at all. I thought of the plaques on the walls of Macdonald High School, and Concordia University, where I had been a student myself, solemnly listing the names of young men who lie at Vimy Ridge, Boulonge sur Mer, Ypres, Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, and the Reichwald Forest.

I feel horror that “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we have failed in our obligation to remember.


Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

As part of my Act of Remembrance this year, I offer two poems, composed by poets on opposite side of the Great War.

Georg Trakl was a medic in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern front. In 1915, following the Battle of Grodek, Trakl was utterly overwhelmed by the number of horribly injured soldiers he had to treat, and sank into a deep depression. He committed suicide several weeks later. The translation of his poem “Grodek” is mine, followed by the original German.

Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915. He saw service in the trenches of northern France, and was killed in action at the Sambre-Oise Canal on the morning of 4 November 1918, almost exactly one week before the Armistice that ended the Great War.

By Georg Trakl (translated by Matthew Friedman)

At nightfall the autumn woods
resonate with deadly weapons,
the golden plains and blue lakes,
unfurl about a darkening sun;
night embraces the dead and dying:
the wild lament of their shattered mouths.

But silence gathers in the pastures.
A red mist, where dwells an angry god,
gushes blood into the lunar chill,
opening all roads in black decay.

Under golden boughs of night and stars
the sister’s shadow flits through the silent grove
to greet the shades of heroes, their bleeding heads,
as the music of autumn flutes rises softly in the reeds.

O prouder sorrow! You shameless altars!
The searing flame of the imagination
nourishes an unthinkable agony:
the generations yet unborn.


By Georg Trakl

Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düster hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.


Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.



The Forever War


The President goes to war

Today, thirteen years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America is once again girding for war. “Once again” might not be quite the right phrase to use, since it suggests that we are on the cusp of a transition from a state of peace to a state of war, yet this country has not been at peace for more than a decade.

From the perspective of this day in 2014, President George W. Bush’s speech from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California on 1 May 2003 seems like a sick joke. For those too forgetful, or too young (like many of my students) to remember, the president strode heroically across the carrier’s flight deck from a Lockheed Viking ASW bomber, clad in a Navy flight suit, with his aviator’s helmet under his arm. Under a red-white-and-blue banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the president announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” A few moments later, he added, “the war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.”

He lied.

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

President Bush cheerfully lies to the American people

The proof is that, since 2004 the United States has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and 2,300 in Afghanistan, while perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed, dislocated, their lives destroyed. And all of this since President Bush claimed that the mission was accomplished.

So here we are, more than a decade later, with President Obama wearily announcing that, despite his predecessor’s speech, despite the promised US withdrawal, this country is committing itself once again – there’s that phrase! – to war, this time against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For now, these will be air operations, deploying America’s vast resources of aircraft, drones and cruise missiles against the jihadists who have overrun much of Iraq. It does not mean that the United States will be sending troops in any number to the region to face off against the new enemy on the ground. At least that’s the story.

Because we – Americans, Canadians, Britons, whatever – like to remember history in terms of nice, discrete packages, where great empires rise and fall, where crises come and go, where wars begin and end, it’s the kind of story that we can believe. This time, the old song goes, won’t be like the last time. Indeed the last time,  and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, has faded into vague memories that flicker fitfully on movie screens to teach us moral lessons of courage, sacrifice, grief and pain.

We remember that the Second World War was the good war; the one where there was no moral messiness, where we (and, incidentally, our Soviet, French, British and Commonwealth allies) did the right thing and stood against the brutal butchers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We forget that we ended the war by incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians in places with names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg, and Dresden. We forget how greatly Nazi expansion benefitted from the Western democracies’ benevolent indifference to the goose-stepping legions that marched through Spain, Libya, Ethiopia, the Sudetenland, and Austria.

We remember the heroic hardships the American GIs, indeed soldiers from the whole free world, endured to defend South Korea from the violent embrace of the Hermit State and the Chinese Red Army’s surge across the icy Yalu River in 1950. We forget that Douglas MacArthur wanted to use this as a pretext to bring nuclear Armageddon to China, and that the war, more than a half-century later, is still not over, but remains suspended in the tense unreality of a permanent ceasefire without peace.

We remember the spectacular victory of Panama when, over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s a quarter century ago, American soldiers stormed from their Blackhawk helicopters to restore order and democracy and, to the pounding beat of MTV music, bought a drug-dealing caricature of a banana republic dictator to justice. We forget that Manuel Noriega had been our agent, and that he acquired the cash he invested in the Columbian cocaine cartels working for the CIA. We forget the thousands of civilians who died in Panama City’s El Chorillo neighbourhood, and others like it.

My Lai

My Lai

We remember the horrors of Vietnam; we remember that it was a mistake, built on a lie, enabled by paranoid Cold War fantasies; we remember that we confronted the worst of American arrogance there, and hope that we came out better. Sometimes, we even remember the bodies of women, children, and the elderly at My Lai, cut down by fresh-faced American boys ordered to “waste ’em all.” But we forget that, after the boys came home, paid their penance, and were rehabilitated as heroes, the dying went on. We forget that our arrogance and our bombs brought the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power and helped bury the uncounted millions in Cambodia’s killing fields. We forget the Vietnamese refugees who, after we washed our hands of our defeat, sailed in boats swamped to the gunwales across the South China Sea by the millions, and drowned by the tens of thousands.

Above all, we forget that, in 1964, we were going to answer the fabricated provocation of the Tonkin Gulf, and achieve our noble aims – just as we will fifty years later – with airpower alone. We were going to secure the peace by pummeling the enemy into submission with F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and B-52 Stratofortresses – America’s unbeatable advantage over the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. But 3,500 marines landed at Da Nang in the spring of 1965 to guard our bases, followed by thousands… then hundreds of thousands. Within four years, there were more than a half-million American soldiers and airmen “in country,” and the generals wanted yet more.

We remember the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that as if they are somehow separate from this time, as if all of our wars can be easily compartmentalized from all of their deaths and misery, as if this time won’t be like the last time. It will be different.

Mass Execution

Mass Execution

Like all of us, I have watched the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with a combination of disbelief and horror. I have wept over the thousands displaced, raped, tortured, and butchered by the faceless black legions marching like the soot behind a flame across the map of Iraq and Syria. I shuddered in disgust as I forced myself to watch the videos of the beheadings and the mass executions, so I could bear witness to the atrocities of our historical epoch.

If I believed that evil was a living thing – a dark force with a positive, material existence in history – then I would believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the Nazis, slavers, and the US Army cavalrymen grinning and posing in that old photo over the mass grave at Wounded Knee before them, were it. But I know that nothing in history is ever that simple. The Islamic State’s soldiers are in the right as they understand it, they are fighting a holy, righteous crusade in the name of God, as they understand it. Mass murder is a moral act for them, just as it was for Paul Tibbets on that clear August morning, or for Richard the Lionheart as he entered the gates of Acre.

I can well understand the visceral desire, the demand for justice; for evil to be crushed and for us, under the banner of civilization, democracy, and all that is good and moral, to be the instrument of that justice. But then I have to ask where we Americans, or “Western Civilization” broadly – the butchers of millions, the slavers, the genocidal exterminators of the First Nations of the Americas – derive the authority to act in the name of all that is good and moral. How can a mass murderer be the judge and executioner of a mass murderer?

And haven’t we all been here before? Wasn’t the War on Terror supposed to defeat terrorism? President Bush declared war thirteen years ago promising to “wage this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” Invoking the divine, he was certain of victory: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” What happened to that victory?

This was not to be just any war. It had specific goals, outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. One of these was to “win the war of ideas and diminish the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change that lead people to embrace, rather than shun, terrorism.” Yet here we are, a decade later, and those conditions have not been diminished, but greatly enhanced. The black legions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have clearly not shunned terrorism and – let us be honest – they would not have had this startling success had people in Iraq, Syria, and around the world, not in their despair embraced the message. By its own standards the War on Terror, which has run longer than any war in our history, has been an abject failure, a disgrace, a bloody farce.

A Predator drone at work

A Predator drone at work

The invasions, the occupations, the suspension of civil liberties, the militarization of American life, the “targeted killings,” the drone strikes – none of these have brought security to America and the world, and none of these have diminished “the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change.” They have created and expanded them. The monster of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the monster created by war, and despair – our war. Here we are, thirteen years after it all began, and the President has committed us to reinforcing failure, to escalating the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. Maybe we should stop and think about this.

There is a great fallacy at work here – at the White House, in Congress, on the cable news talking-head shows, in social media, at the water-cooler – that the military option is the only option. “We have to do something,” we all piously intone, and that might well be true. But why does it seem reasonable to anyone that the escalation of a strategy that has not only failed, but has made things worse, is the only or even the best option? It’s like turning up the heat to save someone who is dying of thirst.

All consideration of what has to be done begins with dropping bombs and launching missiles, inevitably continues with “boots on the ground,” and ends – no, wait, it doesn’t end. This is the endless conflict. War is no longer our state of exception; it is our state of being.

“We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.”

Image of Madiba

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I cried.

I cried when my mother died in the winter of 2006. I cried when my father died in the spring of 2012. I cried when Nelson Mandela died this week. I felt as if I had lost a close friend, a mentor, a member of my own family.

At first, I was puzzled by the intensity of my grief and my sense of loss. Mandela’s death, though sad, was hardly a shock. He was 95 years old. He had been gravely ill since last June, and had passed into a coma in July. Part of me hoped, as I did when each of my parents fell ill, that the great man would come through, that he would defy the odds, his age, and medicine, and make a full recovery. The world needed Madiba, and I could not imagine it without him. He didn’t, of course, and his death on Friday was simply the last page of a months-long denouement to an extraordinary life.

I never met Mandela. I watched his release on television in February 1990. Though I did not attend the rally in his honour at Jarry Park in Montreal the following summer, I listened to it on the radio and watched the extended coverage on the news. I never shook his hand. He was not a personal friend, a colleague, or a comrade. Yet, in so many ways, I felt closer to him than I do many of my friends, colleagues, and comrades.

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Nelson Mandela has occupied a place at the centre of my politics and sense of justice since my father told me his story. I was in grade school, and I had been assigned South Africa for a United Nations day. The night before the exercise, my father sat me down and told me about apartheid, the Bantustans, the pass system, Sharpeville, Soweto, Stephen Biko, the African National Congress… and the long years Mandela had spent in prison because of his struggle for freedom and democracy. “You will be South Africa tomorrow; I know you will do the right thing.”

My first acts of activism were against the apartheid regime. I helped organize demonstrations in CEGEP; I stood along with thousands calling for Mandela’s release, and to protest the Canadian government’s continued engagement – like the uranium shipments from the port of Montreal – with Pretoria. I boycotted FBI orange juice, and any other product remotely tainted by its connections to the Rembrandt Group.

When I danced the high-step to the Special AKA’s “Nelson Mandela” in some long-forgotten punk club in 1985, or to Johnny Clegg and Savuka in the streets at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1988, it was with passion and determination. I was not dancing alone; I danced with my friends and comrades, and with Mandela in our imaginations. It was an ecstatic act of musical and political solidarity.

Madiba has always been there with me. I guess I thought he always would be. Now that he is gone, I feel the weight of his absence.


What puzzles me more, however, is the representation of Mandela in the news and social media over the last couple of days. I have had an eerie feeling that I have been watching the “Savage Curtain” episode from the 1969 season of Star Trek played out over and over again. That’s the episode where the ever-intrepid Kirk and Spock do battle with some of the worst villains of galactic history, aided by the two greatest paragons of justice and courage: Abraham Lincoln and the Vulcan philosopher Surak. They’re not really Lincoln and Surak, but mysterious doppelgangers. Spock insists on addressing “Image of Surak.”

It seems as if so much of the media have been addressing Image of Mandela, rather than the man himself. In fairness, I recognize that the Mandela who I lost this week is as much an image as anyone else’s. Yet what puzzles me is how many – though not all – of the Mandelas depart from any reasonable reading of the man’s life and work.

The most common is the whitewashed or right-washed Mandela. This is the one on display in the American corporate media, shorn of his radicalism and revolutionary politics. Most of these reports emphasize his courage, strength and his insistence on peace and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. These were essential parts of his politics and character, to be sure, but when his radicalism is mentioned at all – he was a life-long socialist, close to members of the South African Communist Party, and committed, even after his release, to the armed struggle – it is as an afterthought.

It is as if few people in the media want to ruin their celebration of the great man’s life by mentioning that he was on the US government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, and remained an incisive critic of US imperialism, and close some of the great villains of the American Right’s worst fantasies. In fact, one of the few remotely-mainstream American commentators who has mentioned any of this is the repulsive reactionary gasbag David Horowitz – and then only to denounce him.

Rick Santorum has even gone so far to enlist Mandela – a socialist and a vocal advocate for government-run, free, national health insurance – in his ongoing campaign against the Affordable Care Act. According to Santorum, his efforts to deny affordable health care to the majority of Americans is just like the great man’s resistance to the brutal, racist, genocidal, apartheid regime. You can’t make this stuff up.

A Mandela meme

A Mandela meme

More common is the kind of embroidered sampler sentimentality that bloomed all over Facebook, Twitter and other social media sources. We’ve seen this kind of thing before with Martin Luther King, jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama – a focus on the kind of comforting, unchalenging platitudes that can be printed over a soft-focus photo on an Internet meme. It’s the kind of thing American and Canadian liberals go in for in a big way; quite like all those pictures of a gentle, smiling Louis Armstrong over the text “What a wonderful world it would be.”

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

In this, white liberals are able to domesticate Mandela – the revolutionary – like a fuzzy Lolcat in a profoundly racist dynamic. He has become, to so many doubtless well-intentioned people, a kind of “magical Negro.” This is a recurring media figure, closely related to the “Uncle” and “Mammy” of the blackface minstrel show, whose whole purpose is to nudge white characters toward spiritual salvation and reconciliation. He is virtually always portrayed as a wise, gentle usually older Black man who is somehow in touch with a deeper, mystical reality. Think of the John Coffey character in The Green Mile, or Morgan Freeman in virtually anything. While it might give middle-class white people – like myself – the warm-and-fuzzies, and a momentary respite from interrogating our privilege, it robs a man like Mandela of his agency and his power.

It makes him safe.


The young Mandela

The young Mandela

On the other side, I have noted puzzling critique emerging from the radical Left. This first became apparent in an exchange on my Facebook wall where a friend – a committed activist whom I deeply respect and admire – suggested that, for all his radical efforts as a young man, the post-release Mandela was simply a “bourgeois pacifist” and what, in “Marxist circles,” might be called a “revisionist.”

I’m not so sure about Marxist circles; Communist circles, certainly. “Revisionism” suggests that there is an explicit and pure party line, and that to deviate from it in any way is a revision of the original intent. Considering that (a) Marx’s analysis and critique apply to a radically different form of capitalism than exists today and (b) he called for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” including his own work, I would have to say that any “Marxist” who condemns anyone as a “revisionist” should go back and actually read Marx.

The most common Left criticism goes something like this: While we should respect the Mandela’s revolutionary work up to his arrest and trial in 1962, the man who emerged from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990 was no longer a revolutionary committed to the armed struggle. He had been tamed. His efforts to seek a peaceful transformation of South African society, his insistence on reconciliation with the White population and his willingness to engage with neo-liberal, global capitalism as president are all evidence of “capitulation.” The whites did not feel the force of African vengeance nor did Mandela immediately transform South Africa into a workers’ paradise. Instead, he played the game of bourgeois liberal democracy and betrayed the Revolution.

Western/Northern/Euro-American (hereafter “Western”) radicals are impatient people. We want The Revolution to be made right now. We want to storm the barricades and, considering that we are virtually all bourgeois intellectuals, we can’t understand why the oppressed proletariat doesn’t rise up right now. We can’t understand why Mandela, a Marxist, allowed himself to be “coopted” and “capitulated” when he finally had the power of the state in his own hands.

Mandela, the radical leader

Mandela, the radical leader

This kind of criticism of Mandela is deeply colonialist. It presumes the universality of a Western revolutionary agenda rather that acknowledging that a revolution in another part of the world might address other kinds of issues and look quite a bit different. Mandela’s “failure” to live up to the revolutionary standards of comfortable bourgeois intellectuals like us in the United States and Canada is characterized as a betrayal.

I am sure that Mandela felt that he had some larger issues to contend with than sticking to the Western revolutionary playbook. Like maybe dismantling a century-old regime built on systematic racism and racial violence. This was a society where the minority White population held a monopoly on political and economic power. It was a place where non-whites did not have the right to vote, where Blacks could not legally own or manage businesses, where the education system spent ten-times-more teaching white children than Black children. It was a place where Afrikaans writer Breyten Breytenbach was arrested and imprisoned, in part for violated miscegenation laws, when he returned to his country of birth with his Franco-Vietnamese bride in 1975. I suppose that, if you ignore all of that and more, you could argue that Mandela’s “failure” to bring about an immediate and complete social revolution might look like “capitulation.”

Could Mandela have acted differently? More “radically?” Maybe he could have expelled the entire white population, like Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. We can see how well that turned out. Perhaps, when he spoke from the steps of the Cape Town city hall hours after his release, Mandela could have called for a mass uprising in the streets, and simply accepted that the hundreds of thousands who would inevitably have been slaughtered by Africa’s largest, best trained, and best-equipped army had died in the cause of revolution.

Perhaps, when elected president, he could have used the powers of his office and his phenomenal political capital to nationalize all industries and economically disenfranchise non-Black capitalists, as Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe right now. He would have then had to accept the embargo that the Western democracies would inevitably have imposed. Millions would have starved, of course, and it would have been impossible for Mandela’s government to fund desperately-pressing programs to address basic needs like housing, food, and education.

Moreover, he could not have done any of this and expect any support in the South African Parliament. The Whites would have opposed it for sure, as would have the South Africans of Asian and South-Asian descent. And despite the fact that, in the romantic imagination of Western intellectual revolutionaries, all oppressed people are a single, undifferentiated mass with a unified hive mind and will, it wasn’t that way at all. Black voters and political leaders would not automatically have agreed. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party held 43, or 20%, of the seats in the 1994 Parliament, and they were never inclined to support Mandela. Even in the ANC itself, there was – and is – a vast range of opinions. It is highly unlikely that a majority could be could be mobilized to pass such legislation.

But what difference does democracy make to a true revolutionary? The good revolutionary knows that democracy is a sham designed to maintain bourgeois power.

It would be better to ask what democracy meant to a man who committed his life to “one-man-one-vote,” who was prepared to die for the principle (we should ask ourselves what we are prepared to die for), who served 27 years in prison for it. For Nelson Mandela, the simple idea that all people must have free and equal access to political expression and power was the first principle. Everything followed from there. If that was not secured, the nothing could be secured.

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Joe Slovo, Mandela’s comrade, friend, the minister for housing in his government, and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, no less, said this in 1990:

“Our party’s programme holds firmly to a post-apartheid state which will guarantee all citizens the basic rights and freedoms of organisation, speech, thought, press, movement, residence, conscience and religion; full trade union rights for all workers including the right to strike, and one person one vote in free and democratic elections. These freedoms constitute the very essence of our national liberation and socialist objectives and they clearly imply political pluralism…

It follows that, in truly democratic conditions, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for a party claiming to be the political instrument of the working class to attempt to lead its constituency in democratic contest for political power against other parties and groups representing other social forces. And if it wins, it must be constitutionally required, from time to time, to go back to the people for a renewed mandate. The alternative to this is self-perpetuating power with all its implications for corruption and dictatorship…”

As for Mandela’s pacifism, it beggars the imagination that anyone would think that it was easy for a man whose friends had been murdered, whose people had been confined in a social prison of racial segregation and forced labour, who had spent 27 years in prison to seek peace and reconciliation with the murderers and jailers. When Western radicals, as well-intentioned as we might be, speak of “bourgeois pacifism,” we articulate a notion that pacifism is an easy way out. A real revolutionary would stand and fight to the bloody death.

It is the infantile – and dare I say it, the bourgeois – fantasy of the Left, a Left of which I count myself a part, that resistance and revolution must be a moment of immediate apocalyptic reckoning, singed by flames and bathed in blood. That is the great romance in seminar rooms and drum circles. That’s how it looks from behind the gas mask and bandanna as we all line up – students, professors, hipsters and bloggers – with our fists raised and our banners flying, ready to take pepper spray in the face, a knock on the head, and a night in jail, to put our “bodies on the line” and fight the power. And sometimes that is how it has to be. But after we’re booked at the police station, or spend a night in jail, we get to go home to our classes, our jobs and our families afterward to lick our wounds.

Neither Mandela, nor any of the other activists of the ANC had anywhere else to go. There was no retreat. Mandela knew that the rubble left after an apocalyptic confrontation would be the rubble of his own home, in the largest sense of the word. He also knew that there could be no freedom for his people unless that included all the people – Black, “coloured,” and White – in South Africa.

Peace, reconciliation, democracy were neither a “capitulation,” nor an easy way out, nor a failure. They were the most difficult things in the world, and they were the only way to ensure that his personal freedom, and the freedom of his people, meant something.


Mandela did not storm the barricades and crush neo-liberal neo-colonialism. He did not establish a worker’s paradise-on-the-Cape. South Africa today remains a troubled land, in many ways, and it seems that, to some people, that is an indictment of Mandela’s “failure.” But that ignores something that the great man knew better than almost anyone: that revolutionary transformation is a process and not an event, that the path to change is rarely short and straight. “I have walked that long road to freedom,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” South Africa has a long way to go, but thanks to Mandela, it is on its way.

Despite all the soft-focus samplers and aphoristic remembrances, he was not a saint, but practical man deeply committed to a political ideal. Shortly after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, George Orwell wrote, “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell, ever prickly, had no stomach for Gandhi the saint, but he expressed deep admiration for the human being.

Although I know that my Image of Mandela is a problematic as anyone else’s, that I never knew the man apart from his mark on history, that is how I choose to remember him: as a human being. But what a human being! He was a great man, the greatest I have ever known. I feel privileged to have lived in his times. If all of our leaders – if all of us – were as committed to peace and decency, as intolerant of oppression, as courageous, as principled – as human – then we would not need people like Mandela to change the world.

Thank you, Madiba.

The White Poppy

poppyNovember 11 is a day of great significance for me, one full of reflection, sorrow and gratitude. At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year, I will stop whatever I am doing and mark two minutes of silence. If I am able, I will do this while I watch the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the CBC.

I do this, in part, for deeply personal reasons. My late father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with his sister and two brothers, during World War II. My maternal grandfather had been a groom – a soldier who cared for and managed the horses in a Guards regiment – in the Great War of 1914-1918. At that moment of silence every year, I feel connected to them, and to their friends and comrades – so many of whom never returned – across the years. I think of their pain, their loss and, yes, their courage.

Yet I also do this for profoundly social reasons. Remembrance Day, for me and for many Canadians, provides an opportunity to share a moment of communal memory. This was reinforced throughout my childhood and youth by the Remembrance Day assemblies every year. In primary and secondary school, my classmates and I would quietly file into the gymnasium for a somber service of remembrance. There principal would say a few words; there would be two minutes of fidgeting silence. Sometimes a bugler from the local cadets company would play the Last Post and the Rouse. Someone would read the Act of Remembrance:

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.

John McCrae, 1914

John McCrae, 1914

More often than not, a fellow student with a gift for public speaking would solemnly recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian Army surgeon who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the last year of the Great War.

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

 Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

We all wore red poppies pinned to our coats in the November chill because of McCrae’s famous poem. In 1918, an American educator and Red Cross volunteer named Moina Michael published a poem responding to McCrae’s exhortation to keep the faith:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought

The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official symbol of remembrance two years later. The Royal Canadian Legion followed in 1921, turning it into a badge to be worn on the left lapel, next to one’s heart. Within two years, the gesture had spread to Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The red poppy took root, as it were, amid the horror and the grief of the years following 1918. As historian Jay Winter notes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the personal grief of those who lost comrades, friends, lovers, sons and parents in the war became externalized in a common experience of bereavement through public mourning that defined and reinforced the postwar community. And everyone had lost someone; France lost 1.4 million soldiers to the war, Britain almost 900,000. Canada, with a population of 7 million, left the bodies of 67,000 young men in the fields of France and Flanders.

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

Everyone mourned and, Winter writes, the “bonds shared by those in mourning, by widows, ex-servicemen, the disabled, the young and the old alike, were expressed openly in ceremonies of collective memory.” Canadians, Americans, French and Britons met every year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at war memorials and cenotaphs – the “empty tombs” that mark the collective memory of war throughout the Commonwealth – to remember, and to honour the promise that we will not break faith with the fallen.

The red poppy is an important part of the ritual; for many people it is the act of remembrance. When I was young, the old soldiers of the Royal Canadian Legion, many of whom were patients at the Veterans’ Hospital in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and some of whom had even served in the trenches of 1914-1918, distributed  them at a kiosk at the local grocery store in exchange for donations to support veterans and their families. I remember well the feeling of walking up to the table with my father and dropping a quarter in the can with a combination of gratitude and pride. Most of those veterans, including my father, are gone now but the poppies remain.

red poppyI have worn a red poppy every year that I can remember. That became difficult when I moved to the United States in 2005, where the remembrance poppy is much less common. So each year, I have asked friends back home to acquire one for me from an old soldier. Each year, I pinned the poppy to my lapel a week before Remembrance Day, conscious that the symbol is unintelligible to most of the people I pass on the New York subway or the PATH Train, but satisfied that, in a small way, I have been able to maintain a connection to Canada and the historical memory of the wars of the 20th century. I have not broken faith.

Yet, at the back if my mind, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the red poppy’s symbolism. I can still hear “In Flanders Fields” recited in my grandfather’s booming voice. I can see the poppies in my imagination, blowing gently in the wind at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, and Vimy, between thousands of crosses marking thousands of shattered corpses. And then, in my grandfather’s voice, the dead enjoin me to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” They pass the torch to my hands and warn “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

Even as a child, the vengeful tone of those lines gave me pause. I felt a frisson of doubt as my grandfather’s voice turned stern and demanding. What if I do not wish to take up the quarrel, to continue the war – this cycle of violence and death? Will I have really broken faith with the fallen? Does the red poppy on my lapel signify not only my remembrance of the fallen, but an embrace of their mission, the war that destroyed them?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the red poppy is a “symbol of unity for those who recognize the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.” I do recognize those sacrifices – the sacrifices of my grandfather, my father, their comrades and friends – but I feel uncomfortable marking that memory alone. What of the foe? What of the young German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese men? I condemn their leaders and generals – the starched shirts and ribbon merchants who sent millions of young men to their deaths in two world wars – but not the men themselves. Whether they were patriotic volunteers like my father who answered their countries’ call or, more likely, conscripts compelled to take up arms by their governments, they fell just the same.

And what of the civilians? Indeed, if the history of 20th century is war is about anything, it is about how it spilled over from the battlefield to every corner of human life. Throughout the last century, the “front line,” as the location of the fighting and dying was once called, ceased to exist. The swath of death began to fall everywhere, with little regard for whether or not its victims wore uniforms or carried arms.

Almost 60 percent of the 17 million dead of the First World War were soldiers, sailors and airmen. They were volunteers and conscripts, hardened professional soldiers and inexperienced, idealistic young men whose bodies littered the landscape of Europe from the Somme to Passchendale, to Tannenberg Forest and the mountain passes at Caporetto. Yet 10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million survivors whose bodies had been shattered by bullets, artillery shells and poison gas were only part of the horror. The war left 7 million noncombatants dead as long range guns launched high explosive shells 80 miles behind the lines, as aircraft dropped bombs on city streets… and as famine and disease stalked the “home front” in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

When the killing resumed in 1939, after an exhausted world spent two decades licking its wounds and produced a new generation of young men to die in sufficient numbers, new practices and technologies of killing had erased the line that separated the front from the home front. Conservative estimates put the butcher’s bill of the Second World War at 60 million dead, but it may have been much higher. And of those dead, the majority – 38 million – were civilians. They died starving on the streets of Leningrad, in the rubble of Dresden and the London Blitz. Ten million died in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps 100,000 died in an instant in Hiroshima.

The trend has only accelerated since 1945. Wars are no longer fought between armies, but by armies against civilians. Even in our “clean” wars and “surgical strikes,” the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties always outnumber the combatant casualties. What was the “collateral damage” of the Vietnam War? Perhaps five million Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian civilians – a ratio of five noncombatants to every military death – after you tally up the corpses in the killing fields and bomb craters. How many civilians are dying today in an unending war as American robotic killing machines fire missiles at targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?

The dead are no longer the young men – our young men, or their young men, it doesn’t really matter – who exhort us to take up their cause, but everyone. How do we mark their meimories. How do we keep faith?

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that violence is always a failure of humanity and that war is wrong. My father was proud of his service in the RCAF. He had every right to be. I am proud of my father, of his courage, his strength and his sacrifice. He was a brave man who did his duty when called… Yet he was troubled by the memory of what he had been called upon to do.

He first intimated this to me in 1992, as we discussed the controversy surrounding the airing of Brian McKenna’s documentary series The Valour and the Horror. McKenna had come under a firestorm of criticism from veterans’ groups – including the Royal Canadian Legion – for his depiction of the RAF/RCAF bombing campaign over Nazi Germany as a bloody combination of homicidal mania and incompetence. Yet, after my father had watched it, he grimly noted that the documentary had captured “what it really was like… for me.”

I always made a point of calling my father on Remembrance Day. On our last Remembrance Day we talked about what it was like to come home as the sole survivor from his Lancaster bomber crew. “That pains me,” he said, remembering his boyhood friend Mark Goldwater and skipper Robert Roth. “We were all so close. It didn’t really strike me until I got home after the war. There was so much death.” After a short pause, he continued, “I always have to remind myself that I was part of that, too. I was there to help drop bombs on people,” he said. “They told us that we were bombing a munitions factory, but we were bombing people. That’s something I always have to remember.”

I still wear a red poppy on my overcoat. It’s not a new one. In fact, it is the last red poppy that I will ever have. I wear it for my father, my grandfather and their comrades and friends because the symbol was important to them. But this year, I have begun to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union on my jacket lapel as I teach and go about my day. I wear it closer to my heart. I bought a package of ten this year, and I will do this every year for the rest of my life.

There has been considerable controversy in Canada over the white poppy. The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, has called them “offensive.” He opines that “Remembrance Day is about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post agrees. I can only assume that he has not read McCrae’s poem to the end. Either way, they both suggest that I am somehow dishonouring my father and grandfather. I take profound offense to that.

For me, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance of all wars, and all the death that those wars have produced. It does not bind me to a promise to take up any quarrel and continue the cycle of war. Indeed, it is in committing myself to peace that I do the greatest honour to the courage and sacrifice of my father, my grandfather and their comrades.

By wearing the white poppy, I remember. I remember the death and destruction visited on our young men on the battlefield, on their young men on the battlefield, and on the men, women and children on the battlefields of what was once called the “home front.” It is how I have chosen to enact a remembrance of the cost of all wars and honour the memory and hope of my father, my grandfather and their comrades that their wars would be the last war. The white poppy represents the hope for a time when we will beat our “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Realpolitik: The Morality of Mass Murder

It seems that we are going to war again, and the thought of it fills me with horror.

Call me a “peacenik” or a pacifist, but I believe that war is always wrong. It is sometimes unavoidable, justifiable – because it is possible to justify and rationalize almost anything if you try hard enough – and, in rare instances, perhaps even necessary. But it is always unethical, a breakdown of civilization… a failure of humanity.

A US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile launch

A US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile launch

War is murder. It really is that simple. For all of the marketing bumf that Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, RSK-MIG, Washington and Moscow publish about “smart” weapons and “surgical strikes,” wars kill people. Real people. People with friends, families, hopes and dreams. The choice of war is the choice to kill – and to deprive those whom we kill of their own choices. It is the ultimate expression of power and control over another human being.

It can be a simple-enough decision for those people who inhabit a universe of moral absolutes. Henry Kissinger infamously justified the Nixon administration’s saturation bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 on the grounds that the United States government had a moral obligation to murder 150,000 Cambodians, destabilize the government in Phnom Penh and bring the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power – which murdered millions more – in order to “protect American lives.” The calculus was simple: American servicemen’s lives had a far greater absolute value than the lives of Cambodians.

Think about that for a minute.

The justification for war in a universe of moral absolutes is ultimately predicated on an assumed hierarchy. Even the moral relativism of realpolitik – we do this because we can – is based on a hierarchy of absolutes – we should do this because our interests outweigh yours. It rests on the belief that some people, societies and states are better than others and thus have a moral justification – indeed, an obligation – to defend themselves from the existential threats posed by inferiors. Yet these absolutes are relative. America is more civilized. Islamic jihadists are more godly. The life of an Israeli civilian is worth more than the lives of a hundred Palestinians. And so it goes.

I recognize that wars are sometimes unavoidable, or even necessary. Fascism, the expansion of the genocidal Nazi regime in Europe and Japanese imperialism in the Pacific left the Allies with very few options in 1939 and 1941. Germany attacked Poland and France; Japan attacked the United States and the overseas European empires in Asia. I cannot even contemplate the horrors that might have been if Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo had been allowed to get away with it.

The ruins of Dresden, 1945.

The ruins of Dresden, 1945.

Yet that does not mean that the incineration of civilians at Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki were good things, moral things. Eighty-five million people were killed between 1939 and 1945; more than two thirds of them were civilians. Of the 25 million soldiers, sailors and airmen who died the vast majority were conscripts compelled to fight. A butcher’s bill like this can never be a good thing, no matter what the final outcome of the war.

And if Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo could not have been allowed to get away with their murderous designs, remember that we – the liberal democracies of the West – had allowed them to get away with them for a decade. Italy subjugated Libya and Ethiopia with little more than anemic finger-wagging from Washington, London, Paris and Ottawa. Japan gutted Manchuria and raped Nanking while the West expressed its disapproval. The legitimate, democratically-elected government of the Republic of Spain begged Franklin Roosevelt, Stanley Baldwin, and Léon Blum for help when Falangist generals launched a coup d’état in the summer of 1936. Even when the generals’ Fascist friends in Italy and Germany brazenly jumped in to help overthrow the fledgling Spanish democracy, massacring hundreds of thousands and bombing Guernica in the process, the great democracies looked the other way and passed laws that forbade intervention.

The deaths of 85 million people – one person in 25 then alive – became necessary, unavoidable because we – the governments of Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… and the voters who supported them – made it so. We armed Japan and favoured the militarist faction to create a counter-balance to Imperial Russian ambitions; we allowed the exhausted armistice of 1918 to become the Allies’ vindictive victory central to Hitler’s dolchstosslegende; we reasoned that the bother of standing up to Italy was greater than the lives of Libyans and Ethiopians; we accepted the realpolitik calculus that supporting socialists, communists and other revolutionaries was too high a price to pay for opposing the spread of Fascism in Spain and China; we appeased Hitler and sold out Czechoslovakia, Austria and the rest of Europe.

"Collateral damage" of a US cruise missile strike on Iraq, 2003.

“Collateral damage” of a US cruise missile strike on Iraq, 2003.

And here we are again. The Tomahawk cruise missiles are being readied in their silos, and Americans and their allies are being prepped by Washington to accept the moral rectitude of the destruction that they will soon rain down on the people of Syria. The target is the tyrant of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, whose homicidal efforts to extinguish his political opposition have claimed the lives of 100,000 people since March 2011. Yet the “collateral damage” caused by the warheads will add to the butcher’s bill.

Barack Obama wants us to believe that launching missiles is the right thing for us to do – that it is morally justifiable, necessary, and unavoidable. An argument could be made that the deaths caused by an American attack are a small, necessary price to be paid for stopping Assad’s campaign of mass murder, but no one from Washington to Moscow really believes that it will either harm the tyrant personally or significantly alter the course of the Syrian conflict.

There have two and a half years of handwringing and pious pronouncements about our “concern” for “the situation in Syria.” There might have been an opportunity long ago to intervene and stop the bloodshed, but the smart money now says that it has long passed. The realpolitik exigencies of the “Great Game” that superpowers have been playing, and continue to play in the Middle East ensured that intervention was never an option. Assad is the heir to almost a century of Euro-American imperial intrigues and machinations that have stretched from the Khyber Pass to the Suez Canal. He is in power because his father had been in power. Hafez al-Assad stayed in power because sometimes the Soviet Union needed him to maintain a toehold in the region and sometimes the United States needed him to act against the PLO or to balance out its often-unruly ally Israel.

President Nixon and Assad, pere, smiling in Damascus, 1974.

President Nixon and Assad, pere, smiling in Damascus, 1974.

As with so many other on-again-off-again frenemies of the US (think: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Hosni Mubarak), Assad is in power because, if we didn’t exactly put him there, the tangled web of American and other superpower actions in the Middle East created the conditions for his power. The bloody mess that is Syria today is as much our doing as anyone’s; it is difficult to see what moral high ground we might reasonably take.

And now, it appears that the raw materials with which Assad’s regime produced its chemical weapons were supplied by the West.

Yet, amidst all the violence and bloodshed, it seems that the prospect of mass-murder committed by the United States has become morally right due to Assad’s reported use of poison gas against his opponents. President Obama is clear about how he sees the morality of bombing Syrians. Assad’s gas attack “is an assault on human dignity,” he said in a speech Saturday, disingenuously implying that the carnage that will inevitably follow the launch of American cruise missiles will somehow be a defence of human dignity.

Remember: Obama will not launch cruise missiles with the intention of ending the civil war, or even of unseating Assad. But to teach him and the world a lesson. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are united as one nation,” the president intoned. It will not prevent the gas attack that has already happened, or even to protect Syrians from attack, but to prevent the “escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

Indeed. But it is worth noting that the United States maintains the world’s largest remaining stockpile of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, with more than 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons still in its arsenal at last report in 2010. With this in mind, it is difficult to see the United States’s coming attack on Syria as necessary. I can only see it as naked, cynical realpolitik with a spoonful of moralistic sugar to make imperial domination digestible to the people who really matter – us.

The bloodbath will continue after the missiles fall – that much is certain. It will go on until Assad is defeated by his opponents, which is unlikely, or Assad defeats his opponents, which is also unlikely, or until everyone in Syria is either dead and exhausted. The United States, in all our moral righteousness, will merely have contributed to the carnage.

So what is to be done? What is the answer to the problem of a murderous tyrant who is massacring his own people while we all look on in horror? I don’t know. I only know that the answer is not more killing… not this.