Nukes!

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In my novel, Defining Diana, I refer to a brief war that left the Korean peninsula a radioactive ruin. While science fiction writers are sometimes believed to be prescient (though their success is vastly overrated), this is one area where I hope my inadvertent prediction proves wrong.

I suspect it likely will.

Clearly North Korea intends to become (has already become) a nuclear power, capable of raining death down on all its perceived enemies, the real question is: what can be done about it?

Not much it seems. Officially there are seven members of the nuclear club – USA, Russia, China, England, France, India and Pakistan – with North Korea getting ready to join. Most strategic experts are certain that Israel also has the bomb, and South Africa used to have six—but got rid of them (some good news at least) though presumably they still have the technology. Five NATO countries have nukes on their soil and while former soviet republics gave up their bombs and signed on to monitoring, not every warhead is accounted for. And let’s not forget Iran. And South Korea may be rethinking their own no-nukes policy. So much for non-proliferation efforts of the last fifty years.

The good news is that while lots of people have the bomb and the means to deliver it to targets far and wide (almost as difficult a feat as building the bomb itself), no one actually has, since the Americans dropped two of them on Japan in 1945.

That’s really quite remarkable. Since India and Pakistan both developed the weapons, they’ve actually been to war a couple of times. If Israel has nukes (they tend to be cagey about it), they must have at least been tempted to use them once or twice during their interminable conflicts with the Arab world. Yet both showed restraint.

China and India are currently engaged in an increasingly tense border dispute yet no one seriously thinks Delhi and Beijing are going to go up in flames.

Historically we’ve often been closer to nuclear war than we are right now – during the Cuban missile crisis and at the height of the Star Wars threats of Reagan and the response of the USSR to those threats. But missiles never flew.

Why does North Korea worry us so much? Well, they are highly militarized and are led by a narcissistic leader who believes in making his nation great. That should worry everyone.

But this has actually been true in North Korea for some time. Their military is huge and well-armed, thanks to the ability of the world’s arms industry to largely avoid sanctions by the UN. China hasn’t helped, using N Korea as a useful tool to make themselves look reasonable while they practice economic and, to a lesser extent, military imperialism. Many think China will eventually clamp down on Kim Jong Un if he gets out of hand.

But it may not be so easy. In the sixties, the great powers kept a firm hand on the military and nationalistic ambitions of their client states. But with the proliferation of conventional weapons – which kill as many every year as the nukes did in Japan—client states are no longer so compliant.

Still, everyone knows, even madmen (and it is not clear that N Korea’s leaders are any madder or more power hungry than those leading a dozen other national governments), that there is no profit—however you define that—in a dead world. I guess as long as we never have a world leader who thinks they have a role in bringing about the prophesied end of the world we should be okay.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Arms Dealers

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2016 certainly started with a bang, with North Korea claiming to have detonated a hydrogen bomb – for purely defensive purposes, of course. Whether they actually did is a matter of some dispute but there can be no doubt that the belligerent and somewhat bizarre little state is making significant progress in its quest to be a nuclear power. One might wonder where an impoverished country like that could get the resources for an arms program (they probably got the technology from Pakistan) but poverty has never stopped countries from arming up.

And there are plenty of countries willing to supply the tools and even the finished products – at least for more conventional weapons. The number one arms dealer in the world – with a bullet – is the United States. They supply roughly 31% of known arms exports (the black market is probably small and mainly in small arms). Russia is not far behind with 27%. The next four – China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – are relative pikers, shipping only about 19% of weapons between them. Do you notice how the five permanent members of the Security Council are doing their bit to increase world security? Yeah, right.

Of course, they each have their own favoured customers, preferring not to sell arms to countries that might eventually use the weapons against them (but with secondary sales who can say? ISIS mostly uses American guns). However, they have no difficulty in supplying arms to both sides of potential future conflicts. Russia is the main drug, I mean, arms dealer to both India (the largest importer) and China – two countries that have never been on the best of terms and will, in future, fight over influence in the same backyard.

Canada is a bit player in this drama, ranking 13th in the arms trade. We supply less than 1% of total arms sales, though that’s not bad for such a small country. We specialize in small arms and provide nearly 13% of the weapons imported by, guess who? Our number one trading partner – the United States.

And of course, we also have a $15 billion contract to supply armoured cars to Saudi Arabia. Some think we should never have signed such a deal and I agree. We really shouldn’t be fuelling the conflicts in other places by ensuring they have the weapons to wage serious war. Unserious war is bad enough.

That doesn’t mean I think the new government should cancel the deal. I’ve never been a big fan of governments canceling contracts made by previous administrations, unless they can demonstrate a serious reason for doing so – like corrupt practices or violation of international treaties. While governments come and go, The Government has a continuous existence that exceeds political parties. Countries that cancel contracts whenever the government changes soon find their customers go away or, at the very least, incorporate punitive penalties into the deals. Think of it this way: suppose the current government signed a deal with the provinces on health care – should the next government cancel it for no other reason than their political enemies made it.

Going forward, however, we need to think more carefully about the whole business of arms sales and what role a so-called peace-loving country should play in that. We could ask Sweden I suppose – except they rank number 11 in shipping weapons.

And that’s ten minutes.

Coming Home

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Over the course of sixty years I’ve lived in 8 towns or cities covering four provinces and two territories. I’ve visited, sometimes for extended periods, every other province and territory in Canada, about 15 American states and parts of 9 other countries. I’ve been around – not as much as some but enough to know what it’s like to try to figure your way around someplace new. Enough to know what it’s like to finally come home.

My trips have always been my choice – moving for school or work or because I wanted to live someplace new, visit someplace different. I’ve relished the difference, the smells and flavours of new places, the sound of new languages, the different landscapes and the line of buildings that mark one culture from another. There have been surprises and occasional shocks. I’ve witnessed almost everything the human race has to offer – joy, generosity, fear, violence, happiness, grief, riches and poverty. More than anything I’ve witnessed the desire we all seem to share for normalcy, peace and a better life for ourselves and our children.

Not that I have children but I understand the concept.

I’ve lived a fortunate life to see all that and still be walking around, mostly whole and unharmed. I’ve had my moments when I feared my luck would end – but so far, so good.

Not everyone has been so lucky. People who have faced natural disaster, economic and social collapse, war and the grinding life of poverty have seldom seen much more than the doom that hovers over them, that threatens to end their lives and their children’s’ future in a flash. They do not move by choice, do not visit to experience something new; they do not even migrate with the expectation of a better life. They run, they hide and then they run some more.

When they arrive at our doorstep we can choose to react in one of two ways – with fear or with generosity. In the drudgery of our own hard – but incredibly privileged – lives we may forget what it is like to lose everything – home, community, friends, family, children – may have forgotten how desperate we might be to cling to a dying parent or a job we loved. Our losses pale in comparison, but it is in our loss of memory that we risk losing the most important thing we have – our humanity.

These days, it makes me so proud to be a Canadian, to watch my Prime Minister personally greet refuges from Syria, to watch my fellow citizens open their arms and their pocketbooks to help people who can no longer help themselves. I know that we will be better because of what we are doing right now. This is a lesson we have learned in the past but it is a lesson others seem to have forgotten.

Fear is a terrible thing. The people fleeing war and terror know it full well. They have looked fear in its face and understood what it promises them. But they persevere. Who are we – so comfortable in our perceived First World insecurity — to do less? What does it really cost to say: Welcome Home?

But that’s ten minutes.

 

 

Silence

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Today there will only be eight minutes of words followed by two minutes of silence. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that is what we do. We stand silently for two minutes to remember those who must remain silent forever.

The dead cannot speak and, apparently, we shouldn’t speak for them.

One hundred years ago, World War I was entering its second winter. No-one had thought it could last so long. That Christmas, informal and undeclared ceasefires sprung up all along the line. In some places, soldiers exchanged songs and small gifts between the trenches. There were stories of impromptu soccer matches being played in No Man’s Land.

In subsequent years such displays of solidarity were explicitly forbidden by the high commands on both sides of the war. They could hardly let soldiers discover they had more in common than the barb wire that separated them. Their voices were silenced by the roar of cannons and the hiss of gas.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, slogans began to appear in urban centres all over North America.

Silence = Death.

To remain silent about a growing plague was to court death. But it wasn’t the silence of the victims they were criticizing but that of the establishment, ever slow to recognize deaths that they thought didn’t affect them.

We know that this slogan reveals a larger truth. Silence about domestic abuse, about bullying, about corporate malfeasance when it comes to safety or the environment, silence about any number of things always results in death.

Yet, when it comes to remembering, silence seems to be as much as we can accomplish. There are those who refuse to remain silent, who refuse to wear a red poppy or even choose to wear a white one, signifying that they have something more to say about war, its causes and what we should really do to remember and honour our fallen soldiers.

All too often they are shouted down.

But maybe what we need to do is not remain silent but shout at the top of our lungs: Never Again.

But that’s eight minutes.