I’m at a pre-Christmas reception in the community hall of Lagoon City, hard by fast-freezing Lake Simcoe. There’s much talk — and much confusion — about the political upheaval that’s shaking the country.
It may be that this confusion, and the fear of the unknown wrapped around the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition, will turn out to be Stephen Harper’s greatest ally as he goes into a week filled with desperate maneuvering to save his government from collapse.
If the Prime Minister survives, it’ll be the greatest high wire act since Blondin crossed the Niagara Gorge. Even loyal Conservatives are questioning Harper’s future. There’s already a web site promoting Jim Prentice as Prime Minister.
The kindest thing one can say about the Prime Minister is that he seems to have blundered. His reasoned remarks since the election were gaining him broader support. His admission, when he was at the APEC Conference, of the need for economic stimulus convinced many he was facing up to the reality of the economic crisis.
So how, in an Economic Update that promised nothing but the fantasy of five balanced budgets, did he get so off-track? Where did those measures to abolish political subsidies, ban public service strikes, and deny pay equity appeals come from?
Maybe Stephen Harper has a secret agenda after all. Certainly, these ideas weren’t part of any public agenda. They weren’t mentioned in the Throne Speech and they never came up during the election. Is this an indication of where Mr. Harper would really like to take the country if he had a majority?
On top of that foolishness, we now get the PM’s office publishing the tape of an NDP caucus conference call. Shades of the KGB!
The big question hanging over Ottawa as the city awakens Monday morning has to be whether Harper & Co will back down any further. They’ve withdrawn their three controversial measures, and they’ve moved budget day up to January 27. None of this is likely to deter the Opposition. Will the government now be willing to produce some immediate economic stimulus?
Virtually every economist in the country has criticized the Economic Update as inadequate to deal with the threats we we face.
Above all, Bay Street and Main Street want stability. The big plunge in the market Monday morning is a negative sign. If Mr. Harper could somehow defuse the situation with an immediate move to provide a measure of fiscal stimulus, the public would breathe a sigh of relief and the wind might be taken out of Opposition sails.
If not, it’s “Goodbye, Charlie Brown.” (Remember the lady who gave the finger to Brian Mulroney when his hubris got the better of him?)
Facts about coalition
Judging from what I heard at Lagoon City, there’s not much understanding about how a Coalition government would work:
- It won’t include the Bloc, although the Bloc will have to commit itself to suppprting the new government for a specific length of time. What the Libs and Dippers would have to give Quebec is return could worry some.
- Coalition governments aren’t necessarily unstable. Germany is governed right now, and very successfully, by Angela Merkel at the head of a coalition regime.
- It’ll be up to the Liberals to decide whether they let Stephane Dion go in as PM until the May leadership convention. They could decide to let the caucus and the national executive choose the new leader right away.
There’s some speculation that the PM might proroge Parliament, rather than face a non-confidence vote. Dismissing Parliament cost King Charles his head. We no longer do that sort of thing. Just as well.
Also worth reading:
During the election campaign I posted several items here and on Democraticspace.com about the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition as an alternative to a minority Conservative govenrment. My point was that the two Opposition parties, with the support of the Bloc, would be able to gain the confidence of the House of Commons if the Tories either lost the election, or later on, failed to carry a confidence vote in the new House.
Now it appears that this may be about to happen. The Economic Update of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has fallen short on two counts – its failure to provide any economic stimulus, and its move to wipe out the public subsidy for political parties.
Two Opposition powerhouses, former PM Jean Chretien and the former leader of the NDP, Ed Broadbent, are negotiating a possible coalition government to replace the Tories after a non-confidence vote on Monday.
It’s quite amazing that Prime Minister Harper has so suddenly abandoned his post-election reasonableness. He also seems to have forgotten the pledge he made just a few days ago that it would be “essential” to go into deficit in order to fund measures to deal with the economic crisis.
Instead, he’s reverted to his right-wing ideological stance and is using the economic crisis as an opportunity to hammer the opposition parties. It’s an old Tory strategy to use a wedge issue to attack members of a minority group (in this case politicians) who don’t have much public support. Mr. Harper tried it with the arts and culture community during the election, and it backfired, probably costing him his hoped-for majority. Now he’s done it again.
All this has brought on an interesting array of political and business opinion.
On the CBC’s At Issue panel last night, pollster Allan Gregg called it “the most reckless act of brinkmanship” he’s ever witnessed. There’s a 50-50 chance, Gregg added, that this government is finished.
Adam Radwanski, in his Globe and Mail blog took his own paper to task for a pre-election editorial that lauded Mr. Harper for his “capacity to grow.” Of Harper today, he had this to say: “It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis – one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings – and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage.”
In the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom asks: “Has Jim Flaherty met the new Stephen Harper? If the finance minister’s economic update is any indication, the answer is no.”
And on its editorial page today, the Star sums it up this way: “So much for the kinder, gentler Stephen Harper who appeared to emerge from the Oct. 14 federal election. “
There’s always the possibility the Harperites will back down on party funding. They’re removing this measure from the ways-and-means motion that will go to a vote in the House on Monday.
The Conservatives have to be shell-shocked at the Opoposition determination to defeat them.
But even if somehow the Tories slither through this crisis, I sense that they’ve set the stage for their own demise.
Emboldened by the knowledge that a Liberal-NDP coalition is a feasible option, how much longer will these parties prop up Harper?
My guess is not more than a few weeks, if that long. That will give the Liberals time to short-circuit their leadership contest and install Michael Ignatieff as the successor — through a caucus vote — to Stephane Dion.
We’re in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. and Mr. Harper sees it as an opportunity to destroy his political competitors. Not exactly the stuff of statesmanship, but a fitting low note on which this man’s deplorable Prime Ministership is coming to an end.
I have been trying to make sense out of the flurry of announcements about the fiscal aid that the U.S. government is giving Wall Street. The rescue package has now reached $7.5 trillion (half the country’s annual GDP) in the form of guarantees, loans and equityinvestments.
This is impressive and provides a stark contrast with the early days of the Depression when governments around the world threw up tariff walls and refused to invest a nickel in economic revival.
Today, the Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, issued a financial statement that seemed to harken back to the policies of the 1930s. It was more about cutting spending and holding the line than stimulating the economy. Public servants will be held to 1.5% increases in wages, and will lose the right to strike. The government is cutting spending b y $6 billion and is aiming at balanced budgets over the next five years. What kind of unreal world is this man living in?
Economists from Thorstein Veblen to John Maynard Keynes and John Galbraith have taught that governments must prime the pump in bad times in order to hasten the return of good times.
This worked as long as productive capability was limited. Now, we’ve got a new kind of problem. For many years, North America has had the technological capability to produce goods at a rate faster than purchasing power (via wages primarily) could be created to consume them.
To keep the factories humming, we’ve had to convince consumers to take on a mountain load of debt. The assumption of debt was morally indefensible to our grand-parents, and barely acceptable to our parents. The powers that control media and culture set out to change all this after World War II. First it was buying on time. When that wasn’t enough, credit cards were invented.
Credit used to be restricted to those with good jobs and decent incomes. Driven by economic necessity, and justified by the proposition that everyone is entitled to their share of the American dream, the largest single purchase most people make in their lives was put within reach of just about everybody in the United States. Mortgage providers got the green light to open the floodgates; it was all in a good cause, building the mountain of debt ever higher.
Since then, crooked dealings, avarice and plain stupidity on the part of both consumers and the leaders of the financial industry have put the global economy in a black hole.
Now, the focus is on the “credit crunch.” They’re going to solve that with printing press funny money. But it won’t really solve anything because people have reached the ultimate limit of their ability, or willingness, to assume debt.
Canada will suffer the same consequences as the U.S. – not because of a credit crunch here but because of a new debt averse attitude that is setting in. People just aren’t buying the big, expensive, debt-laden durable goods, be they houses, cars, computers, refrigerators or big screen TVs.
This scenario is likely to last at least for the next two years. Most consumers will focus on trying to reduce their debts, rather than increase them.
Much of this was predicted, but few paid any attention. John Talbott, a former investment banker and now a visiting academic at UCLA, wrote a book in 2003 predicting what we’re now going through. That work, The Coming Crash in the Housing Market, zeroed in on the profligate mortgage policies of agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
He has a new tome coming out next month that is sure to hit the best-seller lists.
Contagion (John Wiley & Sons) makes clear the role of debt in creating the fantasy economy that has replaced the real economy. He agues that the only economic growth of the past 10 years has come from government spending (via deficits in the case of the U.S.) and personal debt. He goes on to offer advice on how homeowners and investors can best weather the storm.
So the economic strategists can merrily spin their webs. Washington is running the printing presses overtime to put new money out there. Ottawa is doing the opposite, cutting spending and hoping to stay out of deficit. Neither strategy is likely to have much effect. It’s the Debt, stupid, and until the Debt goes away — or we wipe it out through inflation — don’t expect things to get much better.
There is a great debate about whether the Canadian and American governments should give emergency financial aid to the Big 3 automakers. Well-informed people are putting forth cogent arguments for and against.
Those who support giving aid to GM, Ford and Chrysler say the companies are too big to be allowed to fail. Three million jobs would be at stake. Bankruptcy by any one of them could turn the present escalating recession into an all-out depression.
Those who are opposed to the bail-outs point to Detroit’s long failure to embrace smaller cars and new technology, such as hybrid cars. They add this was the industry that fought legislation requiring better gas economy. They add that Big 3 management has proven incredibly inept in both good times and bad; a classic example of how the management class has failed both its workers and its customers.
There has been no shortage of broadsides levelled at Big 3 management. A man who’s studied GM for years, Fred Lazar of Toronto’s York University, says “GM management must go. They’re pretty dumb.”
Time Magazine has a delightful web site that offers merciless critiques of the automobile industry’s fifty worst cars of all times. The Big 3 are well represented. My choice entry is the 1958 Edsel, a mammonth of a car that was introduced amid a recession and at a time when consumers were rushing to buy the first U.S. compact car, the Rambler from American Motors.
The Edsel was a marketing disaster, costing Ford $350 million.
The Big 3 seem to be caught in an impossible situation. The only types of vehicles GM has been making money on are the much-reviled SUVs, plus trucks. But the $25 billion in profits they’ve earned on these models has been lost on others.
Ironically, the auto makers maneuvered the behemoths to market by twisting U.S. legislation that mandated improve fuel standards. Big 3 lobbyists managed to get Congress to exempt products like light trucks from the new rules. Presto, the SUVs like the four-tonne Ford Excursion were suddenly all but exempt from gas efficiency mandates. Light trucks, don’t you know?
When the top men of the Big 3 went to Washington last week, they had neither a plan to offer in return for the hand-outs they sought, nor had they given a thought to how their own behavior would sabotage their bids. As is famously known, they’d all flown to Washington on their corporate jets. Now they’re talking about car-pooling their return visit.
None of this might matter very much if governments give thought to what consumers are doing. One of the rules of prudent investment is not to throw good money after bad. I gave up on Detroit long ago. I’ve driven Audis for the past ten years, and have been delighted with these smart, comfortable and reliable vehicles.
Sadly, all good things come to an end. My six-year-old Audi has long since run past its warranty, and the repair bills have been mounting. So a month ago, I decided that rather than put more money into an aging car, it was time for a new vehicle. Thus, in November, I became one of a small, select and shrinking number of people. I went into a car dealership and shopped for a new car.
My choice was the Toyota Prius, the richly-appointed hybrid which delivers 71 miles to a Canadian gallon of gas (Imperial measure) and 48 miles to the smaller American gallon. The combination of electric battery and internal combustion engine makes the Prius a delight to drive, minimizes greenhouse gas emissions, and will save me a lot of money on gas.
So I’v e voted on the Big 3 bailout with my pocketbook. As an unwilling consumer of Detroit products, does this means I have to send them my taxes instead?
I’m at the 25th anniversary dinner of the Sir Winston Churchill Society. It’s a posh event, held at the swank Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. All is formal. I decided to show off a bit by wearing my Scottish outfit; no, not a kilt, but an Argyle jacket and nice green tartan trows (trousers).
While my family claims descent from Scottish lairds, we don’t have the paper to prove it. We’re not even a sept of the Campbell clan, but we do claim an affinity. I betrayed the connection with my choice of the Macdonald ancient hunting tartan for the trows. But they look nice, anyway.
There’s a line in the Scottish marching air, The Campbells are Coming:
The Campbells are comin, oho, oho
The Campbells are comin, oho, oho
The great Argyle he goes before
He makes his cannons and guns to roar
So what’s this got to do with the Church dinner? Not much really, so I’d better talk about the dinner.
The memory and legend of Sir Winston Churchill is so firmly embedded in 20th century world history that there’s almost nothing new that can be said about this man. Even our speaker, Celia Sandys, granddaughter of the great man, had little new to tell us.
The author of such books about her grandfather as The Young Churchill and Chasing Churchill she told us innumerable anecdotes but only one that I had not heard before: When Churchill visited a badly bombed English city soon after becoming Prime Minister, he received a rather chilly welcome. The crowd gathered to hear him began to chant, “Bomb Ber-lin, Bomb Ber-lin.” He looked out at the audience and responded; “Business before pleasure.”
Of course, Britain had to go through the business of getting its defence industries fully cranked up while obtaining the assistance of America and the British Dominions like Canada. Only then would it be able to take the offensive.
There’s a fair bit of revisionism these days about Churchill’s place in history. Many of those born since the Second World War (and that must include most of the population) don’t entirely accept the conventional wisdom that this was a “just war.” They point to the Allied air bombings of German cities, particularly Dresden, and the dropping of A-Bombs on Japan as evidence that our side was equally guilty of crimes against humanity.
As one who grew up to listening to war news of German blitzkeiegs, the Battle of Britain, and the Second Front, I share the traditional view that Britain and the West had no choice but to fight back to prevent world domination by an evil regime. It was the kind of fight in which nothing could be left to chance.
Winston Churchill properly warned a sleeping West against the threat of Hitler. How different the world is today!
Today, we fear a clash of civilizations between radical Islam and a secular West. But there is no evidence that the Islamists have the capability to genuinely threaten us. Terrorist attacks, even that as grave as September 11, are mere pinpricks against the technology and the material wealth of the West.
Where these attacks can and have hurt us is morally and psychologically. Since September 11, America and its allies have suffered more from misguided and wilfully ignorant policies pursued by the U.S. government, than anything Al Queda has managed to do.
A P.S. to the Churchill Society: Do you really have to serve a bigger meal than any one person can reasonably consume?Two chunks of beef tenderloin? How about getting the hotel to downsize the meal and send along the $10 difference to the Food Bank?
A couple of things are clear from the Conservative government’s Throne Speech delivered this afternoon at the opening of Parliament:
- The government is largely in a quandary on what to do to insulate Canada from the global economic meltdown
- There’s going to be a big effort to cut Ottawa’s spending — which will help to keep the deficit to a minimum, but won’t contribute to economic stability
- There’s going to be a federal deficit in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, for the first time since Parl Martin finished slaying the deficit dragon of Brian Mulroney.
Short on details, and short even on principles, the Throne Speech has one clearly regressive step — a ban on bulk exports of fresh water.
Canada has more fresh water than we’ll ever be able to use. It’s simply stupid not to consider ways in which we can prudently turn this resource into revenue for Canadians. Especially at a time when we’re experiencing declining revenues from other resources, especially oil and forestry. Revenue from water sales would help to offset these reductions, as well as help ease losses from the decline in manufacturing exports.
But the big question is: How much is Ottawa going to do to help steer the economy through the global recession? And how far dare the Harper Conservatives go into deficit?
The Liberals are hammering the Harperites for having bumped up spending by 12 per cent in the last two years while cutting the government’s revenue base through such actions as peeling back the GST. That’s meant a reduction of $11 billion a year in Ottawa’s revenues — money that would go a long way toward pumping up the economy.
So how about going back to a 7 per cent GST?
It would add almost nothing to the cost of living for the average Canadian. Prices are stable and not likely to rise in the current deflationary environment. The money we’re saving at the gas pump would easily offset the restoration of the two points on the GST.
The GST did a lot of harm when it first came in. Canada was being hammered by free trade and a lot of Canadian branch plants were closing down as a result. We’re not in that situation now.
So let’s have a referendum on the GST. Here’s how we could word the question:
DO YOU AGREE, YES OR NO, WITH RESTORING THE GST TO 7 PER CENT, USING THE REVENUE TO FUND BALANCED INCOME TAX REDUCTIONS, PROVIDE FUNDING FOR ECONOMIC STABILITY, AND MINIMIZE ANY NECESSARY FEDERAL DEFICIT?
The government could require a 60 per cent Yes vote for passage. It would be a “clear” question requiring a “clear” majority (no hanky panky like the Separatists play in their referendums). The government would not take a position for or against. The opposition parties would have a hard time opposing it, as they opposed the reductions in the first place.
It would allow Mr. Harper direct the money to where it’s most needed in the economy, and stay out of any major deficit.
When Mr. Harper was a Reformer, referendums were a key part of his party’s policy. So it shouldn’t be hard for him to sell the idea to his Conservative caucus.
An impracticall idea, you say? I call it a win-win proposition.
This is a fine event for anyone with an appreciation of Pierre Berton’s iconic role as Canada’s great popular historian. More than that, it’s an opportunity to signal the importance of keeoing alive an appreciation for Canada’s past and the people who have contributed to making our country what it is today.
Last night’s dinner did just this, with the presentation of the Pierre Berton Award for contributions to the popularizing of Canadian history. It’s a prestigious award presented by the National History Society, publishers of The Beaver magazine (for which I’ve written a few articles).
This year’s prize went to the organizers of an online project for students, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. It has web sites posing clues and questions about mysteries of the Canadian past, challenging students to figure out who or what was involved.
Elsa Franklin, longtime manager for Pierre Berton, organizes these dinners under the aegis of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The Bright Pearl was one of Pierre’s favorite restaurants and there were lots of literary celebrities among the 250 guests. I suspect the evening may have set a fund-raising record for the Berton Writers’ Retreat. The Retreat is Berton’s boyhood home, which he donated to a public trust.
For me, the highlight of the evening is the video of Pierre reciting the great Robert Service poem, the Shooting of Dan McGrew.
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
But there was more last night. A.B. McKillop, chair of the Department of History at Carleton University, was there to autograph copies of his new Berton biography.
McKillop’s book is the first definitive take on the life of the man who was a dominant figure in Canadian media and writing for half a century. I knew Pierre only casually, but I think I’ve read every one of his books and I’m looking forward to seeing how McKillop treats Berton in this one.
Last night was also a fun evening. We were treated to performances by two of the brightest stars of the Canadian entertainment firmament of the 70s and 80s, Dinah Christie and Catherine McKinnon. Ron James gave one of the funniest (and longest) comedic monologues I’ve ever heard. He was incredibly amusing.
And we left with a Krups Espresso machine and a 750ml bottle of Remy Martin Champagne Cognac. A good evening!
A nasty tiff’s been going on in Toronto over sidwalks — or more specifically, the widening of sidewalks and the reduction of traffic lanes on the city’s toniest shopping boulevard, Bloor Street.
I took a stroll on Bloor from Avenue Road to Church Street the other morning, and I have to report it’s a bit of a mess. In fact, I hardly recognized the street from six months ago. A gaping space at the southeast corner of Bloor and Yonge awaits the rise of Toronto’s newest office/condo tower. Along most of this stretch of high-priced fashion shops, pavement is being dug out for installation of underground rewiring while the sidewalks are being relaid at twice at their previous width.
The $20 million project is financed in part by members of the Bloor Yorkville Business Improvement Area. The work went swimmingly until one influential retailer raised objections. William Ashley, the upscale chinaware dealer, applied for an injunction to stop the sidewalk-widening project.
Ironically, the sidewalk in front of that store is already twice as wide as it is in front of its neighbors. The bid was thrown out of court a couple of weeks ago. The judge criticized William Ashley for its “unduly delayed” challenge to the project.
This business of people vs cars has a considerable history in Canada. Back in the 1970s, Premier Bill Davis made a name for himself by stopping the Spadina Expressway which would have carved its way through choice downtown neighborhoods on its route to Lake Ontario.
But as the Bloor Street tiff illustrates, the battle is never finished.
A new book by my friend Mary Soderstrom, The Walkable City, brings this issue into focus. In a wide-ranging survey, she discusses how cities like Paris, New York, Toronto, Singapore, and even Lushoto, Tanzania, have grappled with the phenomenon of urban crowding and the competition between people and cars for possession of the streets.
Ms. Soderstrom, the Montreal author of such fine works as Green City: People, Nature & Urban Places, makes it clear which side she’s on: She wants the 21st century to preserve streetscapes that people can walk in, that they can use to reach nearby neighborhood shops and other services, and that will serve as the focus of a safe and vibrant community life.
She uses a charming technique to set up her case: a series of mythical conversations between Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the architect of Napoleon’s Paris, and Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist who fled New York to live out her life in Toronto, all the while creating such landmark volumes as her 1961 masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
We “meet” Haussmann and Jacobs standing near the edge of the Grand Cours du Louvre, looking toward the Jardin des Tuileries. Mary Soderstrom admits “the two make a rather odd couple.” She then takes us off on a tour of Paris, having first explained how homo sapiens got up on her hind legs in the high grass of East Africa, to demonstrate that the human race indeed has “feet made for walking.”
Just how wrong we have gone is shown by the fate of the suburbs of Paris. Mary points that out suburbs “do not mean the same thing in France, or in much of the rest of Europe, that they do in North America.” In Europe, the poor and the immigrants have been pushed into the suburbs, the opposite of the traditional pattern in the U.S. and Canada.
That now seems to be changing, at least in Toronto, where the poorest parts of the city are no longer the inner core, but the largely-immigrant outer suburbs in places like Scarborough and the infamous Jane-Finch corridor of northwest Toronto.
In contrast, a city like North Vancouver, clinging scenically to the slopes of Grouse Mountain, “is not a suburb where you are completely dependent on your car; it offers the choices that go with interesting urban life.” These choices include businesses, single family homes and apartment buildings, all intermingled within walking distance.
The developers of Toronto’s Don Mills tried to achieve this and largely succeeded, although the distance one has to walk to shop is greater than the ideal. I lived there when I first moved to Toronto.
More comfortably, downtown Toronto neighborhoods like Cabbagetown offer a pleasant mix of medium and high-cost housing. The infamous Regent Park which repeated all the urban planning mistakes of postwar U.S. public housing, is now being demolished. It is being replaced with a mix of social and market priced apartments.
Singapore, Mary reports, has managed to rehouse its people in high rises set amid parks. Public transit is readily available, so that no one lives more than a walkable distance from a subway or a bus station.
I wish she had visited Shanghai and reported on the vast changes now taking place there. I visited Shanghai not long after the Cultural Revolution, when places like the old Peace Hotel offered the same jazz musicians (by then in old age) playing their favorites from the 20s and 30s. I wonder what her verdict would be on the immense building splurge that’s overtaken one of the world’s largest and most modernized urban zones.
A Walkable City is a leisurely but thought-provoking tour of a range of cities that have taken different paths to accommodate our need to move about in the great urban conglomorates that we’re building for the future. Every urban planner, politician and architect should read it.
It’s November 11th, 2008, and as I write this the 11th hour of the 11th month is only moments away. I’ve been watching CBC-TV’s early coverage of the many Canadian-related commemorations taking place on this 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. On CNN, they’re showing greetings from troops serving in Iraq and discussing a film about women soldiers in support roles there.
My friend Michael Callaghan has sent me this about an item in today’s New York Times:
“To save Loe Sam, the army has destroyed it.The shops and homes of the 7,000 people who lived here are a heap of gray rubble, blown to bits by the army. Scraps of bedding and broken electric fans lie strewn in the dirt.” These words, written without any irony, open Jane Perlez’ front-page New York Times account today (Remembrance Day) of a battle in North Pakistan. Haunting words, they mirror exactly the language used during the Vitenam war to describe South Vietnamese villages that had
been relocated to “strategic hamlets,” which then became “free-fire zones,” which meant that anything, or everything, that moved—human or animal–could be fired upon. As the song says, “will they never learn?” In the name of so-called freedom, is there no shame?
I understand Michael’s disgust at the tactics armies adopt when they find themselves in situations no one can understand and where the only apparent solution is force.
There’s special irony in another news report I heard today in which it was made clear that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan — only a political one.
But today we remember the soldiers who served in the two world wars. Neither of these wars should have occurred. The first resulted from diplomatic stupidity and arrant nonsense spouted by the generals. It sowed the seeds for the second one. That war could have been averted, had the leaders of Britain, France and the Soviet Union been able to work together to stop Hitler.
Canadians are especially mindful of the two battles in which our troops played such a great role in the First World War — Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge.
My father served at Vimy Ridge. He was wounded there, invalided back to England, and so missed the even more deadly confrontation at Passchendaele. Here’s a bit from a letter he wrote me about that freezing, foggy morning when we took the Ridge:
“At zero hour it seemed as if the heavens opened with one huge crash. It became light as day and after, only one thought, press on, get going. I do not remember how long we were getting to the top of the Ridge but it did not seem very long. By this time it was broad day and you could see across the plain to the towns and villages on the other side.
“The Germans thought the Ridge could not be taken, the dugouts and shelters were impregnable to shell fire, but what are you going to do when someone sneaks up to your back door and lobs a stokes mortar down your stairway? Lots of Germans were buried alive this way because after a Stokes mortar exploded in a dugout it caved the whole thing in.”
Today, we wonder what our involvement in Afghanistan can lead to, and whether Barack Obama will be able to lead the Americans out of Iraq. A book that Amazon is promoting as one of the ten best of the year is The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (Knopf).
I haven’t read the book so I can only pass on this quote from Publisher’s Weekly:
“His (Filkin’s) richly textured book is based on his work in Afghanistan and Iraq since 1998. It begins with a Taliban-staged execution in Kabul. It ends with Filkins musing on the names in a WWI British cemetery in Baghdad. In between, the work is a vivid kaleidoscope of vignettes. Individually, the strength of each story is its immediacy; together they portray a theater of the absurd, in which Filkins, an extraordinarily brave man, moves as both participant and observer.”
Chapter One of the book is here.
Have they all died in vain?