Bombs Away

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The latest controversy – of sorts – to surround the new Canadian government is the decision to bring home our 6 F-18s from the mission to combat Daesh in the Middle East. Canada will no longer drop bombs though they will provide refueling and targeting support. Instead of dropping bombs, Canada will triple the number of trainers working with front-line troops and expand humanitarian aid.

Some members of the media say they don’t understand the rationale behind this decision. The Conservative party calls it shameful, perhaps because they still can’t quite accept the reality of their recent defeat and the repudiation of most of their policies. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, which is the undisputed leader of this mission, welcomes the new Canadian approach. They even referred to it as ‘forward looking.’

The reason for ending the bombing mission is simple: it was what the new government said it would do in the election campaign. While Canadians didn’t specifically vote for that policy (or for any particular policy), they did vote for the whole package. If Trudeau had reversed himself, how long would it take the media to criticize him for a promise broken? The NDP certainly would have howled and even the Conservatives, who have recently shown themselves as masters of the hypocritical reversal, would have complained.

Canadians – according to the polls – support the fight against Daesh but they will likely support a boots on the ground mission as much as they support the current bombing one.

But there is more to the change in plans than that. Bombing is a fine holding tactic. It limits the growth and expansion of Daesh but does little to eliminate it. When errors are made, such as when hospitals, wedding parties and busy markets are ‘accidentally’ shelled, it serves as a fine recruitment video for the terrorists.

You may recall that the Nazis determined to bomb the fighting spirit out of the English during the Blitz. How did that work out for them? In the 60s, American generals promised to bomb the Viet Cong back to the Stone Age; a few years later they were fleeing Saigon. Even the ‘shock and awe’ campaign of the Iraq war was followed by 10 bloody years on the ground to accomplish what? A lot of dead Iraquis and Americans and the expenditure of trillions of dollars. Oh, yeah and the rise of Daesh.

Conservatives like bombing missions, especially against an enemy without an effective air defense. No body bags coming home to remind the public of the real cost of war. You may also remember how hard the Harper government tried to hide that sight from public eyes until they were forced to reverse course. No wounded or traumatized soldier either – except it turns out that the men and women who push the buttons do suffer trauma when the results are factored. Unlike some of their political bosses, they are capable of empathy and are troubled by their actions.

In the end it comes down to resources (we’ll spend even more on training and humanitarian aid than on bombing) and their effective use. If bombing isn’t going to stop Daesh, we need to find something that will. Maybe regional coalitions and a more humane face for the west is that something.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Stopping Terrorism

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A number of people have responded to the Paris attacks but calling for more bombs to be dropped in the Middle East. In Canada, Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the Conservative Party, said she would support the government if they decided to reverse their position and keep Canadian jets the coalition attacks. What a surprise – she would support the failed policies of the previous government of which she was a member. Others say we must hold the course.

Dropping more bombs on the cities, villages and deserts of Iraq and Syria will accomplish the same thing as they have for the last two years. They will absolutely prevent terrorists from launching attacks in Beirut and Paris – or maybe not, it seems.

Daesh, which I’m told is a more accurate description of the fanatics who mistakenly identify themselves as Muslims, is an amorphous enemy – organized in classical guerrilla fashion in order to escape detection and defeat – but are not a particular dangerous one. They have launched two attacks on Paris in the last year it is true, terrible, painful attacks – but think of that. Only two – ten months apart. Does that seem like a force that is likely to end western civilization? Well, it will if we resort to the same extreme and authoritarian methods that they embrace.

The real terror occurs not outside of the zone controlled by Daesh but within it where hundreds are killed weekly while thousands more are tortured, raped and enslaved. These fanatics would like to bring on the end of the world perhaps – they seem to think it is coming – but mostly they want to die. Soldiers who mostly want to die are not likely to become your lifelong enemy.

How then can we stop this barbarism? The first thing we need to do is cut off their lifeblood – that which feeds them and arms them – and that is not religion but money and politics. These terrorists are being supported by those who buy their oil, those who buy their stolen ancient artifacts, those who sell them weapons. They are being supported by rich conservative families in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – putative Western allies – while their governments look aside.

They are also feeding on chaos. The civil war in Syria, more than anything else has been responsible for the massive expansion and encouragement of Daesh. This is a war – like many wars in the Middle East and Africa and before that South America – fought as proxy struggles of other, greater, powers. It seems that, finally, most of these powers are realizing that the continuation of this situation is on no one’s interest. A united Syria – at least united against a common foe – will go a long way to cutting the feet from under the so-called caliphate.

Getting the Turks and the Kurds to stop fighting wouldn’t hurt either. But nothing will really change – until and unless those who supply the money and material are stopped. And that’s something we could do.

And that’s ten minutes.

Walls

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Walls have long been a simple solution to complex problems. You know, good fences make good neighbours and all that. Spend a few days in civil court and you might find that’s not exactly true.

Still, whenever people have had a problem they have resorted to walls as a solution – either to keep people out or to keep people in. The Chinese built the Great Wall – which is not the only human construction that can be seen from space – to keep out the Mongol hordes. It was moderately successful. Of course it was built over many centuries so until it was done, the hordes could always go around.

Hadrian built a wall that is still standing near the ancient border between England and Scotland. He was worried about the Picts. And why not? Anybody who would paint themselves blue and fight naked in the Scottish climate would be someone to be worried about.

The Russians built a wall – though not in Russia. The built it along the borders between Eastern and Western Europe and most notably in Berlin. The purpose was not to keep people out but to keep them in. Many of those lucky enough to live under the Soviet heel often took to their own heels and headed west. The Israelis have built a wall to keep Palestinians out but not, unfortunately, to keep Settlers in.

The Americans have built walls along the Mexican border – a bit like shutting the barn door after 11 million horses have left but better late than… well, maybe a more rational immigration policy would serve them better than a very porous wall. Now Scott Walker, governor of one of those piddly-ass states somewhere in Middle America (I can never keep those insignificant ones straight) wants to build a wall along the Canadian border even though the cost estimates suggest it would bankrupt America once and for all. I for one am fully supportive – after Florida sinks under the waves and California finally burns down completely, we’ll need a wall to keep all those climate refugees from heading north to steal our water, jobs and women.

Now, for the first time in several decades, people in Europe are building walls again, threatening the central principals upon which the European Union is built – open borders and the free flow of people and goods across them. Hungary – led by a conservative government – is taking the lead here but they are not alone. England is fortifying the Chunnel to keep people from crossing from Calais and soon, I suspect, other countries will follow suit.

This is all in reaction to the crisis in Syria, Iraq and increasingly other parts of the Middle East – a crisis that is largely of the West’s making. Right now it seems impossible to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem let alone on possible solutions.

Still, I’m sure that a mixture of humanitarian compassion, rational negotiation and finding common cause against barbarians will serve us better in the long run than more walls, either physical or bureaucratic. It won’t be solved by America or Germany or Canada or Russia or China or Saudi Arabia acting alone but maybe together… That’s a wall worth scaling.

And that’s ten minutes.

Beheading

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The Queen of Hearts had a pretty simple solution to whatever was troubling her. “Off with her head!” would reverberate across Wonderland and the ax-men would stagger forward to do their duty. Fortunately the Queen was easily distracted and her terrible sentences were seldom if ever carried out. The determined beheaders of the Middle East are not so easily swayed.

They routinely drag out their prisoners to a public square and behead them while broadcasting the death on video. The numbers are on the rise with more executions planned every month.

I’m not talking about our terrorist enemy, ISIL. I’m talking about our terrorist friends, Saudi Arabia. They recently advertised for eight new executioners to keep up with the demand of the Royal Family and the state that springs, quite literally, from their loins. They don’t simply behead murderers or those convicted of treason. The list of victims is long and includes crimes — like apostasy — that have long been removed from criminal codes in western countries. The executioners also cut off the hands of thieves.

The Saudis are, of course, our closest allies in the Middle East — after Israel of course — as can be readily seen by the recent massive sale of arms by Canada to their government. Of course, our support pales beside that of the US government who have long been hand in hand — again quite literally — with the Saudi regime.

The reasons are quite clear. The Saudis have oil and, more importantly, represent one of the most stable countries in the region; they are the bulwark of pan-Arab movements, such that they exist and provide air bases for all sorts of American incursions into less friendly countries. This is the old ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ idea and there is no doubt that the Saudis qualify as friends on that basis as they dislike both the secular government of Syria and the religious fanatics of ISIL. (Their complex relationship with Israel is another matter) However, the Saudis have their own radicals in their midst. Osama Bin Laden and many other Al Qaeda leaders were of Saudi origin, the disaffected younger sons of third or fourth wives — provided with money and a kind of education but no reason to embrace the west or even the ruling Royal family.

We all know where that goes. But the Saudis are compliant and don’t create problems for the Western alliance — or at least so we are told. Recently they have even begun to use their substantial military to fight against… people in Yemen who may or may not be radicals but who do oppose Saudi interference in their affairs. Meanwhile, they seem to be half-hearted in opposing more immediate threats, counting on America and its allies to provide air support to seriously out-gunned and out-trained Iraqi and Kurdish militias.

The conflicts in the Middle East are largely due to the aftermath of 19th century colonialism and western interventions in the aftermath of World War I. The solutions don’t lie in western hands — but can the Saudis really be relied on to be the architects of a lasting solution?

After all, they can’t cut everyone’s head off.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Apocalypse

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Apparently, one of the first things ISIL does when it takes over a town is set up government services: education (of a sort), medical clinics (specializing in burn treatments I would imagine), welfare systems. This is all part of their efforts to establish a new caliphate – a government based on their own odd religious beliefs. All well and good, I suppose, civic duty and all that.

But one of the core beliefs they espouse is the coming Apocalypse which they intend to play a major role in. But you have to wonder how committed a bureaucrat will be to his work if he is contemplating the ‘end of days.’ I mean really, what is the point of setting up an efficient clinic if you are just biding your time until, well, time ends?

Of course, it’s easy enough to dismiss a bunch of vandals who commit atrocities as serious candidates for an “Award for Good Government,” but you have to wonder about any politician who ascribes to the idea that the second coming (of whomever) is imminent and that all focus should be on the upcoming winnowing of souls. I certainly would have a hard time voting for a guy who argued that I shouldn’t worry about deficits because God will sort it all out and, in any case, I’m not likely to live long enough to see my grandchildren burdened by my profligate spending.

In the United States where politicians wear their religion on their sleeve, it is fairly easy to identify these ‘end of days’ folks — though strangely, people still vote for them despite their obvious desire to not really do their jobs in advance of the destruction of the world. It is even more troubling when people vote for those who see their role as somehow advancing the end times by, say, promoting nuclear war in the middle east.

In Canada, we are a little more coy about our religious beliefs. It’s the Canadian way, a combination of politeness, shyness, and a desire to really not know what goes on in politician’s private lives (I mean, who would want to know what some of them do in the privacy of their bedrooms let alone churches). After all, we had a Prime Minister who attended séances and consulted his dead mother (and dog) on public policy. He worked out fine.

Still, I am a little concerned when I hear that some of our leaders think that the Apocalypse is right around the corner. It’s not that I care what superstitions people hold near and dear — I’m a pretty tolerant fellow — but I have to wonder about the continuing work ethic of those, like our current glorious leader, who belong to churches that preach odd views, including the end times. I know he’s a workaholic and all that — but is he working for the best interests of the future? Is he working for the good of my grandchildren?

Inquiring minds want to know.

But that’s ten minutes.

Burning Books

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This week, many in the Western world were outraged at the news that ISIL militants had burned thousands of rare books at a Mosul library. They then went on to further destructive rampages when they took sledge hammers to ancient statues. It was — and should have been — labeled as barbaric.

Barbarians are at the gates and have been for a very long time.

Perhaps it started with the burning of the library at Alexandria, wiping out much of the ancient world’s stock of literature. Maybe it began even before then.

Those who wish to impose their authority on the world have always understood that their first task is to make the world a simpler less nuanced place. Persuade the populace that there is only one way to look at things and it becomes easier to control their thinking and command their obedience.

That’s why books and art have always been so dangerous to dictators. It is why the medieval church obliterated, suppressed, modified so many ancient texts — and not a few contemporary ones. A significant number of those who were burnt at the stake were killed for what they wrote rather than what they did. It is also significant that the advent of the printing press was a critical factor in the breakdown of papal authority. The Papa replaced by the paper.

Hitler, of course, burned books and, we sometimes forget, it wasn’t only Jewish books he targeted. He destroyed whole libraries simply because they presented an alternative interpretation of the way the world worked. Art was also a target — though only some of that was destroyed — the rest was hidden away in secret vaults to be used to finance the Reich in later years. Fortunate, too, that Hitler was deluded into believing his own propaganda about the thousand year length of his party’s rule — we at least got some of the art back.

Not to be outdone, the first shots fired in the town of Sarajevo during the Serb invasion were at the historic friendship bridge and at the library whose books documented centuries of peaceful cohabitation and cooperation of the various religious communities of the town.

What ISIL has destroyed is irreplaceable. They are barbarians. But it is a matter of degree. We have our own share of barbarians —politicians who want to ban books from schools and libraries, even want to make the distribution and reading of some books a criminal offence. It won’t happen — unless they first manage to destroy all copies of the American constitution — but it is frightening to me that they and so many of their supporters want to try.

Freedom is a delicate flower in some respects — but one that will continue to spring up in so many places, often from the charred pages of a book or from the shattered fragments of a piece of art.

The fascists will always try to re-write history. Which makes it so important for us to remember it.

And that’s ten minutes.

War

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So, apparently, we are going to war. Not in a World War I kind of way, with thousands of soldiers slogging through the mud — or in this case sand — of a foreign land, a nitty-gritty no-holds-barred way. We are going to war the way countries in the west do these days — from a distance, using bombs and missiles that will have dubious effect. Meanwhile boots on the ground will be managed by local folks, some of whom are committed to the cause, some of whom are terrified of the outcome of not fighting, most of whom are ill-equipped and ill trained and poorly led.

Meanwhile, our enemy is — what? This is one of the problems. Nobody seems certain what ISIS is, where they come from. One reputable headline read that the USA was taken by surprise by its emergence.

That seems to be the best summation of all our recent involvement with the rebels/terrorists/soldiers for God who have roamed about the Middle East for the last twenty years (as if it only started then). They took us by surprise.

I don’t pretend to have any answers to this mess which has been two centuries in the making. But I do have a lot of questions that I hope our political leaders will try to answer before we become engaged in yet another 10-year foreign adventure that will leave 100s of Canadians dead, thousands injured physically and emotionally and little change on the ground. Or maybe huge change but change which is remarkably fragile and in constant risk of reversal.

Do we know why ISIS has arisen beyond some vague statements that ‘they are evil?’ Do we have a sense of the ‘root causes’ of the violence? Is it poverty, oppression, cultural underpinnings, is it something that lies at the heart of certain types of religion (and these behaviors are not in fact confined to fundamentalist Muslims but seem symptomatic to all fundamentalists)?

Can any of these questions even be answered by western politicians who still seem locked in the view – you’re either with us or against us?

Personally I’m glad there is division in the Canadian parliament. This rush to unity seen in England and Europe is troubling. It is too reminiscent of the rush to unity in World War I where parties of the left immediately abandoned their pacifist principles for the love of the mother country, swept away in a tide of jingoism to hate the cartoon-like enemy.

That way lies horror. War will not solve the problems of the Middle East but politics — real divisive but rational, complex politics — might

But that’s ten minutes.