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August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan


Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
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However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

February 23, 2011

Egypt, Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago, when I first published the story appearing below, I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush's buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn't that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

October 26, 2009

Book Review: In His Majesty's Service By Naomi Novik (Omnibus Edition: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, And Black Powder War)

When I was young I was fascinated with European history, especially the Napoleonic wars that changed the shape of Europe from 1798 to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Aside from the fact that he conquered most of Europe he was also responsible for the rise of nationalism among countries that had been former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of those countries he occupied actually looked to him as an example until his troops showed up on their doorstep. However that was knowledge I only came by later when studying the era in school. As a kid I garnered my history lessons from the books of two British authors, Ronald Welsh and C. S Forester. Welsh's books followed the fortunes of the Carey family in war from the Crusades to WWI, while Forester's books traced the career of British naval officer Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral.

It's been a long time since I read any books of that type, and to be honest, I didn't really think there was anyway an author could come up with an original enough way of presenting the same history over again to make it interesting enough to read. Well, I have to tell you that when I'm wrong I'm wrong. As I'm sure many of you have already discovered American author Naomi Novik not only created the means to do just that, but has done so in a manner which recreates everything that made those original books so wonderful to read at the same time. If you're like me and had never read any of her Temeraire series, Random House Inc is releasing the perfect answer on October 27th/09, In His Majesty's Service, an omnibus collection of the first three of the five books so far published; His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War. As a bonus they've also thrown in a previously unpublished short story set in the world she has created "In Autumn A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River"

In the world that Novik has created dragons exist and have the ability to communicate with humans. Not all dragons are fire breathers, some are prized for their weight, some for their manoeuvrability, while others for their ability to spit acid. However, no matter how valuable a resource they might be considered in times of war, in British society it's not the done thing for a gentleman to become an aviator. Buying a commission in the navy, the cavalry, or even the infantry is an acceptable occupation for a younger son of a good family, but Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy knows just what his father's reaction will be when through sheer chance he ends up bonding with a dragon.
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It matters little that his dragon, whom he names Temeraire after the first ship he served on, turns out to be an exceedingly rare dragon of Chinese breeding, a Celestial, he knows his father will look on it as a stain on the family's good name. However he soon discovers that he neither cares, or has time for his father's, or anybody else's, prejudices. For one thing he is astounded at Temeraire's capacity for learning and intelligence. However what amazes him most of all is the emotional bond that develops between him and Temeraire. He soon discovers he prefers his company over that of most humans. While the first book in the omnibus, His Majesty's Dragon is mainly concerned with developing the characters of both Temeraire and Laurence and establishing the world they live in, we do find out pieces of information which will bear significantly on the duos future adventures. Laurence had captured Temeraire's egg from a French vessel that it attacked as it would normally during the course of battle. However what they didn't know at the time was that the egg was meant to be a present for Napoleon from the Chinese Emperor.

So even though Temeraire almost single handed (winged) managed to repulse Napoleon's invasion fleet off the coast of Britain, the British government seriously considers sending him back to the Chinese when the emperor's second son shows up demanding he be handed over. In Throne Of Jade we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they travel to China in an attempt to plead their case. It's while in China that the two come face to face with how unfairly dragons are treated in the West. In European countries dragons are kept at a far remove from humans, and treated with only a little more courtesy than other domesticated animals. However in China they discover the society is set up to accommodate both species, from city streets being wide enough for dragons to stroll through them freely, dragons being paid for their services, knowing how to read and write, to having positions of authority both in the military and civilian life.
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While Black Powder War details their return to Great Britain, we also learn that as a result of their activities in China they have made for themselves, and Britain, a deadly enemy. Lien is a giant albino dragon who holds a personal grudge against them for their role in the death of her rider. That he was trying to kill Laurence and overthrow his father the emperor of China is irrelevant, and now she has offered her services to Napoleon in order to see Britain overthrown and Temeraire dead. What can one dragon do you might wonder? Well plenty once she's able to convince Napoleon to start using dragons the way the Chinese do and teaching them the battle plans she studied in China.

While all dragons carry a certain number of crew, nobody had thought to use them to act as troop and supply transports until Lien suggested it to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire witness the success of her new tactics first hand as they barely escape from the debacle of the defeat of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon while making their way home from China. For using dragons to increase their mobility the French army is able to advance so fast that they take the Prussians by surprise and cut off their planned retreat through Poland to join up with the Russian army. Even though our heroes manage to escape from Europe they are returning to an England totally bereft of allies and faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince the British high command to change their means of employing dragons or fall to Napoleon as surely as Europe did.

What's amazing about these books is how well Novik has managed to not only bring 19th century Europe to life, both in the attitudes of her characters and her descriptions of society, but how seamlessly she has integrated dragons into the mix. As we get to know dragons through the eyes of Laurence, as his awareness of their capabilities and sentience grows, so does ours. Like most people of his class and generation he never had considered dragons beyond their uses in war. Now that his eyes have been opened to the their place in society in China, he knows that things will have to change, We watch with astonishment as Temeraire learns to not only speak Chinese but to write its characters first using a claw. In many ways Temeraire is like an exceptionally bright teenager who is only now beginning to realize just how curtailed his activities have been by the adult world.

At the same time Novik has done an equally credible job of bringing aerial combat with dragons alive. Similar to naval engagements with boarding parties and rifle fire, there's the added thrill of the dragons assaulting each other, and of course the dangers involved with fighting pitched battles on the back of a bucking, twisting, weaving, and roaring dragon. If your guy wire holding you onto your ride is somehow cut, you could very well find yourself tumbling thousands of feet to your death. Like navy crews who spend days on end in the rigging of their ships with the deck seemingly miles away, those wishing to crew a dragon need a good head for heights.

Obviously Novik has taken some liberties with history - there were no dragons present at the battle of Trafalgar as far as I know, but she has done much to bring new life into what had become a moribund and predictable genre. I've never been a fan of alternate history, but instead of floating some what if premise about the course of history, Novik has merely added another ingredient to the mix to make historical fiction that much more interesting and exciting. If you've not read any of her Temeraire series yet, I not only recommend it highly, but can think of no better introduction then the omnibus In His Majesty's Service containing its first three books. The Napoleonic Wars, and historical fiction, will never be the same again.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca as of February10th/09.

November 12, 2008

Book Review: The Siege By Ismail Kadare

When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant, probably their next reaction was surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube river all the way into Europe.

Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would be conquerers, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standard of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbours, and history doesn't get forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so called sins of their ancestors.

I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad The Impaler, who supposedly slew hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes, and is the purported model for a certain blood sucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended, with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, takes us back to the 15th century to witness a Turkish army's attempts to break through the walls of an Albanian castle .
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For many years Albania had been completely cut off from the West, and even when the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were following Russia's lead and throwing off their communist leadership, Albania remained a sealed book. It's only been since the upheaval in the Balkans that we have had our the opportunity to see what was hidden for all of those years, including the work of writers like Ismail Kadre. The Siege was first published in Albania in 1970, and this edition is actually a translation of a French edition released in 1994 that is now considered the definitive version of the text.

For the majority of The Siege we are camped with the Turkish army outside the walls of the castle under attack and we are party to the innermost thoughts of everybody from the Pasha who is leading the army to the four members of his harem that he brought with him from home. A good deal of the time though, we are witnessing the fighting and life in the camp through the eyes the campaign's official chronichler, Mevla Celebi. Even before the actual battle begins he discovers he is faced with a problem of trying to come up with adjectives that will be suitably impressive to describe the important personages involved in assault.

He must of course reserve the more ornate one for his commander in chief, but what to do about all the other members of the War Council. For the truth of the matter is the majority of them just aren't designed to be recorded for posterity; one has a sty, another asthma, and yet another a humped back. It's as if all the officers of the army were formed in such a way as to make it harder to record his chronicle. Unfortunately it soon becomes obvious to him that those are going to be the least of his worries when it comes to recording events. For instead of being the quick and decisive victory that everyone was anticipating, after the first attack is successfully repulsed by the defenders, both sides have to hunker down for a long siege.

While there is a great deal of finger pointing and acrimony among the besiegers, (the spell caster is put to death, and the astrologer is sent to help dig an underground passage into the castle as punishment for their failings during and before the first assault) up in the castle they're not feeling too relieved. They know this was only the first of many assaults, and they have to be prepared for any sort of subterfuge and trickery on the part of those arrayed against them. In the past water supplies have been poisoned and animals infected with diseases have been released over the walls so they know they must be vigilant.
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The carnage as described by Kadare in the book is horrible as wave after wave of attackers are killed with boiling oil, or set on fire by being covered in pitch and having torches dropped on them. As the chronichler wanders the camp he sees countless numbers of men horribly disfigured and crippled by the wounds they have taken. His mind reels from the smells and the sights of the carnage, as well as the intrigues that continue apace among the captains of war who are supposed to be vanquishing the Empire's foes.

Yet they seem to be more intent on preserving their status within the hierarchy of the camp, and even more importantly, the court back home, than on winning the war. In fact as soon as it looks like they will have to retreat - back to the Empire - they begin to do their best to make sure they start distancing themselves from the Pasha in charge of the army. Like jackals and hyenas they circle their wounded overlord and look for some advantage that will serve them when they are home and off the cursed plains of Albania.

Kadare does a great job in describing the chaos of battle through the eyes of the Pasha as he sends wave after wave of men to crash against the walls of the castle, and we realize that he has no idea of what is going on at the walls. While it looks like the Turkish army is making advances, the reality is that they aren't able to breach the wall and are repulsed time after time until they are no longer able to sustain the siege. While you'd think, as the book is written by an Albanian, we would be feeling a great deal of joy that the author's historical countrymen were able to repulse their invader, instead we can't help feeling sorry for the Pasha. Kadare has been at great pains to ensure that the people on both sides of the wall are shown as human beings, not monsters. We've spent far too much time among the Turkish soldiers, getting to know various ones among them, to not have formed genuine attachments to people like the Chronicler of the battle.

Somehow Ismail Kadare is even able to inject a little humour into the proceedings as well, for he has a fine sense of the ridiculous on top of everything else. Some of the scenes of camp life, the gossip between the soldiers for instance, are very funny, but also a little sad. For it's here you realize these are just simple men taken from their farms to fight in a war they don't really have any understanding of.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare takes you into the heart of war at its most intense and finds something quite extraordinary, the human beings on both sides of the conflict. While there is nothing pretty in the surroundings, there is a haunting beauty to this book in its depiction of men who don't surrender to brutality or fear in spite of the ease which those around them are doing so. When you finish reading the book, the main feeling you have is one of regret; regret for all the lives lost, and regret for the fact that men will insist upon trying to kill each other for something as trivial as power and glory.

The Siege can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 28, 2008

Book Review: Farewell, Shanghai By Angel Wagenstein

How far would you travel to preserve yourself and your family? Would you be willing to set off on a sea voyage of undetermined length and time where your final destination is in a land completely alien to you and the only promise you have is that you might survive? Refugees sometimes have no choice where they go, and sometimes they have to be grateful for any port in their storm that will take them in. For the Jews of Europe in the late 1930's this was especially true, as no matter where they turned they found borders closed to them.

Mysteriously countries like Canada and The United States, with their huge tracks of undeveloped land, had no room for the few people who actually had the where with all to get out of Germany. As late as 1938 the Nazi government of Germany was still willing to let Jews leave, and exit visa's could be obtained if you had enough money. However an exit visa is no good if you have nowhere to exit too. There was one safe haven for Jews, however once there the only thing they were promised was they might not be rounded up, for although Shanghai was nominally a free city, it was under Japanese control.

Anyway, the idea of sailing away from home and country to a land at the other end of the continent where there was no way of knowing whether or not you'd even be able to eke out a living or find somewhere to lay your head at the end of the day seemed insane. After all, surely the German people would come to their senses and these hooligans would be out of power in only a few months? We've lived in Germany for generations, we're Germans not Jews. That's what the members of the Dresden Philharmonic thought up until the night in 1938 when each of its members were arrested as they came off stage after their performance of Joseph Haydn's Symphony #45: The Farewell. You see talented as they were, and even though some them didn't even know they were stained with the stigma of a Jewish grandmother - they were all Jews, and were now enemies of the state.
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In Farewell, Shanghai, author and film director Angel Wagenstein's latest novel, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the circuitous route taken by German Jews to Shanghai and then live out the exile that the crime of their faith sentenced them to. Wagenstein divides his attentions between focusing on the experiences of two sets of characters from different backgrounds; Theodore Weissberg, world renowned concert violinist from the Dresden Philharmonic, and his opera singer wife Elisabeth, and Hilde. a young film extra and her companions, who have all ended up in Shanghai; and writing a documentary novel of the times that fills in the background details that the close up accounts can't accommodate.

Weissberg was one of the musicians who was whisked away mysteriously with the applause of his audience still ringing in his ears. Thankfully his wife, a non-Jew, was able to secure his release from Dachau, and more importantly two exit visas good for four months. After convincing her husband that yes indeed it is necessary for them to flee the country, and the only place open to them is Shanghai, they secure passage on one of the last trips made by one of the two boats running from Italy to their safe haven.

Their story is typical of the majority of German Jews who ended up in Shanghai, well educated intellectuals and artisans who are all of a sudden forced to live in extreme poverty and be grateful for even the most menial of jobs in order to earn their living. They are somewhat luckier than others because they manage to obtain their own living space, a two room hut with a storage shed that they convert into a shower. To them it is the height of luxury as it means they no longer have to live in the communal dormitory which houses the majority of the refugees. Unfortunately it also means that they somehow have to come up with the rent money each month, and there's not much call for either a concert violinist or an opera singer in Shanghai.

Hilda Braun, who was born Rachel Braunfield, has the remarkable good fortune to look like every Nazi's dream of the ideal of Aryan womanhood. Blond, blue eyed, and beautiful she parlays that appeal into a photo shoot in Paris as the first stage in her escape, knowing full well that anyone investigating closely will see through her facade. By luck, and some skilful lying, Hilda is able to wangle not only a cabin on luxury liner headed to Singapore, but a job as secretary to the city's German high commissioner as well. Here, not only is she able to hide in plain view as well as lead a comfortable life, she is able on occasion to discreetly keep the immigrant community informed of events in the outside world that will impact them.
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Wagenstein's style of narration is almost that of a jocular tour guide showing us the sites on a tour through history. Casually pointing out points of interest like Krystallnacht, "The Night Of Broken Glass", where joyful, singing Brownshirts paraded through cities across Germany burning and ransacking synagogues, Jewish businesses, and hauling Jewish people out into the street to hang signs around their necks if they were lucky or hanging them by the neck if they were unlucky. It's the casual nature of his narration that makes Farewell, Shanghai so heartbreaking, for it makes everything that occurs seem like the everyday and the ordinary; perfectly acceptable.

Reading about unspeakable acts of brutality or descriptions of torture you can distance yourself from the events depicted on the page. Due to their unbelievable nature, you can convince yourself that they're fiction. However when human indignity is described in the same terms as one would use to discuss the weather or a vacation, it is impossible to separate yourself from it. You find yourself on the verge of accepting the events depicted as commonplace, until you stop yourself short realizing what's being described and are horrified at how easily you came to taking things for granted.

As we watch and listen as these people try to make lives out of nothing, to carry on in the faint hope that somehow, someday, this too will pass to become only a memory, the reality of what we are bearing witness to comes into tighter and tighter focus. Wagenstein's abilities as a film maker have given him an unerring eye for editing and pulling the reader's attention to what's important. Whether our point of view is that of one of the characters, or our guide through history, what we "see" on each page of the book is as vivid as if it were on a movie screen in front of us. Each character is so well described that, no matter how minor a role they play, we see them as if they were standing in front of us, and have a fairly good idea of who and what they are.

When all the world was closed to them, and it looked like there was nowhere for the Jews of Europe to flee, Singapore offered a semblance of succour. Hands that once might have played the violin that enraptured thousands may have had to carry garbage or wash cars, but at least they were on the end of arms that weren't tattooed or destined for the fires of the camps in Europe. Twenty thousand German Jews, and a few thousand from the rest of Europe, were able to call Singapore home during a time when millions of others were becoming part of The Final Solution.

Angel Wagenstein has the remarkable ability to put a human face on history, and Farewell, Shanghai is no exception. As the history he depicts is one of the most inhumane periods of the twentieth century, this talent is perhaps a mixed blessing. For, although it makes for fantastic reading, it also makes heartbreak inevitable as we struggle along with his characters to come to terms with their new reality. This may not be the most pleasant of reads you'll ever have, but it will be one of the best.

Farewell, Shanghai can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada as of November 04/08.

October 14, 2008

Book Review: Isaac's Torah By Angel Wagenstein

In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the communist governments in the Eastern Bloc, and Yugoslavia, countries that the majority of us had never heard of before started appearing on maps of the world again for the first time since the beginning of WW Two. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Macedonia were just some of the new place names that cartographers had to try and squeeze onto maps of Eastern Europe. While this might have seemed like an upheaval of unsurpassed proportions to some of us, at the other end of the century, from 1900 to the end of WW Two things were just as tumultuous.

In that time a person could literally not move an inch and wake up one morning to find yourself living in a new country. At the onset of WW One parts of what's now present day Poland were part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. When the end of that war resulted in the dissolution of the Empire, out of its ashes were formed countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other Eastern European countries. Those borders didn't last long as the European powers gave Czechoslovakia to Germany without a fight in attempt at appeasing Hitler. The Russian - German pact of 1939 split Poland between them, so when the Germans invaded Poland from the West, the Russians came in from the East for their bit. Of course those was some of the first territories "liberated" by the German armies when they invaded Russia in June of 1941, only to see them revert back to Russian control four years later when the tides of war swam the other way.

For those keeping score that meant if you lived in Eastern Poland between years of 1900 - 1945 you would have had to change your passport five times, if you somehow lived through it.While your chances of survival weren't great no matter who you were, they were reduced dramatically during the period of German rule if you happened to be Jewish. Only with the greatest deal of luck could you have survived the liberation of Poland by the Nazis if you were a Jew.
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In Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, his most recent work translated into English, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, one of those "lucky" few to have survived. I'm not normally one for reading "Holocaust fiction" as I call it, books that detail the suffering and horrors of the camps, but the way the book was described made me think this would not be the usual book about this period of history.

Among the Jews of Eastern Europe, long accustomed to poverty and persecution, humour was one of the few reliefs they had from the drudgery of their existence. Aside from jokes that deflected anti-semitic attitudes around them, or deflated the pompous in order to remind people they were all equal in the eyes of God, one of the more popular comic traditions the fool. While this fool is very often an object of ridicule, he is also like the Fool in Tarot decks who, although always of the verge of falling off the cliff manages to somehow never quite topple over the edge. So it is with Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld as he weaves his unsteady way through life.

From a very early age he learns that if you act the fool chances are that not many are going to take you seriously enough to consider you a threat or worry about what you're doing. At various points through-out the story Isaac draws upon this rich vein of Jewish humour to help tell his story. Aside from providing momentary relief from the events that Isaac finds himself helplessly propelled through, these jokes also often serve as moral lessons and parables. They offer a kind o backwards logic that throws the absurdity of a world in chaos into relief that helps you see just how ridiculous life can be.

For example, Mendel was looking to take the train from his home to Moscow and he goes up to the wicket where's he's told the price of a ticket to Moscow will be twenty rubbles. When he tires to bargain and offer fifteen he's told to go away. So, he goes to the back of the line and eventually ends up at the wicket again where he again he offers fifteen rubbles for the twenty rubble ticket, and is again told there will be none of that and to be off with him. So, again he goes to the back of the line, and this time when he gets to the wicket the train to Moscow is pulling out of the station - and he looks into the wicket and says to the clerk, in his most satisfied voice, "Now look, you've missed out on fifteen rubbles".
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How ridiculous is Isaac's life? Well he's drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army just in time to for the war to end and comes home to discover that he's now Polish. In 1939 he's drafted into the Polish army to defend his homeland against the German invasion in the West, and just as he and his troop are preparing to head out Russian tanks pull into their village. In June of 1941 when he's drafted into the Russian army to go East to Manchuria to fight off the invading Japanese, the train he's travelling on is bombed by the German airforce as he gets caught in the opening salvo of that invasion.

As he says, it's a good thing they come from a small Jewish town. Russian trains never stop in Jewish villages, so he'd become adept at boarding and disembarking trains through the windows while they are moving. Otherwise he might have been scattered around the wheat field with the rest of the train. As it is, he is now a Jew in German occupied Russia, which isn't exactly the healthiest of circumstances. Lucky for him though he is able to acquire identification papers that recognize him as a Polish national which should keep him safe. However, he has the misfortune to be caught out on the street when three trucks pull up and grab everybody off the street to come and do emergency war work for his new fatherland - and he's shipped off to Germany.

However things don't turn out so bad for him. As a Jew he speaks Yiddish, which is as close to German as you can get without speaking German. So when the labour camp's commandant asks if any of new workers can speak German without sounding too much like an idiot, Isaac volunteers. All is well, until one day a general roll is called and two Gestapo agents come into camp and take every tenth person away in trucks. The hundred men, among whom of course Isaac finds himself, are taken to a prison where they are locked up with other undesirables of the state; Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and even some real criminals. In the middle of the night the guards come into the cell blocks yelling Jews move, and foolishly Isaac responds only to find himself on a train heading for a concentration camp. Which may sound pretty awful, and it is, but he finds out later that the other ninety-nine people he came to the jail with were taken out and shot the next morning.

Like the Fool, Isaac blindly steps off the edges of cliffs and makes it through, yet lest you think this is a light hearted romp through one of the darkest periods of modern history, his wife and children either die in the camps or fighting the Germans. His village's Jewish population, as all the fit men had been sent to fight the Japanese, wasn't even considered worth sending to a concentration camp. They were herded out of their houses one night, lined up at the edge of a ravine, and machine gunned. The ravine was then filled in with gravel and everybody he had known, including his parents and the rest of his family, ended up in that mass grave.

There are no lurid details of conditions in the camps, Isaac says why should he talk about that as others have done so before him and he figures he can spare us and him details, yet still sorrow stalks the pages of this book like few other book. It is a such a human book, full of laughter and love, that the horrors of what's going on as backdrop to the absurdities that Isaac describes are somehow even more disquieting than the most graphic descriptions could ever be. No matter how much we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter that we are able to see how absurd life can be, it doesn't prevent us from tasting the salt of our tears or feeling the bitterness of anguish.

Laughter may take the edge off, and it may indeed be the best medicine, but it can't hide reality. Isaac's Torah doesn't hide reality, if anything it brings it heartbreakingly to life. At the same time though it shows how it is possible to find hope in what many would consider the most hopeless of circumstances. After all, as Isaac says in conclusion, if life was given us to live it, we will live it, there's no other way.

Isaac's Torah can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 8, 2008

DVD Review: Mister Roberts

To most of us the nearest television comes to being live anymore is when they say that a show was shot live in front of a studio audience. Of course that's still not live television, as the actors will still get a chance to re-shoot scenes and the show isn't being broadcast live out over the airwaves as they film it. Yet, hard as it may be to believe that is something that used to happen all the time in television, shows would beam out to audiences un-edited and actors would run the same risks that their cousins in theatre did when it came to forgetting lines or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although there were similarities between live theatre and live television, there were sizeable differences as well. Live television was made to be performed for the camera, while live theatre is made to be played in a large hall with a live audience. If you don't think that makes much of a difference think of what an actor has to do to make himself heard and seen from the fortieth row of the theatre. Then think of putting that same person in front of a camera and having him or her doing the exact same performance - it would look and sound ridiculous. His voice would be far too loud and facial expressions that look normal up on stage to people in an audience would look horribly exaggerated when captured by the television camera.

One of the hardest things to do is to take a live performance of any play and put it on the screen. To do it successfully usually involves re-staging it specifically for the camera instead of for the audience. To actually stage it for both and make it look convincing both on camera and for those in the audience is a very tricky proposition that not only requires particularly skilled actors, but a director skilled in editing camera shots live to ensure you get the right mix of television and theatre. Shooting flat with one camera - just opening the lens so you can see the whole set and all the action taking place on it - makes for both lousy television and lousy theatre - so you'd want to be able to cut back and forth between close-ups of central characters, mid range shots to show the reactions of those in the immediate surroundings, and long range shots to capture the fact that it is indeed taking place on a stage set.
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In 1984 NBC TV took the risk of staging a live television broadcast of the one time Broadway hit play Mister Roberts, and now the Acorn Media Group have just released a DVD of that performance. Based on a novel by Thomas Heggen, it was originally staged on Broadway in1948 starring Henry Fonda in the title role of Mister Roberts, a role he latter recreated when it was made into a film in 1955. In the version that was telecast in 1985 the producers returned to the Broadway script to attempt the exceedingly difficult feat of televising a piece of live theatre.

The plot centres around the relationship between officers and crew aboard a cargo ship in the American Navy during the closing months of WW2 in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant (Mister) Roberts not only serves as cargo officer, but acts as a buffer between the crew and the ship's ambitious and overbearing Captain. While he is respected and admired by the crew, Mister Roberts chafes at what he considers a useless assignment and is constantly submitting requests to be transferred to a combat ship, which the Captain stamps as not approved assuring they will be ignored by those higher up in the chain of command. According to Navy protocol a ship's Captain can't refuse to pass along an officer's request for transfer, but he can make it impossible for the transfer to be considered by not approving it.

Aside from Lieutenant Roberts and the Captain the ship's officer complement includes Ensign Pulver, a young man who spends as much time as possible asleep and his waking hours trying to avoid coming to the Captain's attention, and Doc, who serves as mentor and confessor figure to the crew, as well as providing essential services like grain alcohol from medical stores for parties. While initially the story line and the behaviour of the crew might feel a little dated, the performances have been so carefully directed that they contribute to creating the atmosphere of the times. What in 1948 would have been realistic behaviour looks and sounds strange to our ears, but in the end it makes the play all the more authentic.

It's one of many intelligent choices the director of the production, Melvin Bernhardt, made. The other was to use only three basic sets to shoot on. The set where the majority of the action takes place is an exterior of the ships fore-deck. This included two levels and a multitude of places for actors to exit and enter from, so that a few actors could create an impression of a ship hard at work merely by appearing and disappearing either up, down, or to the left and right. The other two sets were both interiors, the quarters shared by Roberts and Pulver and the Captain's office. Both of these sets allowed the director to focus our attention squarely on the primary characters and gave him the opportunity to establish the relationships between the ship's officers as well as getting to know them individually.

Of course this type of performance is entirely dependant on the skill of the actors who are entrusted with the lead roles, and in this case none of the four; Robert Hays as Mister Roberts, Kevin Bacon as Ensign Pulver, Howard Hesseman as Doc, and Charles Durning as the Captain, disappoint. Not only do each of them do a convincing job in creating their characters obvious traits, they are also talented enough to make them more than one dimensional. Although Durning is playing what is basically an unsympathetic character, he does manage to make us understand where his attitude comes from. We may not like him any better then we did after but he's not just a bully anymore, there's something deeper and almost more malign at work in his character than just enjoying bossing people around.

In some ways Hays has the most difficult job, as he's playing the straight man to everybody's character around him, but he carries it off by paying close attention to the details that make up his character's personality and the way he treats the crew. Kevin Bacon does an equally excellent job with his performance of Ensign Pulver, as he allows his character's insecurity to come through his brash exterior and does a credible job in showing his development into maturity so that his actions at the end of the play are believable. The biggest surprise though was Hesseman as he showed that not only does he have a wonderful instinct for timing when it comes to comedy, he can put that same gift to use when it comes to more dramatic acting. He is so supremely comfortable on stage and in front of the camera that everything he does is completely believable.

There are a few glitches in the sound and audio on the DVD, but that's to be expected when you're dealing with the digital transfer of old footage and they don't detract from the overall production. One thing is for sure though, you know this was live television, because there is no way that the occasional glimpses of boom microphones you catch in the footage would have been left in otherwise. There aren't many special features, but there is a nice overview of the script's history and the attempts to make a sequel to the movie and a television series in the early 1960's.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by not only the quality of the acting involved but with the over all production itself. The cast and crew have managed to carry off the very difficult task of bringing a stage production to the television screen without sacrificing any of the excitement of a live performance and making full use of the intimacy offered by cameras. Mister Roberts is one of the classics of the post war American stage, and watching this production is probably as good as seeing it live on stage, if not better.

July 25, 2008

Book Review: The Peacekeeper Shabbir Ahsan

I'm sure for most people in the West Bangladesh is only known as the country the late George Harrison once did a benefit concert for. The reality is it once was part of the Indian province Bengal. When the region gained it's independence from Britain in 1947, and the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the province of Bengal was divided between the two new countries. West, Hindu Bengal became part of India and east, Muslim Bengal became East Pakistan.

In spite of the fact that the former Bengal province was the more densely populated half of the country, they were continually ignored by the central government in the west and independence movements were formed as early as the 1950's. In 1971, with the support of the Indian army, Bangladesh fought a successful war of independence. Just as the country was finding its feet, the famine of 1973-74 almost destroyed them. It says amazing things about the resilience of its people that the country of Bangladesh was able to recover from both the war of liberation and the famine and in the ensuing years become one of the biggest suppliers of personnel to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions. One of the permanent mission destinations for Bangladeshi troop since the mid 1990's has been the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

While there are many countries in Africa that still bear the scars of colonial times, the area that was formally the Belgian Congo is not only scarred but still bleeding heavily. The Democratic Republic Of Congo (formerly Zaire) is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of it's poorest. In 1965 - four years after independence - an American supported coup led to the installation of a military dictatorship under the rule of Joseph-Desire Mobutu. For the next thirty years or so Mobutu proceeding to drain the country dry, stealing what's thought to be close to four billion dollars from the national treasury (an amount close to the size of the country's national debt), so that when he finally left in 1997 he left behind one of the poorest countries in Africa, with the least amounts of infrastructure, and the violence that always seems to accompany desperation.
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As a major in the Bangladeshi army who has served a rotation in the Democratic Republic with the UN forces, author Shabbir Ahsan is uniquely positioned to write about the experience of being a peacekeeper in that country, and in his first novel, The Peace Keeper, he presents a fact-based, fictionalized account, of a Bangladeshi officer's year in the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

Major Samir Iqbal is a veteran of the Bangladeshi armed forces working in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Armed Forces responsible for the co-ordination of all overseas assignments. So he's the one who receives the fax reporting the deaths of fifteen Bangladeshi service men in a plane crash on take-off. In the tight-knit community of an army any death is devastating, and fifteen is horrific; never before has the army lost that many men at once since they began supplying peacekeepers. For Samir and his wife the news is particularly upsetting as one of the men was a close personal friend.

While Samir had been eagerly awaiting news of his own acceptance for overseas placement in Africa, receiving the notice that he has been assigned as a military observer in the Congo for a year on the same day as the plane crash isn't great timing when it comes to his wife's peace of mind. The fact that military observers are not allowed to even carry weapons and are placed in volatile situations like negotiating between warring factions or reporting on the status of a cease-fire, is not information that is bound to ease her fears.

We follow Samir from the day he first receives the notification of his new assignment through his year of living in the Congo to the day of his return home. As our narrator and guide he takes us on a journey that plumbs the depths of human depravity, reveals the strength of the human spirit, and celebrates the simple pleasure of friendship and humour. The fact that all of this takes place in what amounts to basically a war zone makes it all the more amazing. Ahsan's strength as a writer is such that even when he has Major Iqbal describing the most abhorrent of behaviours, it never feels like for any other purpose than to inform. Where some writers seem to delight in describing violence, in his case you can hear the regret he feels in having to tell us that this type of activity takes place anywhere upon earth.
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The points in the book that are actually the hardest to read are the ones where the threat of violence is in the air. At one point our major is sent into a supposedly quiet area with three other officers to look for a site to set up a team headquarters. Upon their arrival they find that none of the local authorities supposed to assist and protect them are willing to do anything other than tell them to leave because they can't guarantee their safety. The team literally jumps on the helicopter sent to their rescue ten feet ahead of a mob screaming for their blood, watching and hearing rocks and bottles bounce off their ride as it lifts off with them safely on board.

Thankfully Ahsan balances the moments of terror with equal doses of humour, nearly all of it at the expense of our erstwhile Major Iqbal. Whether he's being duped by a camp servant into cooking and cleaning for him, or being swarmed by a women's soccer team for scoring the winning goal, he handles it all with equal good grace. He's a wonderfully human character who in spite of the horror and nerve wracking experiences, is still able to find positive things in the world around him. He's never unrealistic, he's heard eyewitness accounts of the horrible things people can do to each other after all, but he's also witnessed people with almost nothing extending hospitality to those with nothing as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, so he retains hope.

The Peacekeeper by Shabbir Ahsan uses actual incidents involving the Bangladeshi army in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo as members of the UN Peacekeeping force stationed there as the framework around which Major Samil Iqbal relates his year's experience as a peacekeeper. By turns heartrending and heart-warming it's probably the best book set in a war zone that you're liable to read in a long time. The irony that one of the poorest nations in the world also supplies one of the largest contingents of peacekeepers to the United Nations isn't something that should be lost on us either. It makes you wonder why if they can find a way to do that - why can't we?

April 9, 2008

DVD Review: The Deserter

During the Vietnam war thousands of young American men left their homes and their families behind and crossed the border into Canada to avoid being drafted into the United States army. Since none of them had as yet been conscripted into the army they weren't listed as deserters from the army and went into the books as draft dodgers; a very important distinction in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the public.

To the majority a deserter is a coward who has run away from his responsibilities. They have betrayed their country in a time of war and in most people's minds there can be no worse crime. To the majority there are only two reasons for you to desert your country's army; either you are a coward or you are an enemy of the state. That there could be another option isn't even conceivable to some people.

On the other side of the coin is the person who enlisted in the army because he or she couldn't see any other employment options on the horizon and the army offered a source of income. They also felt that serving their country was a way of doing something of at least some significance. Once in the armed forces they start hearing stories from people who have done tours of duty in Iraq; stories of running over children in tanks, shooting civilians, that over 60% of the Iraqi population don't want them there, and how so many returning soldiers are suffering from emotional and mental problems.
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So if you were a young man like Ryan Johnson and have heard all these stories, and find out that your unit will be shipping out to Iraq in spite of being told you would only be based in the States when you enlisted what would you do? Your options are limited; go to Iraq for no apparent reason other than you are being ordered to; stay in the military and refuse to deploy and go to jail for at least a year; or desert and head to Canada.

I'm sure there are a great many people out there who will say he should either go to Iraq or pay the price for his refusal by going to jail and only a coward would take the third option. Yet think about what it would mean for a second if he decides to go to Canada. He can never come back to the United States and see his family and friends again. His government and a great many of his compatriots will consider him a traitor and a criminal, and if he were ever arrested he could very well face life imprisonment.

Ask yourself if you would be willing to do those things, take those risks, for your beliefs? Wouldn't it be safer just to play the game like you are supposed to and go to Iraq or be led off to jail meekly for refusing to deploy? Doesn't it take just as much courage to make the decision to desert as it does to blindly obey orders? Before answering that question wouldn't it be a good thing to get to know the reasons why a young man like Ryan Johnson would volunteer for the army only to desert?

Big Noise Films has just released their short documentary feature Deserter which introduces us to Ryan and his wife Jen and follows their trek north and east from California to Toronto, Canada after he has made the decision to desert. We first meet Ryan at his mom's house when he is already Absent Without Leave (AWOL). He had enlisted in the armed forces because he didn't know what else to do in order to make a living to support his wife and raise a family. Quite a number of his friends had already done the same thing, although two had joined the navy instead of the army, for the same reasons.

When the assurances that he would only ever be posted Stateside turned out to be a lie and he was told that he was going to be deployed to Iraq he started to find out as much as he could about what it would be like over there. He also considered all the stories he had heard already One friend of his had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and to celebrate his wife had booked the family at trip to Disney World. After the first day there his friend hadn't been able to leave his hotel room because the crowds and the noise were too much for him and he couldn't cope.

"I don't want to end up like that"

Interspersed through the rest of the movie, as we follow the young couple across the United States into upstate New York, are excerpts of interviews with veterans of the conflict in Iraq telling stories of what they did and experienced there. One man talks about being part of a company that indiscriminately shelled an Iraqi city killing hundreds of people, and another of watching a friend's leg being blown off, and having to try and haul him over the tailgate of their vehicle so he could be taken to safety.

One of the men apologized for having slurred speech, but the medication they had him on for anxiety and depression was causing him difficulties. To a man they all looked like they had seen things that no human being should ever have to experience; hollowed eyed and grim they appear to be still suffering from shock. After seeing these people and listening to their stories is it any wonder that a person who enlisted to serve Stateside balked at being deployed to Iraq.

All the way across America there operates a new Underground Railway, but now instead of helping run away slaves they are helping young Americans escape from having to serve in what they consider an unjust war. Ryan and Jen are passed from safe house to safe house until just before the border they phone the contact they have for Toronto. They've already been coached on how to get through the border crossing, but that doesn't stop them from being nervous; there is the risk that they could check Ryan for outstanding warrants and find out that he is a deserter.

Ryan and Jen have been in Canada for almost three years now, we're not told how they are living - if they are some of the deserters who have applied for refugee status or if they are living underground. In a special feature after the main body of the DVD, the movie makers have included a live video conference call that was conducted at the end of a showing of Deserter with Ryan and Jen. They both appear happy enough, and the interesting thing about Ryan is that he seems so much more self assured now than he did at the beginning of the movie when he was a scared and unsure kid who had just made the decision to leave the United States to come to Canada.

A war like Vietnam, or like Iraq, creates wounds that are invisible. The wounds of distrust and hatred between people who live in the same country. The young people who are being asked to fight these wars might do things that people will not approve of, like desert the army instead of fighting in Iraq. Before you judge them you need to hear their stories. Deserter is a little piece of Ryan Johnson's story, and maybe it will help you understand why he felt like he had to do what he did.

For the sake of the future of your country, don't you think you owe them at least the chance to tell their story?

March 8, 2008

DVD Review: Invisible Children

I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically. It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewellery, I think it's an essential component in this case.

Every time the bracelet makes me aware of it's presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crises facing the world today. The mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.

Up until a short while ago cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding country side every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them, some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
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The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.

Over the last few years a grass roots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.

In the spring of 2003 three young film makers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan, instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.

One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.

After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck travelling along the same road they are driving on had been attacked by members of the Lords Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.

It's another sign of the honesty of their film making that they show their naivety on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.

Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments - although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news - as of this month - shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
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I'm getting ahead of the movie here, it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young film makers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.

They show us footage of children lying stacked together like chords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning as to what would happen if you tried to escape.

The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly; an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.

What makes the movie the most effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary, everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible. The six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.

Their are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen year old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help than probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these the three young film makers.

The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy, they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can either spread the word; hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public - they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.

There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Than there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.

Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy. a fourteen year old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.

For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.

At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out. Your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it... that there are no more Invisible Children.

You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site at Invisible Children.com.

March 4, 2008

Book Review: Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

I've got a question for you; what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what they should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff - everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion creed, no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment, everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law, everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing isn't it, everybody talks a good game, our governments in the West especially, but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statues put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought; the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of it's head office, it started off with only two divisions Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now includes, Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this; when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a groups Human Rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't except any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe if you're government has abused the rights of it's people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub isn't it; HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. A press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic isn't it that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people, would be more appropriate for today's world.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country against the same measure; their adherence to the Declaration.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008is this years status report on the health of democracy in the world, and it doesn't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

January 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.

Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.

Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.

But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
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One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.

Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.

Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.

In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.

But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
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Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.

The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.

The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.

The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.

The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.

The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?

Canadians wishing to buy The Complete Persepolis can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or pick up a copy from an online retailer like Indigo Books

October 28, 2007

Book Review: War With No End Various Authors

I don't make any secret of my politics and the label most people would a fix to me would be left of (insert name of person furthest to the left you can think of) but you would probably be wrong. You see I usually end up despising the folk on the left almost as much as I do those on the right; if it weren't for that I tend to less violently disagree with the left than the right it would be a draw.

My problem with all political beings is the fact that they are political beings and forget that the majority of us aren't. Most of us are just trying to get by in a world that is getting increasingly fucked up with each passing day. The problems of the world are not going to be solved because one person's philosophy is more suited than another's to the circumstances we find ourselves in as a species. Political pundits on either side of the pendulum are those who are too stupid to have understood the lessons two thousand years of history have taught about political ideology's total irrelevancy to living.

Where I tend to agree with the left is the fact that they don't like the actions of the right. They don't agree with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither do I. The problem is that they suffer from the same problem as the right in thinking that they know what's best for other people, their ideas and solutions are the only ones that are viable and everything else should be disregarded as heretical and dangerous.

This has been one of the main reasons that I've avoided reading the majority of what has been written over the last five years in terms of writings against the policies of the Team Bush & Blair. I already know whom to blame for what's going on thank you very much, so who needs to hear it repeatedly. It's just as tedious as having to listen to Bush, Blair, and company reciting their mantras of blame and self-righteous horseshit.

So far the only books I've read about the occupation that have made any sense are the novel The Sirens Of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra and a collection of essays, poems, and other writings published by Perceval Press called Twilight Of Empire: Responses To Occupation. What separated these two works from others was they were more concerned with talking about the situation on the ground then talking about whom to blame, who benefited, or a world wide capitalist/leftist-Muslim conspiracy.
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When I decided to give War With No End , published by Verso Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, a try it was in the hopes that because it followed a similar format as Twilight Of Empire it would be as diverse a presentation. A variety of authors from different professional backgrounds; academic, artistic, and journalism, have the potential for making an anthology less political and more personal in content.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Israel was the darling of the left. What with her collective farms and socialist governments she was one of the few left leaning countries that weren't under Soviet influence in the fifties and sixties. Now of course all the problems of the Middle East stem from Israel, her ambitions, and her ties to the United States.

I don't have much love the Likud party or the path of self destruction that the past few governments seem to have embarked on with their intransigence on issues, but that doesn't make the country evil anymore then George Bush makes America a nation of dangerous religious fanatics. Maybe I'm a little sensitive about the issue because I'm a Jew, but I'm sorely tempted to grab the next asshole that blames all the world's problems on Israel, paint a Swastika on his chest and put a white hood over his head and dump him on the South Side of Chicago.

It must be some sort of reflex action on certain people's part, they're writing along making an intelligent argument in their case about Iraq, when all of a sudden its Israel's fault. Look, I know Israel has been pretty stupid about settlers and the whole issue of Palestine, but they weren't the ones who invaded their neighbours with the express purpose of driving the "Jews into the sea" on a regular basis for a couple of decades.

That's bound to make you a little paranoid after a while and a little mistrustful. Everyone is always quick to say that they know there are members of the Israeli population who don't support the government's policy, but they don't seem to mention what would happen to people in Syria who openly defy their government about policy? Do you think there would be Peace Now demonstrations in Damascus when Syria was fighting Israel as there have been when Israel is at war?

So I was disappointed to find a couple of otherwise intelligent essays by Arundhati Roy and Ahdaf Soueif descending into that usual territory. Soueif's essay especially, as it had started out as an intelligent and insightful look at Arab identity, the disintegration of Egyptian culture, and the gradual intellectual impoverishing of the nation due to the many years of one party/military rule.

On the other hand the essay by Haifa Zangana about the role of song and poetry in the life of Iraq, and more specifically in it's vocalization of protest against the occupation of Iraq by the Americans and its allies gives a clearer picture of the lengths that the administration will go to maintain control. Even more telling are his descriptions of the desperate to the point of being ridiculous if they weren't so heavy handed and disgusting, actions of the occupying administration to shut down the music industry. They've yet to make singing illegal but have done everything short of that to try and make sure no one hears any of the protest songs.

It started with shutting down local media outlets, escalated into raiding recording studios, and finally has resulted in attacks on any store suspected of selling CDs, music DVDs, and videos. Sometimes it's the coalition troops involved in raiding record stores, but more often then not, they get mercenaries to do the job and make the owner disappear without a trace.

The other two contributions that helped to elevate this from being merely another series of political knee jerks on somebody's behalf were Joe Sacco's mini graphic novel "Down! Up!", and the contribution from the group September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. Sacco's piece is a great piece of black humour on the efforts of two Marine "lifer" sergeants attempts to turn uneducated, poor, middle aged Iraqis into the fighting force Bush has declared must be in place before American troops can withdraw. It's a brilliant example of satire, black humour, and sobering pathos that gives us some idea of the futility of creating local security forces.

There is nothing remotely funny about the contribution from one of the many people who lost a child on September 11th whose motto "Not In Our Names" does more to undermine the moral high ground that Bush and company have tried to seize through invoking those deaths then any speech or simplistic rhetoric could even dream of.. This piece makes the rest of the book meaningless, and elevates it beyond anything political rhetoric could ever hope to achieve.

At one point near the end of her contribution she talks of how her son Stephen, who died on September 11th, sat at a conference table with a group of other people sharing a phone so they could leave messages of love to those who they knew they would be leaving behind. There was no talk of vengeance or hatred – just love. She goes on to say that is the legacy she works to keep alive - the legacy of love.

She talks of how there are times when the temptation to despair is overwhelming, but that she is given hope by those people who won't let go of the belief that the world can be a beautiful place for all it's peoples. I wonder if she realizes what a beacon of hope she is with her ability to hold on to love after what has happened to her? Does she know what a high standard she is setting for the rest of us to live up to?

Could I talk like her if a loved one had been taken from me by violence? I'd like to think so but I don't know, and quite frankly don't want to find out anytime soon. If more of North America thought like her and less like George Bush I don't think we'd have quite the number of problems we have in the world right now.

War With No End is a collection of essays ostensibly about the War On Terror, but it seems to bounce all over the place and not keep to its central focus save for a couple of the essays. As is typical of the majority of anti-war, leftist writing these days too much of it is filled with as much anger and hatred as the rhetoric of those they claim to oppose.

Thankfully there are still a few voices out there who are able to lift themselves out of that quagmire and offer a perspective that doesn't depend on ideology or an ism for its survival – now that's a real policy alternative.

October 4, 2007

October Second: International Day Of Non-Violence

I received an interesting Press Release through the email the other day from an Arts publicity organization in India. It was announcing a special performance of the score to the movie about the life of The Mahatma – Gandhi – in honour of the United Nations declaring October 2nd, his birthday, International Non-Violence Day.

I have to say that I'm having an extremely hard time with that proclamation: International Non – Violence Day. The only thing I can think of is that some bright spark at the U.N. figured they could kill two birds with one stone by honouring Gandhi's birthday and throwing a bone to India in recognition of their new status as rising economic power. Aside from that I can't think of any other reason for even considering such a meaningless gesture.

You don't have to look very far to see how empty the proclamation is. I'm not even referring to any of the wars that are currently ongoing around the globe right now, or the actions of oppressive governments everywhere to curtail the rights of their peoples. Sure they all reflect badly on our ability to live in peace or to be considered advocates for a non-violent life, but they are only symptoms of a deeper-seated malaise.

As a species, our predilection for violence amongst ourselves probably started the first time one group of early men thought that another's hunting territory was better. There was never any thought of seeing whether the two groups combing forces and sharing the territory in an effort to feed both tribes might not be to everybody's benefit. No it's always "us" or "them" with never any thought given to "we".

Of course when the empire builders started up, Phillip of Macedonia and his son Alexander, who were followed eventually by the first great Western Empire –Rome it meant whole new reasons for fighting. Most of them had less to do with the survival of the tribe and more to do with personal glory, although those who fought against Rome would have thought of their war as battles for survival more then anything else.

Once these guys had set the precedent of trying to make the world a better place by giving everyone the present of civilization whether they liked it or not, because we know what's good for you even if you don't, you ignorant, barbarian savages, everyone decided they wanted to take a stab at it.

The Mongol Hordes in the East, under the various Khans taught everyone the value of fierceness and swordplay from the back of a horse. The Islamic world got it's own back for the Crusades by invading and occupying great chunks of Europe and keeping the West out of the Middle East from 1200 until the end of World War One.. While in Europe itself first the Spanish, and then the French took turns in occupying most of Central and Western Europe. And when they fell back the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over until the end of World War One.

Of course that doesn't even begin to cover what was going on outside of Europe when they discovered there were other countries that needed the benefits of a good Christian/Muslim upbringing. From the Western Hemisphere to the Indian Ocean and China, colonial empires expanded and contracted with the passing of the years. There were also the Civil wars that tore countries apart because of differences in opinion on religion and economic issues that left thousands if not millions dead and deep scars in the social fabric that have yet to heal even to this day.

Of course every time there was some sort of minor disagreement between countries they would solve it by meeting on the battlefields of Europe and come to a civilized agreement by killing each other's peasants by the thousands. So people like George Bush and his cronies are simply carrying on the ages old tradition of getting your own way by any means necessary.

It's become such an ingrained part of our social fabric that the majority of us live our lives with the understanding that if we ever want to accomplish anything we're going to have to resort to violence of some sort. It doesn't have to be physical all the time either; emotional and psychological violence can be even more effective in a social setting.

How often have you had to resort to some sort of intimidating action to get what you've wanted from someone who hasn't been willing to follow through on a contract? From withholding payment to threatening court action you are still using coercion or threats instead of trying to seek a peaceful resolution to your problem.

What's truly unfortunate is how difficult it is to come to a compromise with people, and it's not until you offer to escalate matters that some people will listen to you. We've become so used to that sort of behaviour it seems the majority won't do anything unless forced to – it's like you won't be taken seriously until you put a gun to someone's head.

In some instances violence or other forms of non-passive behaviour can't be avoided and a person or a country is left with no recourse but to explore other means. But for far too many of this world's people, and especially our leaders, violence remains their first option and other means are discarded far too quickly.

For the United Nations to come out and say that from now on October Second will be now be considered a day for honouring Non-Violent behaviour as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi is a bit ridiculous. Those who practice non-violent resistance in most societies these days are treated like outcasts and unpatriotic because they don't think what their government does in their name with violence is something to be proud of or to condone.

Oh sure it's alright when people do it other countries against governments we're told it's alright to disagree with, but when people at home do the same sort of thing that's different. Our governments would never deny us our rights or throw us in jail without trial like others do; we're a democracy after all. When we use violence it's all right and not something to be protested against.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945 it was with the purpose of creating a body where the world's nations would be able to resolve their differences without having to resort to warfare. The only problem is that most countries simply ignore the idea of a peaceful resolution, and then proceed to heap scorn of the U.N. for not accomplishing anything.

Until governments begin to practice the type of non-violence advocated by The Mahatma, October second will simply serve as a reminder of how far we as a species have to go before we can really be called civilized.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

August 12, 2007

DVD Review: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, or at least that's what companies like DeBeers would have you believe. But if you want a different opinion, maybe you should check with the people of Sierra Leone. For more then ten years the tiny West African country was torn apart by Civil War because the multinationals who control the Diamond mines in the country have no interest in any of the money staying in Sierra Leone.

According to information on the web site of the movie The Empire In Africa Sierra Leone is a country fabulously wealthy in natural resources, specifically Diamonds, while being one of the poorest countries per capita. Any time a government has been elected since independence in 1961 that looked to try and nationalize some of the Diamond money; a coup would conveniently occur that would re-establish a government that would retain the status quo.

In 1991 a group of disaffected army officers, intellectuals, and political activists began a rebellion in hopes of establishing a regime that would share the wealth amongst all the people. What followed was one of the bloodiest and ugliest ten years of civil war that any country in Africa had seen. At one point a coup was affected and the new government signed peace treaties with the rebel forces and gave them seats in parliament. The first act of the new parliament was to vote to nationalize the Diamond mines.

An embargo was immediately implemented preventing any medical supplies, food, or oil from reaching the country. With the help of mercenary soldiers, paid for by selling Diamond concessions to Thai business interests, the former government attacked Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and turned it into battlefield forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
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That's the way it always is of course, it's the innocents who suffer in cases like these. No matter what anybody says they are fighting for, the non-combatants are going to suffer horrendously. Refugees flooded into neighbouring Guinea for what they thought would be short stays of around three months and ended up in some cases being ten years before repatriation.

When your life is totally disrupted you look for any straw you can hold on to that will give you a semblance of normalcy. This was the motivation behind the formation of the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. In 2002 an American documentary film team was filming musicians in the refugee camps throughout West Africa when they came across the band rehearsing in a camp in Guinea. Out of that meeting came the documentary movie bearing the name of the band Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

The movie introduces us to the band members and gives us their individual stories. Two of them had been brutalized and had their hands cut off, other's parents had been killed, and still others had lost other family members. Music became the bond that tied them all together and united them into a family group.

Listening to each band member talk about what the band means to them you see they have no expectations from the music beyond giving them a means to distract themselves from their reality. Perhaps, considering their collective past, none of them dared to think too far into the future and were content to enjoy what they had in the moment.
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The film does a remarkable job of tracing the history of the band, from their first concert in their own camp, to touring other camps throughout Guinea, until they finally return, temporarily, to Sierra Leone for the first time in years in order to record their first album. Seeing their faces as they witness the devastation that has been visited upon Freeport for the first time is heart breaking. You can see their joy at being home warring with the shock of what they found awaiting their arrival.

While we are with the band they take us on a tour of some of the worst areas of the city where people are literally living in garbage dumps at the water's edge and sifting through flotsam and jetsam for items of value as a means of survival. If any argument other than that is needed to convince anyone of how desperate the situation is in Sierra Leone then they are blind.

One of the special features included in the DVD is a short film showing the band succeeding beyond any of their wildest dreams. First, not only is their disc recorded but they are taken to America to help promote the original film at various film festivals. They win over audiences with their impromptu street performances, exuberant attitude, and the fact that they really are so happy to be given the opportunity to show people their music.

But it's their appearance at the South West Music Conference that makes the whole tour worthwhile for them. Not only do they wow the audience but they also get a distribution deal and bookings into major music festivals around the world because of it. As happy endings go this one is pretty damn good.

The special features also include performances from their days in the camps and deleted scenes from the documentary. A final bonus feature is a small film from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees called "about ninemillion.org." The number nine million refers to the number of refugee children currently thought to exist in the world, and the web site itself is a portal that endeavours to tell their stories.

If the world was at all the place it should be this movie would never had been made and those refugee camps would never had existed. Instead through human greed and indifference to life we have turned countries around the world into hellholes of violence forcing people to flee their homes in terror. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your whole family killed in front of you and end up living in squalor depending on handouts from others to survive?

Tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people live like this today and little or nothing is done for them. Countries like Canada, the United States, Britain, and the European Union, the richest and most powerful nations in the world, close their doors to any seeking admittance or make it extremely difficult for them to enter. We begrudge them the measly amount of aid dollars we send and force them to trade away their futures by giving up rights to natural resources in exchange for high interest loans that cripple them indefinitely.

The story told in Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars is a beautiful homage to the power of the human spirit and hope. But the story behind that story is being re told in Darfur, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and through out Africa and other parts of the world on a daily basis and will continue to do so until we say enough is enough.

Given what the band members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars have been able to accomplish, can you imagine what they could do if they even only had the opportunities we take for granted? Let that be the message of this movie and maybe it will make a difference. They are only a few people among millions and millions who still living lives of desperation – don't they deserve the chance to show us what they are made of?

August 2, 2007

All The Unknown Soldiers

I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.

You know how it is with cab rides, sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.

Somehow it came up that he only drove cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work. How he could have had a full pension so young.

I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.

When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said 'you must have joined up when you were eighteen- and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.

He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. 'Shit' I think I must have said 'Is that why you're out, medical discharge' He shook his head, 'I did another tour after that'.

Being curious I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosavo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peace keeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.

He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight year old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a landmine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.

When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.

Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.

Our cab driver had been infantry; entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.

We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself "I guess I should say marksperson" with a smile.

'What about just calling them snipers" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.

Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines along side men. He confirmed that, the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.

The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semidetached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.

I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are over seas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorse.

We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane.

But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.

We only learn their names when they come back in their flag draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either paid "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on whose doing the talking.

It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it.. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.

We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight year despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve how would you feel?

If you know they tease each other because some of them out rank the others, (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant) and you know their grandfather's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?

I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go over seas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.

Isn't it the least we all can do?

July 30, 2007

Canadian Politics: Military Spending Part 2

One of the most lucrative contracts a private company can sign is any sort of deal they can make with a government. Not only do they know they will be guaranteed payment, supply contracts are usually long term. Whether it's supplying a ministry with office supplies or the janitorial staff with cleaning fluid you can usually be sure of your contract being renewed if you approach competence and the government doesn't change.

It's an accepted fact of life that somebody is going to hire their brother in law's firm to clean the toilets on Parliament Hill over a complete stranger. It's one of the ways that party loyalty is repaid the world over and not even an ethics commissioner would raise a fuss about it. But its supposed to be a different story when it comes to matters like multi year, multibillion-dollar defence contracts.

In Canada government's military contracts involve four separate ministries. The Department of National Defence (DND) sets out the specifications that the military requires from a particular piece of equipment; the Department of Public Works and Supply issues a request for proposals to determine a supplier; Industry Canada are asked to identify Canadian companies that could potentially act as sub-contractors for the production of required equipment and assess the regional economic benefits of each bid; and finally the Treasury Board finalizes the contract – they sign the cheques – and ensures everything is on the up and up according to their policies.

This may a sound a little complex, but what it is supposed to do is make sure that the bidding process is transparent and fair and that Canada is getting the best deal it can for the taxpayers money. But according to a recent report prepared for Canadian Center For Policy Alternatives called No Bang For The Buck the government of Canada has managed to arrange that more then 40% of the contracts signed in the fiscal year 2006-2007 were non-competitive. This information was obtained freely from Business Access Canada data available on Public Works contracts. (They do add the caveat that the government can and will withhold information about procurements that they consider matters of "National Security" – They can even re classify items after they have been released if they so desire as they have done with documents pertaining to the purchase of the Mercedes Benz "G-Wagon" troop carrier)

Instead of using the standard, bid on a tender and the company that can do the job best for the least amount of money winning the contract, the government has been using two systems which allow them to pre select a company of their choosing. Advance Contract Award Notices and Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications are the two ways that the government has been able to circumvent its own policies concerning accountability during the procurement process.

An Advance Contract Award Notice notifies the public that a company has been chosen by the government to fill a contract. The notice is posted for fifteen days on the Public Works web site. At any time during those fifteen days, another company may submit a proposal showing how they could fulfill the requirements of the contract with their equipment better than the one the government has selected. Somehow or other they never seem to measure up to the one the government has already selected.

Or in the case of the Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications procedure it's amazing how only one company seems to be able to make something just the way the government wants it. It's especially surprising when you consider they are all pretty much making the same thing.

Now although government claims that these practices both qualify as competitive bidding practices the Auditor General of Canada, Shelia Fraser, disputes that. In fact he states that her office made it's position on the subject clear in 1999-2000, "that Advance Contract Award Notices contribute very little to competitiveness". It appears to me that there are just too many ways for the government to manipulate the process to favor one company over another.

Of course that impression isn't helped any by some other information the No Bang For The Buck report reveals. Prior to his election as a Member of Parliament in 2004, Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor had been a lobbyist for twenty-six companies that sought government contracts. As a retired Brigadier-General in the Canadian army it should come as no surprise that a good many of them were companies who sought contracts with the Ministry of Defense.

That meant that in 2006 when he became Defense Minister he was only two years removed from lobbying that department on behalf of industry for lucrative contracts. Now there has been no evidence to implicate the minister in anything duplicitous. But the fact remains that he is in a position to influence decisions as to who gets awarded defense contracts, and the process for awarding the contracts has become far less competitive since he became minister.

The government has argued that it uses these methods as an attempt to speed up the process of acquiring equipment. They say that the equipment is badly needed for the soldiers in the field. If that were the case why have only 3% of the contracts been designated with the "Extreme Urgency" label that can be used to justify limited competition? Or if the materials are so important to our soldiers in the field why will the majority of it not even be available to them until after they have been withdrawn from Afghanistan?

According to former Deputy Minister of Procurements at DND, Alan Williams, this process is actually often as slow if not slower, than normal tender processes. According to him, the time spent by politicians and bureaucrats arguing over the requirements to fill the contract and which supplier should be used can sometimes take longer then a bidding process. They also increase the potential for a lawsuit against the government by disgruntled losing companies because decisions are made in secret. (Currently Airbus Military is considering legal action after losing out on two bids through this system).

Of course, the other problem with non-competitive bidding is that the government is ending up paying more money and losing potential industrial benefits. A United States Air Force study on procurement showed that in a non-competitive bidding situation the average cost of purchase was 20% higher. The Canadian government has awarded contracts worth 16 billion dollars in non-competitive contracts, which means that we are paying out around $3 billion we didn't have to.

But the real kicker is the money we lose on industrial spin offs. If these were competitive, a bidder would know they would have to give something to sweeten the pot-thus ensuring contracts to Canadian companies. But with no leverage over them, companies are playing fast and loose with the rules of the game. The rules state that for every dollar awarded to a foreign company to do sub contract work a dollar has to be awarded to a Canadian company.

But what happens if a contract is awarded to a foreign government – well that doesn't count and that dollar amount doesn't have to be matched. When Boeing was awarded the contract for four C-17 planes and a 20-year service contract – they subcontracted the service to the US Air Force at a cost of 1.8 billion dollars. Because the US Air Force is not a private company that's 1.8 billion dollars in spin off industry Canada misses out on.

If Boeing had been in a competitive bidding situation with another company, and that other company was willing to sub-contract the service contract to a Canadian company who do you think would have been awarded the contract? At the least Boeing might have at least felt compelled to match those terms.

The Conservative Party of Canada rode to power on the backs of promising open and accountable government. The previous government had been caught in a horrible cover up over the misappropriation of taxpayers money and the Conservatives were going to be the new broom that swept out corruption from Parliament Hill.

Judging by their behavior in awarding defense contracts, I'd say their broom isn't much different from the previous government's, if not actually worse. Perhaps we should be holding a public inquiry into how the government actually does figure out which company gets which contract? It's taxpayers money they're spending after all, and aren't they the ones who said they're needed to be more government accountability for how taxpayer money was spent?

Sixteen billion dollars is a fair chunk of change and I think I'd like to know how they made their decisions, wouldn't you?

July 17, 2007

Book Review: Reaper's Gale Steven Erikson

As far back as humans have been telling stories we've been telling ones of epic proportions. Even before we were writing things down, Homer in Greece and Valmiki in India were reciting the verses they had created commemorating the lives of cultural heroes. Later civilizations, like the Romans with Virgil's Aenead, co-opted the form to create a suitably heroic past for themselves.

Mythical or true the epic served the purpose of providing a culture with a hero of exemplary character who could be held up for all to emulate. Some cultures have created their religions on similar lines, with a central figure both worshipped and emulated. Over the years though the application of the word epic has changed and is usually only used to indicate the size and breadth of the narrative.

Long gone are epics created meant to serve a culture as guidelines, mainly because that role is no longer necessary, but that still doesn't mean the term should be tossed about as lightly as it is today and applied to writing just because it runs into multiple instalments or a huge number of words. How many times have you read of something being described as a "sweeping epic narrative of …"?

Nine times out of ten it usually means the author has written thousands of pages of pointless drivel based on some romantic notion of history. It's the reading equivalent of eating a ten course meal of fast food – it's the same as a ten course meal of gourmet food in size, but has none of the substance that makes you remember it an hour after you've eaten.
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Steven Erikson's series Malazan Book Of The Fallen, published by Bantam Press, definitely qualifies as a gourmet banquet of delights. The publication of the seventh book, Reaper's Gale, of his ten book contribution to the story of the Malazan Empire is another indication of how impressive his talents truly are. (A fellow Canadian author has now joined Mr. Erikson in contributing to telling the story of the Empire, Ian C. Eslemont's first instalment Night Of Knives is being released by Bantam on July 24th)

Over the course of the first six books of the series Mr. Erikson has managed what I consider the remarkable achievement of creating a multitude of characters and plots without once allowing his work to descend into confusion. In fact he's one of the few authors I know where the introduction of new plots and characters actually clarifies matters instead of confusing them further.

The reason he is able to accomplish this seemingly difficult task is his patience as a writer. He allows his characters and his plots plenty of time to develop so his readers are able to be comfortable with both the situations and the people. People who were briefly introduced in early books as chance encounters, come back in a later book to have their story told in full and their place in the history explained. They might then be set aside for another entire book, but when we meet them again we know who they are and what their role is destined to be.

The title Reaper's Gale is a reference to the old saying about "reaping a whirlwind" as a consequence of your actions. A number of assorted plots and schemes have been launched by a variety of beings, ranging from mortal to God, over the course of the first six books, and now they are reaping that Gale.

The Malazan armies have landed on the coast of Letherii to ferment rebellion against the Tiste Edur who has conquered that Empire. But the battle between elements of the Fourteenth army and the Tiste Edur and Letherii forces is only one layer of the battle. While the mortals wage bloodthirsty war, plots and counter plots are being acted out around them on all levels of reality.
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What holds everything together is Erikson's wonderful skill in creating characters. Unlike the epics of old where there is one character who was representative of all that was supposedly admirable about a culture, we have a multitude of characters who represent all that is the best and the worst of humankind. Of course there are heroes and villains, but then there are also the others who are neither or the ones we will always be unsure of.

Erikson makes it clear that good and evil have nothing to do with nationality or race. Among the supposed enemy there are just as many good men and women in the armies opposed to the invading forces, who are just as capable of heroic and selfless acts as anybody else. The villains in these stories have never been soldiers after all, rather those who use them to obtain wealth and power for themselves.

It's probably no accident that the God who tempts with the means to obtain power over others is crippled, and those who utilize his gifts more often then not end up with bodies as deformed and pain ridden as their patron. Their physical deformity is testimony to the corruption of their minds and a manifestation of their diseased souls.

The epic stories of old were told to recount the exploits of heroes and to try and impart to their readers and listeners something of the scale of the events. Battles were fought that changed the course of history, and all of the events were larger then life. Erikson not only retains those elements he improves on the format by introducing the human element with the characters he creates.

It's through these characters that we are drawn into the story, instead of being left on the outside watching a larger than life hero. We want to know what happens to them and that more then anything else is what keeps us turning the pages. Everything about these books is well written, from the descriptions of the surroundings to the chaos of battle, but it's our investment in his characters that make all those elements matter.

Reaper's Gale is another wonderful instalment in Steven Erikson's remarkable creation The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Reading his work is a reminder of what epic fiction really is. Readers in Canada can buy Reaper's Gate directly from Random House Canada or other online retailers like Amazon Canada

July 11, 2007

Canadian Army Blocks Access To Information About Afghan Detainees

Well the Canadian armed forces have finally cottoned on to a trick the American Army has been utilizing since the beginning of their invasion of Iraq. The best way to make sure that everybody believes what you tell them is to suppress any evidence that contradicts your version of events.

Last spring there was a great stink raised about what was happening to Afghani people detained by Canadian soldiers. It turned out that our soldiers were being asked to turn over all detainees to the Afghan security forces even though they knew full well that the majority of those turned over would not be treated according to conventions regarding the treatment of combatants captured during a war time situation.

Detainees were being denied access to basic human necessities, forced to defecate in their cells, and tortured. At first the Canadian government said that the Red Cross was monitoring the conditions of individuals who Canada handed over. When that turned out to be false, and the agreement signed by General Rick Hiller, head of the Canadian Armed Forces, with the Afghan security forces made no allowances for monitoring the treatment of individuals turned over by Canada, the government promised changes.

You see not only was that behaviour a violation of the spirit of The Geneva Convention, it also was in direct violation of Canadian law. Any person detained by Canada or its representatives, in this case the army, can not be turned over to a foreign power if there is reason to suspect they will be subject to cruel and unusual punishment as defined by Canada's laws.

The fact that a Canadian newspaper reporter was able to reveal the conditions the detainees were being kept in through the simple expedient of getting a list of their names and then going to interview them was not lost on the Department Of National Defence (DND). So just as the government promised changes have been instituted that affects the army's dealings with detainees. They just might not be the changes people expected.

To give the government their due it's true they never said what the changes would be, but I'm sure most people figured it would be something along the lines of improved monitoring of conditions to ensure compliance with the laws of Canada. Instead the office of General Hillier has announced that all further requests for information about detainees captured by Canadian soldiers would be denied.

It doesn't matter if you phone them, ask real nice, or apply through the Access to Information Act they're not even going to tell you how many, if any, were captured. Why? Well because according to them revealing to the public how many Afghanistan prisoners Canadian soldiers have captured could endanger the lives of those same Canadian soldiers. (The fact that they are in Afghanistan endangers their lives too but that doesn't seem as much a cause for concern)

The Strategic Joint Staff, a new group set up to advise General Hillier, after reviewing all the information made public leading up to last spring's revelation has told the DND's Director of Access to Information, Julie Jansen, just what she can and can't release anymore for reasons of (All Together Now) National Security.

Information that is considered to be damaging to the Canadian Armed Forces ability to carry out its duties in battle includes detainee transfer logs, medical records, witness statements, and other processing forms. Gen. Hillier himself interceded to ensure that Canadians don't find out how many individuals are captured, such was his concern for the welfare of the troops.

When asked point blank if there was any proof that this information had compromised the security of Canadian Soldiers, DND spokesperson Marc Raider said that information couldn't be provided for reasons of operational security. Orwell couldn't have written it any better.

Interestingly enough all the information that has become so potentially threatening to soldiers in the field is the same information DND had no problem releasing in 2005/06 which led to the revelations of abuse of detainees by Afghan and Canadian forces (allegations that three detainees were abused by Canadian soldiers are currently being investigated). Professor Amir Attaran of the University Of Ottawa had been the one to make the requests for information and who had revealed the discrepancies between reality and what the Canadian government was telling people.

He contests the only way this information could harm Canadian soldiers is if there was evidence of wrongdoing on their parts. In particular if documents proved that senior military officers in Canada's military had played any active role in the proceedings, or even aided and abetted wrongdoing, it could be a matter of war crimes.

The professor also stated that it would be very hard for the military to justify in court blocking the release of information they had no problems with making public less then a year ago in some cases. A court of law might think that the defence offered by Lieutenant Colonel Dana Clarke of the Strategic Joint Staff, attributing the release of information at that time to the fact that the Forces had not been in a combat situation since the Access to Information Act came into play, a little suspect.

Ignorance of the law is no defence when you're caught breaking it, and considering that the Access to Information Act has been around for twenty-four years claiming ignorance of how it would affect your behaviour is a pretty flimsy excuse. In fact for a department where secrecy can be of such paramount importance not being familiar with those aspects of an Act that directly impacts on you amounts to gross incompetence.

Although that is troublesome, what should be of more concern is the reaction of the Military, and therefore this government to the whole situation. They were confronted with a set of circumstances that the people of Canada were unhappy about. Instead of taking steps to prevent the problem from occurring again in the future, they've decided it's better if nobody knows if there is a problem or not.

No one can accuse the Conservative Party of Canada of being slow learners, as they've shown themselves quick to emulate their idols in power to the South time after time. It was only a matter of time before they learned the tricks of the Pentagon when it comes to fighting that most hated of enemies during wartime, the press. What they don't know can't hurt you.

It's one thing in a time of war to not publicize troop movements and locations, that's only common sense and will hopefully give soldiers a better chance of survival. But to prevent the dissemination of information only because it reflects badly on your behaviour or to hide illegal activity is not just morally wrong it's also illegal.

In a democracy nobody is above the law, especially the military. Any suspicion of incorrect behaviour needs to be dealt with quickly and openly. Behaviour like this from the Department of National Defence dishonours the memory of the men and women who have died in this or any war by putting their actions under a cloud of suspicion.

That is the worst injustice of all.

June 7, 2007

DVD Review: Darfur Diaries: Message From Home

There's a point in one of the interviews with a director of Darfur Diaries: Message From Home in the special features section of the DVD where she mentions one of the bitter ironies of the crises in Darfur. A group of dignitaries from the international community had come together to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and apologise for having allowed it to happen.

As they were all standing up there swearing that they would never let something like that happen again and how they would be supper vigilant to prevent it, the government of Sudan was busy bombing and slaughtering its own people in the province of Darfur.

Darfur Diaries: Message From Home was shot in 2004 by three young film makers who traveled to Darfur on their own and spent time in both Northern and Southern areas of the province, and refugee camps in the neighbouring country of Chad, interviewing the people who had been affected by the attacks. Burnt out houses stand as mute testimony to the bombing raids conducted by the government against its own citizens.

Even as they filmed an Anatolov bomber flew over dropping bombs randomly on the countryside. Parents cried out to children "don't run, sit down under the trees so they can't see you". The pilots of the bombers circle around and target movement and release their bombs killing indiscriminately. Livestock, humans, it doesn't seem to matter as long as the people and their abilities to survive are destroyed.
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Just like genocides that have been conducted all over the world, from North America to Asia, the theory goes to completely destroy a people destroy their means of survival. With the natives of North America it was taking away their food supply by exterminating it, with the people of Darfur the policy seems is to destroy their villages and steal their livestock as well as killing them.

After the bombers the strategy of the government was to send in both the Sudanese army and vigilante groups to kill, rape, and steal from the people. Families are exterminated and survivors are forced to flee after watching their loved one killed in front of them. The excuse the government makes for these attacks is the existence of the Sudanese Liberation Army.

They conveniently forget that the rebel army only formed in response to increasing discrimination against Africans in Sudan and to the attacks upon their villages by the government forces. The little that the media has reported on what was happening in Darfur was to ape what the government said; not bothering to find out for themselves what the story was.

What's wonderful about Dafur Diaries is that the only times stuff like politics is mentioned is in the interviews with the filmmakers in the special features. For the people on the ground what matters is what's happened to them and being given opportunity to tell their story. From the young boy who looks into the camera and talks of watching his brother being shot, to the mothers talking about their babies and their injuries.

The filmmakers interview children who draw pictures of men on camels and horses firing guns; of soldiers in jeeps firing guns; and planes dropping bombs on villages and setting them on fire. They draw pictures of people running away with their arms in the air from men with guns and swords who are charging on horses. They draw pictures of dead people laid out on the ground.

Sudan has long been comprised of two distinct Muslim populations, Arab and African. According to the people interviewed it has a long history of the two races co-existing peacefully with intermarriages commonplace. Only since the coup that brought the existing government into power have measures been taken against the majority African population to reduce their means of making a livelihood. There were occasional disputes about grazing rights but the people interviewed in this movie claim they were always settled amicably.

Now however the government has created a racial war, to keep a majority population in check. But not even within the minority Arab population is there unanimity for this war. It appears that aside from the government and it's army – the only people who support the war are the crooks, rapists, and miserable excuses for human beings who raid the villages after the bombing raids.

The government started attacking the Africans by cutting funding to the village schools, until there was no money to pay for teachers and supplies. They also arrested all the teachers on charges of treason and tortured them. One man interviewed showed the scars where he had been beaten with bricks by his guards and told about other teachers still in jail.

What's wondrous is the lack of anger displayed by the Africans towards the Arab population of Sudan in general. As one puts it the government is using the Arab people like a weapon and don't really care about them anymore than they care about us. In fact according to the Sudanese Liberation Army in villages to the north where there is extensive intermingling between the two peoples just as many Arabs are dieing as Africans.

Nobody seems to want to venture as to why this has happened. But in some ways the why is not as important as the fact that it is happening. A government is systematically killing a segment of its own population through without remorse or hesitation. They are destroying whole villages and forcing people to leave their homes for any shelter they can find elsewhere.

To me it seems obvious why the government is doing this – they want the land for the people they would prefer to have it. Just like everywhere else that indigenous people have been inconvenient enough to be living where the government wants to make use of the land, the quickest and easiest way of dealing with the matter is to kill or force them off the land.

Darfur Diaries: Message From Home is wonderful in its simplicity. The people tell the stories of what happened to them, tell you about themselves and their families, and are completely matter of fact. These are the faces of the people we never see in the news stories, and the voices we never hear.

Who better to tell the story of what is happening to them than the people to whom it is happening, and this movie acts as a direct pipeline from them to whoever will listen. Don't you think you owe it to them to listen?

June 2, 2007

Music Review: Viggo Mortensen & Buckethead Pandemoniumfromamerica

Not everyone was happy with the direction George Bush was taking the United States in 2003 when he set out on his course of conquest and empire building. Today it has become much more fashionable to be against the conflict in Iraq, just as a generation ago the opposition to the Viet Nam war became stylish as the conflict drew to a close.

But for those lonely voices back in the early stages of the War On Terror it must have felt like they were yelling into a gale for all that anybody seemed to be listening. The noise of patriotism and righteous indignation could be heard emitting from every television and radio; blaring from every headline; and oozing out of every opportunistic mouth.

To those trying to tell the world that perhaps there might be a contrasting opinion to the one that was being touted by the administration it must have been obvious that they needed to make a lot of noise in an original way if they wanted to make their voices heard over the din. Pandemoniumfromamerica was an attempt made by Viggo Mortensen and his companion in sonic disruption, Buckethead, to do just that.
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Joined by their friends Henry Mortensen, (Viggo's son) Dominic Monahan, Billy Boyd, and Elijah Wood, they attempted to not just voice their opposition to the war but to describe what it felt like to be caught up in the maelstrom of America at the time. At first blush the tracks may not appear to have anything to do with the subject at hand, but this is not a typical CD of protest music.

For instance what does a distorted version of "Red Rive Valley" have to do with anything at all concerning the war or America? One could make some deep comments about it being symbolic about the loss of naiveté and innocence in America as it is such a sentimental pieces of silliness. But perhaps they are commenting more on the dangers of commercial sentiment as opposed to real emotion and how it can be used to manipulate reactions from people.

What else would you call appeals to the flag, patriotism, family values, the American Way of Life, and God's on our side? They are all manufactured by forces outside of you with the express purpose of triggering a reaction. It's a Pavlov and the dogs type of thing; see how many hoops we can push them through by invoking cheap sentimental imagery.

Real emotion is something you create naturally, not as a response to some man made manipulative imagery. It's no coincidence that Pandemoniumfromamerica is dedicated to Noam Chomsky the media critic and linguist. It was Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent who outlined how the American public had been duped by Papa Bush's administration and the media into going along with the first Gulf War through sentimental manipulations and outright lies.

The title track of the CD uses a poem by William Blake, the 19th century British Romantic poet and opium eater, To be honest I'm that big a fan of most Romantic poetry, finding it overblown and lacking in subtlety, but in this instance the poem Viggo selects help to create the mood of what they see happening in America. The mood of the piece suggests the babble of confusion that arose at the time.

Its effect is increased by the fact it falls on the heels of Viggo's response to the war, the poem "Back To Babylon". It can be taken both literally as being the return of American forces to the Middle East or as commentary on the descent into barbarism that accompanies a declaration of war.
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Don't come listening to Pandemoniumfromamerica expecting to find it full of pop music or even a collection of Mortensen's poetry. Musically speaking it's not what you'd call incredibly refined either, with Buckethead and Henry being the only legitimate threats as musicians on the recording. But despite this the other contributors have a sensitivity to the moods and emotions of pieces so their contributions fill the space with sound that's appropriate for creating the atmosphere needed for the words being presented.

There is an all-pervasive feeling of anxiety that percolates throughout the recording that reflects the state of mind of America in the days following Sept. 11 2001. Like the homeowner who was told that their gated community was invulnerable to the chaos of the society around them, America found that you couldn't lock the world out. Living lives of conspicuous consumption and self-absorption is no guarantee of immunity from the world's realities anymore.

Violated and afraid, and suffering from mass post-traumatic stress syndrome, the American people were easy prey to the manipulations of those who had their own agendas. More then willing to take advantage of everyone's grief and whip it into a froth of patriotic fervour and hatred to achieve their own ends, the leaders they elected to guide them through moments of crises with compassion and courage betrayed their confidence.

Listening to Pandemoniumfromamerica as an entity instead of as a collection of songs, one hears the anxiety, the betrayal, and the confusion. When an artist shows society its reflection in the mirror of his or her work the picture is not always going to be to everyone's liking. Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead have created a mirror that doesn't pander to anyone's self interest or ego; the sounds of a society in turmoil and confusion are never pleasant.

April 28, 2007

Whose Terrorising Who?

Almost everyday the newspapers are filled with accounts of violent activity in Iraq. A car bomb here, a suicide bomb there, gunfire at a checkpoint, even an outbreak of outright hostilities on occasion. We know that the victims of these attacks are usually either Iraqi or American personnel serving in either the armed forces or security services.

The newspapers say that it is the work of faceless creatures called insurgents or even worse radical fundamentalist Muslims. They never offer any explanation as to possible reasons for these people to be fighting against the American forces that occupy their country except to say that they are insurgents or fundamentalist Muslims, or even scarier both.

In other words the only reason that they pick up weapons against the Americans is because of who they are, not because of anything that's been done to them. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that for the ten years prior to the invasion the country got steadily poorer as the embargo and the Oil for food programs steadily stripped the country of any means of generating income to pay for infrastructure, health care, education, and other things we take for granted.

It doesn't have anything to do with hospitals being bombed, museums being looted, Iraq's natural resources (mainly oil) being sold into private American hands and the money from the sales mysteriously disappearing. The theory had been sell off Iraq's assets at bargain prices to American interests and use that money to rebuild the country.

If there had been any sign of hope, or progress towards rebuilding things might be different. But what are people supposed to believe when they read reports of hundreds of millions of dollars just going missing that was earmarked for rebuilding? An initial audit from one city showed just that happening and who knows how wide spread it's become in the interim.

What would you think if the people who were behind the violence weren't doing it out of some fanatical Muslim belief? What would you think if they were people who were reacting to their treatment at the hands of people they believed didn't give a damn for them or their lives?

Put yourself in the shoes of the average twenty something Iraqi for a few moments in the above circumstances. Now add into the fact that you're treated with absolute disdain in your own country. People who can't speak your language, who don’t understand or respect your traditions, constantly yell at you in a language you don't speak; telling you what to do and how to behave.

In your eyes they desecrate your places of religion, they act like your culture that has existed for thousands of years is insignificant, and in their eyes you are less than a person. It seems to you that for no reason at all they invade your house and kill your friends, if not your family, whenever the mood strikes them.

Doesn't anybody find it odd that a person whose father was put to death by Saddam Hussein has become one of the biggest opponents of the American opposition? Wasn't the point to liberate people like him from the tyranny of Saddam? If that's the case why have they, over the course of the occupation, taken up arms against the Americans?

Could it be because they are tired of the way they are being ignored in their own country? Could it be that although they are grateful for the release from Saddam Hussein, they would like to have some say in how their country is put back together? Maybe they don’t want all their natural resources sold off to the highest bidder so that when they do have self-rule their economy is in foreign ownership?

We like to say that the reason behind all the violence is outside forces like Iran stirring up trouble, or people who've been promised paradise if they die on the battlefield. Our politicians and the "Muslim Experts" will recite this information by rote if you push the right button. They hate we say, in shocked disbelief, as we shake our heads at the wonder that anybody could hate the glorious West with our sacred cows of material wealth and self indulgence.

Sometimes I wonder how so many people can have their heads that far up their asses and still be breathing? What reason have we ever given the Arab world, especially Iraqis to like us? Try putting the situation on the ground for the people living in Iraq for the past sixteen years together with the insurgent activity? Can you see any connection between the two? If not I'd say that Western myopia has gone beyond pathetic to dangerous.

Look you kick someone in the ass long enough and make them feel like shit, they're bound to snap sooner or latter. They don't need to be fanatical this or that, they just need to be ordinary human beings who have been pushed too far and live with violence everyday. You grow up in a world where everything revolves around bombs and machine guns you might start thinking that is the only means of problem resolution.

I'm the last person in the world to condone violence. But there are times I can understand where it comes from. The mistake the West keeps on making is that we are constantly pouring gasoline on a fire. We have to stop responding to violence with increased violence and begin owning up to our share of the responsibility for creating the situation and circumstances that led to the violence.

We in the West have to stop thinking that our way is the only way and learning to meet people half way. We need to start making an effort to understand other peoples instead of lumping them all together as "different". We are the new kid on the block in terms of civilizations and yet we act as if any other ways of being are at best inferior to ours, if not wrong.

Where do we get off judging anybody else and their ways of being? Even amongst ourselves we can't reach any conclusions about how best to live our lives, so how dare we try to impose anything on others. What gives us the right to do that anyway?

I don't support the activities of terrorists of any stripe; whether they have homemade bombs they blow up in cars that wipe out anybody who happens to be in the vicinity or they drop bombs from airplanes thousands of feet above surface of the earth that wipe out whole city blocks indiscriminately. But we need to stop thinking of the people who are called terrorists by our press as faceless beings to be dismissed as "fundamentalists" or "insurgents".

There are humans behind those labels and the quicker we start putting faces to them, the quicker we will be able to bring the violence to a halt. I may not approve of either form of terrorism, but I can understand one better than the other. If my country were invaded by a foreign power I might fight back in anyway, or with any means at my disposal too.

April 27, 2007

Book Review: The Sirens Of Baghdad Yasmina Khadra

You were eight years old when they invaded the first time. At that time your village was ignored. The tribe went on much as it had since even before they settled and gave up the ways of wandering the desert. Nobody cared for a little village made of mud and straw.

But Oil For Food and embargos take their effect and as you've grown to manhood your country has begun to disintegrate around you. Somehow your father managed to find money enough to send you to university in Baghdad, but one night during your studies the sky explodes and your future ends.

You return to your village and do nothing, because there is nothing for anyone anymore. The war hasn't come to your little village, but you and everyone else, watch it on television every day in the café. The talk is of resistance and self-recrimination.

"The Americans wouldn't have come if we had had the spine to get rid of Saddam on our own"

"They would have come anyway for the Oil; to pump us dry"

"They came to make sure that Israel stays the power centre of the region"
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The Sirens Of Baghdad, published by Doubleday Books an imprint of Random House Canada, is the latest novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul). Like his earlier works Wolf Dreams and In The Name Of The God Med. Khadra takes us into the world of the men and women who have been pushed so far by circumstances that they've ended up on the path of violence and vengeance.

For our nameless protagonist in The Sirens Of Baghdad the killing of an autistic young man by American soldiers at a check – point, the accidental bombing of a wedding party in the village that killed village elders, and finally a raid on his house looking for weapons by American troops who humiliate his father are what put his feet on that road. It wasn't so much the first two incidents, they were merely horrific and caused him to faint, it was the last one; the assault upon his family's honour that pushed him over the edge.
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An empty vessel, or a vacuum, will eventually have to be filled with something. When his one armed, elderly father is knocked down by a soldier and ends up laid out on the floor of the house with his genitals exposed (In the Bedouin tradition a son must never see his father in a state of undress, and to be exposed to his genitals is the gravest of dishonours) because he wanted to put some pants on to cover his nakedness, the floodgates of anger are opened and it streams in to fill the void created by hopelessness.

As the story develops and we follow our young man to Baghdad where he hopes to strike a blow against the occupiers, Khadra shows us in no uncertain terms how the American occupation of Iraq has driven the young men to a life of terror. It's the complete indifference to them as people or any sort of recognition that their culture and beliefs matter that turn them into killers.

"I wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn" Is how more then one character describes how they felt when they left their villages to come to Baghdad in the hopes of joining the resistance. Our newspapers are filled with stories about fanatical zealots who are promised paradise in reward for their martyrdom when the truth is far different.

Most of them are simply young men who have no hope anymore,. All their dreams have been crushed and they no longer see any reason for living. If by their deaths they can bring some meaning into their life and regain a vestige of the self-respect they feel has been stolen from them and their country, they will.

Our young man connects up with people from his village in Baghdad who have become one of the "resistance groups" that blow up anything they feel like. Khadra doesn't paint them like heroes or martyrs; he describes them as people so full of anger that they don't care who they kill anymore. They want revenge on the world for what they see as the injustices served upon them.

At one point in their lives they may have been like our young man who abhorred violence to such an extent that he was ostracized as a child for being "womanish" and had fainted at the sight of blood. But now he idles away his time in Baghdad going to the scenes of terror attacks and rejoicing in his complete lack of feeling.

He is so far gone that he's almost beyond being touched by anything. When one of his compatriots dares to suggest that their cause is just but they might be going about in the wrong way he tries to ignore him. Even when told the truth about a brave suicide attack on soldiers; the man had become sickened by the violence after he blew up a school bus full of children and strapped belts of bread to himself to look like he was wearing bombs and got an American sentry post to shoot him to a pulp; he is not swayed.

Yasmina Khadra has shown in the past that he has an amazing capability for creating characters that are believable and whose actions are consistent with what they are and where they've come from. He tells a story in a manner that is reminiscent of the way Bertol Brecht wrote theatre, while we can fairly easily predict what will happen, that isn't important.

What's important is why the story happens and how. It is information that we in the West have been turning a blind eye to for years. Instead of being willing to shoulder our share of the blame for creating these people or at least the circumstances that allows them to exist, we find it convenient to blame it on their religion. Until we are willing to accept the responsibility for our actions we will be at constant risk from someone who has been completely inured to violence and has lost all that he or she cares about.

We see these people around us in the West too, the ones who are willing to destroy the world as vengeance for the wrongs committed against them. One only needs to look at what happened at West Virginia Tech. to see that.

Khadra's gift is being able to turn the world on its head and give us a view we never see. Life is seen through the eyes of the people we habitually call rag heads or evil. These people see the soldiers of the West as brutes who yell at them in an incomprehensible language, make no attempt to understand what's important to them, and treat them like they are all evil.

Khadra reminds us that the location of Baghdad marks one of the birth spots of all civilization, for it was on the banks of the Tigris that humans created some of their first settlements. The people who live there take pride in their history and their culture and when you look at the world through those eyes; and they are also the eyes of a person who sees no hope for a world any better then what he has now, you can't help but at least understand the experiences that make them "terrorists"

The Sirens Of Baghdad is a warning and an education that every Western person should have as required reading. If we fail to learn anything from this book or heed its warnings than quite frankly we're only getting what we deserve. The world doesn't end at the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard and we would do well to start remembering that sooner rather then latter.

Canadian residents can purchase copies of The Sirens of Baghdad through Amazon.ca or directly from Random House Canada

April 26, 2007

Canadian Politics: Support Our Troops! What Support?

Any time that someone dares to criticize Canada's policy in Afghanistan they are accused of not supporting our troops. The theory seem to be that by demanding that they be returned home to not be blown into a million tiny pieces in a war they have no business fighting you are sapping their morale.

Steven Harper and his government have been singing the same refrain ever since they took office; no decent, patriotic Canadian would say anything against our armed forces being in Afghanistan because that wouldn't be supportive. We have to rally behind them and let them know we believe in them and the job they're doing, otherwise they may not feel appreciated.

Over and over again they reiterate how proud they are of the men in Afghanistan who are risking their lives on a daily basis because they sent them there. They have become emotional pawns in a publicity war between the government and those in the opposition parties. By accusing the opposition of not supporting the troops the government is trying to take the spotlight away from the issues about the war.

Instead of allowing for a debate on whether or not it's the right thing for our country to be doing sending troops over to Afghanistan they are attempting to turn it into an either you care about the soldiers or you don't. In actual fact the issues at hand have nothing to do with anybody's feelings about the soldiers, save for the fact of is the mission in Afghanistan worthy of spending their lives on it. I would think if you believe it's not and you say so then you care at least as much, if not more, for the troops as those who believe it is okay for them to die there.

Of course there is a lot of irony involved with this government's emotional pleas to support out troops. This is the same government that moved to cancel lowering the flag on parliament hill when a soldier was killed in Afghanistan. It is the same government that tried its best to forbid ceremonies at the airbases when those who had made the "supreme sacrifice" returned to Canada.

It was only after the families of the first fatalities starting protesting in the press about the lack of respect the government was showing their children that they began to relent somewhat. I'd hate to think what the case would have been if the government weren’t in a minority position and were trying to win a majority in the next election. They can't afford to alienate anybody who might be their natural constituency or not only won't they win a majority in the next election they could be defeated.

In fact a recent poll already shows that the lead they had built up recently has now evaporated again and they are falling back to the same position they were in at the end of the last election. The fact that this poll was taken before the recent revelations that the government had been lying about what they knew and didn't know about the treatment of prisoners of war that Canada was turning over to Afghanistan security forces might mean they are even worse off than this poll shows.

But what could hurt them even more than those revelations are the reports starting to come out of the office of the armed forces ombudsman on the treatment of soldier's families by the Department of Defence. Although the two investigations that Yves Côté, military ombudsman currently reported on could be laid at the feet of previous governments as they date back to 2002 and 2005 respectively, the current folk won't be able to dodge it completely as some of the problems reported on are more recent.

What the report says is that the means of transmitting information to the families of two soldiers, one suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and the other killed in a training exercises, have been without compassion for the feelings of either soldier's family.

As a result of the investigations into those two cases Mr. Cote says he also came across records of numerous occasions where families of wounded soldiers requesting information about their child's welfare have been treated like a bureaucratic problem rather than human beings. Now he doesn't offer any dates for those letters but as casualties have escalated substantially in the past year one, and the report has only just been tabled it's easy to believe the practise has continued to this day.

In fact his conclusions lead one to believe that is the case as he said he is very troubled that the families of Canadian armed forces personal continue to be treated like second-class citizens to this day. That would mean that the current government has been in power for part of the time that this report covers, and has done nothing to implement recommendations that were made by the military ombudsman's office in 2005 that the treatment of families by the ministry needed to be improved upon.

Mr. Cote's primary concerns are the military's unwillingness to deal with the requests for information – he experienced delays of up to twelve months in accessing reports, something that had never happened before (none of this information is of military importance whose revelation could harm soldiers in the field) and familie's requests for information were first ignored and them treated with disdain.

What will he find when he finishes his next investigation – the treatment of families whose children have died in service to their country? Already we've seen the message sent by this government is the less said or done about them the better and families were insulted by their behaviour. If that was official policy it is more than likely it will be reflected in the attitudes displayed by the Defence Department.

What I wonder is how this qualifies as "Supporting Our Troops"? Surely part of that support has to extend to the families whose children, brothers, and husbands are being put at risk in the war zone? Don't you think if you were serving overseas that you would want your family to be able to find out how you are doing as quickly as possible and be treated compassionately if you were injured? How would you feel if you knew that your parents were being treated like a pest if you were injured and they were trying to find out how you were?

I'd be pretty pissed off is how'd I feel.

The next time the government goes on and on about how much they support the troops ask yourself what that really means? Ask yourself if a government really cared about the people it sent overseas wouldn't that include treating their families with respect and compassion? You would think so wouldn't you?

April 24, 2007

Canadian Politics: Canada Ignores Geneva Convention In Afghanistan

Up until a little over a month ago the Canadian Minister of Defence, Gordon O'Connor, was assuring Canadians that prisoners of war that Canada handed over to the Afghanistan government were having their treatment monitored by the Red Cross. Unlike any of the other countries serving as part of the occupying force in Afghanistan Canada has no arrangement in place allowing them to monitor the well being of the detainees they turn over, so we have to rely on third party reports.

It turns out he was wrong about that one as neither the Red Cross or the Red Crescent societies were monitoring the conditions of any of the Prisoners Of War being held by the Afghan government. When Mr. O'Connor came clean about that in the Canadian Parliament last month, he said not to worry though because the Afghan Human Rights people would let the military know if anybody was being mistreated.

You see according to the Geneva Convention no nation is allowed to turn over a prisoner to another nation if it suspects it will be tortured. If it finds out the prisoner is being tortured it must intervene on his or her behalf to prevent the torture from continuing or demand that the prisoner be returned to their custody.

Of course in order to do this a government must have the means in place to be informed of the well being of anybody who they had handed over to an allied power. For reasons best known to themselves, Defence Minister O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Hiller couldn't be bothered insuring that we had anyway of living up to our responsibilities under the convention.

The only reason I can think for not having that language in a prisoner transfer agreement is that they don't have it the one they've established with the United States, even though those detainees end up in Guantanemo Bay where they are tortured. Of course the United States circumvents that problem by claiming none of the people they are fighting in Afghanistan are eligible for status as Prisoners of War.

Because the war is over anybody taking up arms against the occupying forces are terrorists and not soldiers. This despite the fact that while the Taliban may not be fighting a conventional war they have primarily gone after military targets and terrorist type attacks on civilians have been few and far between. (Please don't get me wrong, I've no sympathy whatsoever for the Taliban, but that doesn't mean we treat them any worse than we would want our people to be treated)

That means when Canada transfers prisoners to the United States we are able to ignore the fact that they will probably be tortured or at least kept in conditions contrary to the Geneva Convention. In fact the Americans havn't even felt the need to release the names of those being held let alone allow third party monitoring.

In the agreement signed with Afghanistan both parties agreed to comply with the Convention to ensure that all detainees' were well treated. But the Afghanistan security forces obviously have a far different opinion than the rest of the world as to what constitutes cruel and unusual.

You see it turns out that at least thirty people who the Canadian army have turned over to the Afghanistan security forces have been tortured while in custody. In a series of face to face interviews with thirty detainees Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith heard stories of beatings, electric shock, whippings, starvation, choking and freezing during interrogation.

Of course with these revelations the opposition parties want Defence Minister O'Connor's head on a platter. After over a year of assurances from him that there was nothing to worry about concerning the treatment of detainees after they left Canadian hands it's proven that he and all others involved in the agreement were either lying from ignorance or with deliberate intent to mislead the people of Canada.

Either way they are guilty of allowing the circumstances for these people being tortured to develop. If the Canadian government's representatives had only made a small effort to ascertain the condition of their former detainees they could have intervened as was their responsibility as set forth by the Geneva Convention. If a reporter for a newspaper was able to get access to these people how difficult would it have been for the military to keep tabs on them?

The ironic thing is that each and every one of the detainees interviewed had nothing but positive things to say about their treatment at the hands of the Canadian armed forces. They were treated with kindness and respect even though they might have been trying to kill their captors hours earlier and the detention facility was comfortable. One man did say he was certain that the soldiers knew he was being mistreated because some who visited him told him that he should give his Afghan interrogators real information or they would continue to hurt him.

It makes one wonder how is it Canadian soldiers were able to get into see their former prisoner so easily, and know what was going on in terms of torture, but somehow their superiors didn't. Is the chain of command that useless soldiers don't feel comfortable informing their superiors about events like this, or did they report the matter and nothing was done?

There are far too many unanswered questions and loose ends for the Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Heller to simply say we didn't know what was going on. There is no justification for them to have allowed this situation to develop and to not do anything about it until they were forced to. Whatever moral high ground they may have thought they had from trying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban is fast eroding out from under them.

April 17, 2007

Guernica: Seventy Years Later And Nothings Changed

There have been quite a number of ceremonies in recent years honouring historic battles and the like from the twentieth century. Just last weekend Canadians "celebrated" the ninetieth anniversary of their participation in the slaughter of Vimy Ridge during World War One (why if they've waited this long they couldn't hold out for another ten years for the centenary I don't know) with the opening of a new memorial in France at the site of the battle.

Of course the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, couldn't pass up the opportunity to link Canada's presence at Vimy with the Canadian troops being killed in Afghanistan today. Not that he said anything remotely resembling the truth; ninety years later and we still haven't learned anything, our soldiers are still dying in someone else's war.

No he hauled out the usual platitudes about paying the ultimate price, making the supreme sacrifice, and dying for your freedom. Nobody has bothered to explain how a Canadian soldier getting blown up on either Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 or some outback near Kandahar in Afghanistan guaranteed or is guaranteeing my freedom.

Hell the men who are dying in Afghanistan aren't even ensuring the freedom of the people who live in that country, so I don't know how anybody can claim they're doing anything for me. But that's what politicians do, they try and make use of symbols to generate emotional responses in people so they don't think about the illogic of what is being said and question things being done in their name.

But amidst all the hoopla surrounding Vimy this year, the invasion of Normandy during World War Two three years ago, and every November 11th commemorating the end of World War One, an anniversary of import has managed to slip by most politicians. This April 26th will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica by German bombers supporting the fascist rebellion in Spain led Francisco Franco.

The bombing raid has the distinction of being the first full scale attack on a strictly civilian target during a war. While Mussolini had used some air power in his ugly conquest of Ethiopia the year earlier and others have tried to lay claim latterly to being the first civilian targets hit by bombs, the attack on Guernica still holds the dubious distinction of being the first ever deliberate targeting of civilians by the military.

Reading the eye witness account at the link above leaves one no doubt of the intent behind the attack. If they hadn't meant to bomb civilians they could have stopped after the first bomber dropped his payload and realized it wasn't a military target.

Instead, according to the eyewitness the raid lasted for three and one quarter hours during which three types of German plane dropped bombs of up to a maximum of 1,000lbs and over 3,000 2lb aluminium incendiary devices. Nor would the accompanying fighters have deliberately sought out and machine-gunned people who had taken shelter in the fields surrounding the town if it hadn't been a deliberate attack on the civilian population.

Of course it's not really that surprising that no one is making a big deal of this being the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Gurenica. None of the Western governments wanted to pay attention to the war when it was happening. In fact Canada even went so far as to try and make it illegal for Canadian citizens to volunteer to help the Republicans fight off Franco.

No one should get involved because it is an internal dispute, was the line bandied about by Great Britain, Canada, America, and France. So they stood by while Mussolini and Hitler warmed up for invading the rest of Europe by sending troops and planes to help Franco. I have to hope that the reason no one commemorates this war to this day is that all of our governments are embarrassed about their behaviour.

By not interfering they missed the chance of cutting the nascent German power off at the knees. Instead they sent out a pretty clear signal to Hitler that he was going to be allowed to do pretty much what he wanted for the next couple of years. Besides there are some things that haven't changed about American foreign policy – always support the right wing dictators over the democratically elected socialist.

It was a pretty common thought in those days that a strong Germany under Hitler was a good thing because it kept Stalin and the Soviet Union at bay. Of course that theory got thrown out the window when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. It was Stalin's way of thumbing his nose at the West for trying to throw him to the wolves, and it freed Hitler to attack Europe in 1940.
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When was the last time you looked closely at Picasso's Guernica? To me it had always seemed like the most accurate portrayal of the aftermath of a bombing that I'd ever seen. Photographs don't really do anything, even if the occasional body is strewn about, they just never had the impact that even the smallest reproduction of this work had on me.

But nothing prepared me for actually seeing the piece on display. I had no idea it was a mural that took up an entire wall of the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In 1980 when I walked in the front doors of the museum I was stopped dead in my tracks by its sheer magnitude. (In his will Picasso had prohibited the painting from ever being seen in Spain until a democratically elected government was elected again. Ironically if I had come to New York City a year later I would never have had an opportunity to see the painting as it was shipped back to Spain shortly after I saw it with the election of the first government since the Republicans in the 1930s) I couldn't believe that anyone after having seen that work could give an order that would allow civilians to be bombed.

So maybe that's the other reason no one is going to be opening any champagne on April 26th of this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Guernica. What would a politician say at this event? Ultimate sacrifice and supreme price or whatever their damned phrases are just don't cut it for this one do they.

Standing up and admitting you haven't learned squat from the past isn't something that politicians are very good at, and that's not going to change in a little over a week's time. If they were honest they could get up and say today we remember our first lesson in mass destruction using airplanes and bombs. Seventy years later and we can now take out people in greater numbers and from further away then we dreamed of back in those primitive days.

We salute the people of Guernica for being the first victims of mankind's descent into brutality in the modern era. They gave of themselves selflessly so others could die in greater numbers in the future. They made the supreme sacrifice and paid the ultimate price, and the entire arms industry salutes them for opening up a whole new target group – civilians.

No I guess that wouldn't look too good on a commemorative t-shirt or ball cap, and don't even think of a monument. Nobody wants to be reminded of Gurenica, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London, Singapore, Saigon, Baghdad, Beirut, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Hong Kong, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem, Dafur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Rome, Kabul, Teheran, Algiers, Mumbai, Karachi, Kashmir, Punjabi, or any other place where civilians have died or continue to be killed.

Seventy years ago, on April 26th 1937, German bombers fighting with Francisco Franco bombed Guernica a small village in the Basque region of Spain. There was no discernable military target. The combination of incendiary, devices and high explosives plus repeated passes by fighter planes with machine guns left no doubt that the target of this raid were the citizens of Guernica themselves.

They must not be forgotten.

April 14, 2007

Canada Releases Alledged Terrorists From Jail

The results of the Supreme Court of Canada's overturning the use of security certificates to hold refugee applicants in permanent detention without trial if there was any suspicion of terrorist activity are now being seen. Two men who had been held under the law for years were both released from federal penitentiaries in the past two days.

Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub was released on this past Thursday after being held in Kingston Penitentiary for the last seven years because he had run a farming operation in the Sudan for Osama bin Laden. He has been released under conditions tantamount to him being under twenty- four-hour surveillance.

The terms of his house arrest includes being monitored by The Canadian Border Authority via a GPS bracelet permanently attached to his ankle, video cameras in his house, taps on his phone, and being followed by agents on the rare occasions he is allowed to leave his house. His family are also being held responsible for him adhering to all of his bail conditions.

Mr. Mahjoub has been the Canadian suspect with closest ties to Osman bin Laden, but he claims his association was innocent. The farming concerns he ran for the leader of al-Qaeda were during the time before bin Laden even lived in Afghanistan, and he claims to have just been another employee and eventually left the job over money disputes with bin Laden.

Mr. Mahjoub has never been accused of any terror activity, but the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) claims that he was part of an Egyptian extremist group called the Vanguards of Conquest and knew al-Qaeda operatives including a person alleged to be a Canadian financer of the group and an Iraqi who the American 9/11 commission calls al-Qaeda's principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction. ( It may be just me, but any American announcement containing the words Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction just doesn't seem to have much credibility)

The second man was released on Friday from a detention centre in Kingston Ontario Canada as well. Mahmoud Jaballah has been in detention since 2001, although the government has been after him since 1999. When they attempted to have him deported in 1999 they lost their case held under normal circumstances, but when the opportunity arose with the security laws in place he was immediately rearrested.

Attempts by the government to have him deported back to his native Egypt have been constantly denied by the courts because of the very real threat of torture he would face if returned. Although the current government continues to insist upon Mr. Jaballah's guilt (In a statement released by Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, in response to Mr. Jaballah's release Day implied he was the murderer of women and children.) the judge said that although the initial evidence against Mr. Jaballah did at one time warrant the security certificate, now that he has spent six years in detention and no additional evidence has come to light she had to defer to the Supreme Court's ruling that the longer a person spends incarcerated the less likelihood there is of them being a security risk.

Based on those grounds the federal court judge changed Mr. Jaballah's sentence to that of house arrest, similar to the conditions imposed upon Mr. Mahjoub. The judge asserted, but offered no proof to back her words, that the conditions were imperative in Mr. Jaballah's case because she had no doubt that if not monitored he would get in touch with terrorists.

Mr. Jaballah first came under suspicion because of a series of over a hundred phone calls he placed to the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, and Yemen to an alleged al Qaeda front. When those are added to the twenty calls he made to those destination and Pakistan in a subsequent two-day period and the fact that when asked to explain he either was evasive or didn't answer the questions it served to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the courts.

Given the atmosphere in North America in the days following 9/11 you can understand why he was placed under suspicion. The bombings he was accused of co-ordinating were embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But now nine years later and no further evidence has come forth, and, according to his lawyer, when the United States released a list of suspects, he wasn't even named as an un indicted co-conspirator.

The government of Canada's reaction to these events has been highly predictable. Aside from his insinuations about Mr. Jaballah being responsible for killing women and children and just awaiting his opportunity to go on another bloodthirsty rampage, he also has stated that the government would prefer that all these people remain locked up.

In another tidy bit of fear mongering he also said he hoped that the house arrest rules would be enough to keep Canadians safe from them. He then added that the court agreed that Mr. Mahjoub had clearly worked for Osama bin Laden and received a salary for that work. Well who wouldn't want to be paid for working, and since when has it become a crime to work for someone when there is no proof that your activities were criminal.

I mean if we're going to start rounding up people who've had business associations with Osama they better be picking up Dick Cheney and almost everybody on the Halliburton Board of Directors. At one point they had owned around 30% of bin Landen's company. Not just his families business – but his company. Doesn't anyone find it at all odd that on the day after 9/11 when all the planes in and out of the United States were grounded, that all the members of the bin Laden family living in the United States were able to fly home?

Who arranged that for them, and why was it allowed to happen? If Dick Cheney and George Bush, both of who would have to okay something like this, come to Canada will they be picked up on a security certificate? They've had some pretty suspicious contact with bin Laden and his whole family immediately after 9/11.

What does that sound ridiculous? Why is it anymore ridiculous than wanting to keep a man in jail because he ran a farm for bin Laden long before he even went to Afghanistan? What proof do they even have that either man had of any involvement in any terror activity? Well, none, actually. One guy made a lot of phone calls to the countries where he could have family just as easily as he could have terror contacts. Why so many calls in two days? Hell if my mom has to contact her family about an event like a death she could make twenty calls in an afternoon no sweat.

Mr. Mahjoub worked for someone who turns out to be one of the bad guys, but how was he supposed to know that back whenever it was he worked for him. In fact the government hasn't said when he worked for him, only that it was before bin Laden was in Afghanistan, which means before 9/11/01. In fact he even says he quit working for him over a dispute with money. No one has given us any reason not to believe him.

Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub were both held in Canadian prisons with no trial, not knowing what exactly they had done to end up there, and knowing if they were to lose they'd be deported to torture and death in their former homes. Perhaps it was understandable seven years ago to keep an eye on people like them, or even detain them temporarily. But now it 's just cruel and unjust.

If you're having any doubts about which side to err on in Canada, freedom or so called safety, think about Mahar Arar and his time in an Egyptian jail being tortured. It was our security service that put him there with their inaccuracies and incompetence. Do you trust them with any more lives?

April 10, 2007

Vimy Ridge To Afghanistan: The Lie Remains The Same

Ninety years ago Canadian soldiers went over the top at Vimy Ridge in France during that great waste of life in the twentieth century known as World War One. There was nothing honourable or noble about that war – at least in World War Two you had the Nazi leaders of Germany as a canker that had to exorcised from the earth – it was just the last stuttering gasps of the Empires of Europe.

If we think our political leaders today our callous and stupid, and there is no denying they are, even George Bush jr. would be hard pressed to match the inbred stupidity of those folk who allowed a whole generation to be destroyed under the guns of France. Canadians like to bleat how our soldiers attacking the guns at Vimy Ridge in 1917 was a coming of age for our country. Yep it proved we could be as stupid as anyone else and knew how to spend the lives of our young men as ably as the next country.

Yep we had the balls for slaughter so that made us a country just like our former colonial masters the British and the French, or our new economic master the Americans. It sure is something for us to be proud of isn't it? So proud that we built a huge monument in France so on the ninetieth anniversary we can celebrate how many people were cut to pieces by machine gun fire.

My idea of a memorial for the fiasco that took place from 1914 – 1918 is to erect a huge plaque saying that this was a futile waste of life that accomplished nothing except set the stage for all the wars for the next hundred years . Out of that war came the mess that is the Middle East right now, the horror that was the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, and the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One gave Hitler an excuse for war.

On the weekend of the ninetieth anniversary six Canadian soldiers were killed in the first pointless war of the Twenty-First century – Afghanistan. Their personnel carrier was blown to shit and back by a homemade bomb buried in the dirt on the road. The six soldiers were killed instantly while two more were injured, but it looks they'll pull through.

I wonder if the Canadian press will get tired of printing the headline, "The Most Canadian Soldiers Killed In Combat Since The Korean War". This is the second time they've written it in the last four months and both times it's been because one of those road side bombs had blown the crap out of a convoy. (We don't count accidents like when the Syrians shot down some Peace Keepers on the Golan Heights in the 1990s or when the American National Guard twice used Canadian troops for target practice in Afghanistan because they can't tell friend from foe. I'm sure telling parents that their child was killed by friendly fire makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside about their allies, I know that's how I feel)

I can't remember how many "The Most Since Korea" was last time, it's getting hard to keep track of things like this when there is a steady trickle of deaths. Although come to think of it they do seem to come in clumps. A few months will pass and there will be no fatalities, casualties sure, but no deaths, then all of a sudden, as if making up for lost time there will be a series of them.

Either it means that there has been increased activity on the part of the Taliban, or it means the Canadians have moved into an area where they are more active. Either way it seems the result is the same. Dead soldiers.

What I find is interesting is that the Taliban were supposedly defeated before Iraq was invaded in 2003 – almost four years ago, and a new government was installed. Our troops were supposed to be helping to rebuild the country, yet here they are being killed by people who our government call the Taliban. Were they all really hiding in Pakistan, Iran, and wherever else they have armed camps.

Or, as is more likely, did they simply blended back into the scenery again. Went home to their villages and waited for the new government to prove itself as corrupt and ruthless as they were before the Taliban took over last time. You see there is an unpleasant truth we haven't been told about the current "democratically elected" government in Afghanistan.

Do you remember one of the reasons that were cited for going to war in Afghanistan? To free women from the oppressiveness of life under the Taliban, where they were treated like so much chattel and were denied basic human rights. So why is it that nothing has changed for women at all in Afghanistan? Where is there much vaunted freedom? Why are girls still not going to school, and women still scared to go out on the streets, even in major cities like Kabul, without being fully covered in traditional garb?

It's because the current government are only different from the Taliban in that they accept American weapons and food and present a veneer of respectability so that the press buys the lie of change occurring. Did you know that until people understood how bad the Taliban were they were welcomed as liberators when they overthrew the same people who are power now?

Yep that's what our soldiers are giving their lives for, a regime that is as oppressive and repressive as the Taliban. Why do you think so many villagers give support to the Taliban? At least they are honest about who they are. Sometimes the devil you know is better then the alternative. At least with the Taliban they knew exactly where they stood, even if it was in hell.

But our politicians, especially Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, one of the most duplicitous people to ever enter politics, aren't going to tell you any of this. They are just going to tell you about soldiers making the supreme sacrifice, paying the ultimate price, and all the other euphemisms they have for saying they got blown to shit and died a horrible death thousands of miles away from home for no good reason.

Of course the timing couldn't have been better these poor schmucks getting killed this weekend if Steven Harper had planted the bomb himself. There were all the dignitaries assembled at the memorial to the great waste of humane life at the beginning of the Twentieth century and everyone was ready to talk about ultimate sacrifices anyway. This was actually a gift from the Gods for Mr. Harper and his gang. What a perfect way to tie the two circumstances together and gain some sentimental support for a war that is becoming more and more unpopular at home.

Canadians have been told from their first history class how important Vimy Ridge was in our growth as a nation and that the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice there did so for freedom and democracy. Now ninety years latter they're still off in foreign lands paying the price for the very same ideals. The same qualities that made them heroes at Vimy Ridge are making them heroes in Kandahar.

Well I have to give Mr. Harper credit for getting it part right. It's true that Canadian soldiers are still dying overseas, and yes it's true it's for the same reasons – just not the ones that government is giving. In both cases, Vimy and Kandahar, France and Afghanistan, there were, and are, no good reasons for Canadians to be dying.

In 1914 we went to War as a subject of Great Britain; we had no choice because they controlled our foreign policy in those days – they were at war so were we. We didn't fight for Canada; we fought for King and Empire. This time around we went to war because America did. We're not fighting for Canada over in Afghanistan, we're fighting to clean up a mess the American's made back in the 1980's when they armed the Taliban in the first place.

The Canadian government has the gall to say that the people of Canada are only against the war in Afghanistan because they don't understand how important it is. Excuse me, I think they have that backwards – the people of Canada are against the war in Afghanistan because they do understand how unimportant it is.

We're over there propping up a government which is as bad as the one it replaced, maybe even worse because they could start fighting amongst themselves at any time over who is in charge. In the meantime we're wasting valuable manpower and equipment that could be used for peacekeeping missions if places like Darfur, Ethiopia, Somalia, or anywhere in the Middle East.

Or even better our army could do what it does best and be over in the Solomon Islands helping the people to recover from the tsunami that left the island's population virtually homeless. Or they could be travelling through Africa setting up medical relief stations in some of the places hardest hit by AIDS. I'm sure army issue condoms are the toughest on the market for preventing the spread of disease so they would be a boon in Africa. Not to mention the fact that our people are superb at coordinating activities in areas to see that the maximum good is done with minimum strain on resources.

Can you imagine what field hospitals dispersed through some of the hardest hit areas of Africa could do for the people of those areas? Think of what would happen if they co-ordinated with on the ground aid agencies for the distribution of not just medical supplies, but household goods that are so essential for preventing the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

But no, that's not sexy enough for our politicians; they want to be able send young men off to die in noble causes because it makes them feel important. Anyway if you send people off to treat AIDS they might give out condoms and that according to our government is wrong. It might encourage people to have sex or something equally obscene.

What they don't get is that they are committing the biggest obscenity around. When they stand up in a war memorial that's been built to honour the people who were sent needlessly to their deaths ninety years ago and talk about the ones who they've sent to their deaths all that it tells me is that they haven't learned anything.

I was angry when I started writing this article and now I'm just sad. It's heartbreaking that young men and women continue to be sent off to die for causes that don't exist by people who continually betray the faith placed in them to lead us with integrity. Our leaders put so much energy into teaching us who our enemies are so that we can go out and kill or be killed.

Wouldn't it be nice for a change if they put that same energy into teaching us how to like people instead? When they start doing that then they might be worthy to stand up in front of us and talk of honour and nobility. But not now, not as long as they equate it with death, killing, and hate.

April 6, 2007

Book Review: Twilight Of Empire Responses To Occupation

Have you ever heard the term the Fourth Estate? For Americans it would be along the lines of the three branches of federal government, but this I believe came from the Brits. Or it might just have easily been the French the founders of democracy (You didn't know that did you, all you hate mongers in the United States who feel the French should have gone into Iraq with you – is that a finger I see the Statue of Liberty giving you – a present from the French on your centenary by the way – or just the cheerful wave of someone saying I told you but would you listen? At least the French learnt from their history and don't want to get bogged down in the Middle East again – they split after Algeria and aren’t in any hurry to come back) It refers to the three Estates of their governments (The British and The French), plus the fourth whose duty is to question, and examine the policies of the government on behalf of the people – that would be the Press.

Supposedly a free and separate body from the government who are at liberty to go and see whatever they want and report on it, the press were given their almost official title in recognition of the valuable role they can play in making governments toe the line and respect the rights of the people. Haven't you ever noticed that the first thing that happens in any civil war or insurrection is one side or another will always attempt to seize control of the television broadcast facilities and the radio stations? Control the information that gets to the people and you control the people.

A very simple truth. One that every single government in the world practices as much as they possibly can today. They can be a so-called democracy or a one party state and the way they treat the media will be exactly the same. The number of ways in which you can prevent information from being published in North America are greater then the number of independently owned media outlets. In fact that's one of the easiest routes to take in controlling the press – allow fewer and fewer people to own more of the media.

When the major media outlets across the country are only owned by one or two corporations – under many different names of course but ultimately the decisions are all made in one boardroom by the same group of very wealthy people whose best interests are at heart? Why their own of course, or at least people in their tax bracket who go to the same country club and belong to the same church as they do.

In other words the media represents the interests of the 3% of the population who control over 90% of the wealth one way or another. If you think they vote socialist or support free health care or anything that might sound like it would cost them a cent of profit you've got another thing coming.

So in this Brave New World of free speech and freedom of the press that we live in the reality is that we are only allowed to hear what the people who own the media thinks is good for us to hear; what they want us to hear. Now of course they don't make those decisions on their own, they leave that to the people who have the authority to let them own even more of the media pie – the government regulators.

Here's an interesting little aside for you that you probably don't know about. Before the American led invasion of Iraq took place and Coin Powell was Uncle Tomming at the United Nations for the current Bush administration, assuring the world (lying through his teeth) that weapons of mass destruction existed – his son over at the F.C.C was busy rewriting the laws making it legal for corporations to own more of the media pie. While daddy was selling the soft soap to the world son was buying the support of the American Media so they could control the flow of information out of Iraq when the war started.

The whole idea of embedded reporters would fall apart if the big four television networks in the U.S., N.B.C., C.B.S., A.B.C., and CNN, and the major papers all said no thanks, we'll go by ourselves like we always have – see you there. I think even the people of the United States would be suspect if none of them were reporting any news from the front. But instead they've all meekly, or more likely obediently, gone along with doing what they are told.

What's even scarier is us the audience going along with it because we don't any better. We are kept so far in the dark that we don't even know there is something that's not being reported. It's only when you read books like Twilight Of Empire, Responses To Occupation an anthology of writings reporting from on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan the stories that the supposed Fourth Estate hasn't bothered or been allowed to report.

For instance if we went into Iraq and Afghanistan to help preserve the rights of women in those countries how is it that it has become less safe in Iraq to be a woman now then it was before the invasion? Why hasn't it been reported that violence against women has increased to such a state that most women are afraid to go out alone because they are so scared of being kidnapped and raped. If somehow they survive that, then they have to live in fear of some male relative killing her because she is now "spoiled goods" and he has to preserve his honour by killing her.

What the hell are the Americans doing there? When they talk about security issues they don't give a shit about the people who live in Baghdad. They say things are getting more secure now, which is true if you happen to be an American soldier armed to the teeth living in a concrete bunker protected by gun emplacements.

They don't care about how many Iraqi's are killed. When asked the General staff replies – oh we don't do body counts of the enemy. They are not the enemy first of all, they are the people you came to liberate aren't they? Or is it now everybody is an enemy.

According to Christian Parenti in her article "Stretched Thin, Lied To, And Mistreated" the American soldiers on the ground now treat every Iraqi as a potential enemy because they have been forced to by the very nature of the occupation. Everybody they see is living lives of abject poverty; unemployment is rampant, the electricity was still off in the majority of the city, there was no fresh water and the only people making money are foreigners coming in and privatizing all of Iraq natural resources thanks to George Bush selling it all out from under them to his cronies in Huston.

So the American soldier who goes out on to the street is now seen as being the oppressor not the liberator. This article was written in 2003 only shortly after the "war" was officially ended, but today the violence on the ground against American soldiers is even worse then it was four years ago.

The scariest thing about a book like Twilight Of The Empire isn't reading the details of how horrible it is for people on both sides of the wire, civilians and the soldiers who are caught in the middle of policy and human decency, in Iraq. Or reading how the only thing the overthrow of the Taliban has done in Afghanistan is allow the guys who were in power before them back in. They were so bad that the Taliban were welcomed as liberators at first in some places.

These things are bad enough but what really gets me is that these stories have never been reported. That almost everything that we've been told in the mainstream press has been a lie. When the Canadian government says we are there until Afghanistan is rebuilt they are lying because they don't even talk about the fact that women are worse off then they were before our troops came. It's as Lauren Sandler reports in "Veiled And Worried In Baghdad" there can be no democracy without "himaya" – security for women.

Reading the articles in Twilight Of Empire brings home the realization of how much we've been lied to. I've known all along that most of what we have been told about the war is bullshit, but this book shows just how deep the lie runs. It wasn't just the reasons for going to war were non existent, it's also the fact that everything it was supposed to have accomplished was a lie right from the start and nobody really gives a shit about the men or women who live in these countries.

From the top down nobody really cared whether women are raped, kept from going to school, deprived of liberty, or faced with the threat of execution when they are raped, because if they did they would have done something about it by now. They wouldn't have let the same folk back into power back in Afghanistan, they would have made a concentrated effort to restore normalcy to Baghdad instead of trying to figure out how to sell off the power companies to foreign ownership.

What's more important, turning the electricity on so that people can carry on with their lives and businesses can open again or figuring out a way to sell the power company? If you opt for the latter and everybody knows that is what's happening don't you think they are going to get mad. How is it that 130,000 heavily armed soldiers, plus tanks etc can't police the streets of Baghdad and make them safe for women?

Why were all the police fired? Why were there no provisions made to replace the ones that were fired? Why are these stories never reported in our papers? Why does our government only talk about how things are getting better and that we don't understand why we have to be in these countries.

You're damned right I don't understand why we have to be over there making things worse for people on a daily basis. I don't understand why we are letting our governments steal everything the people of these countries own and sell it to their friends.

I think everybody who cares about the truth needs to read Twilight Of The Empire. It will not only show you how utterly incompetent Western media have been in reporting the story of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will show what a real member of the Fourth Estate can do when they want to.

There is not excuse for the actions of the major networks in not trying to do their jobs properly – anybody with press credentials can go out into the streets of Baghdad and get these stories. But they haven't and they won't because they have been bought and paid for by the administration.

You don't need to close the television stations or run them from government offices to control them – all you have to do is offer them a bigger piece of the pie and they will do what you want.

This is my favourite story about the media in the United State from the start of this current War. A chain of pro-Bush radio stations organized a series of pro-war demonstrations in major centres across the United States. They shipped people in, handed out banners, and signs and got all the necessary permits to allow them to take place. Then they reported on them as news of how people were spontaneously taking to the streets across the United States in support of the War.

So much for the Fourth Estate in the United States; freedom of the press doesn't exist there anymore than it did in Nazi Germany or in Communist China. Question authority, but most of all question the newspapers – if all they do is quote the government and the military you know they are not doing their jobs. We need more books like Twilight Of The Gods, and more people willing to search out the truth like the men and women who have written the reports in this book, and the men and women who have talked to the reporters in this book.

We need more truth.



March 12, 2007

Canadian Politics: Torture In Afghanistan

Most of us take pride in the country of our birth, even if on occasion we don't agree with those who are in charge. We all like it when our country is recognized by the world's press; it makes us feel important by association. Coming from a country like Canada, of lesser importance on the world's stage, catching the eye of International media is even more of treat.

But there are those occasions when you realize you need to be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true. Start thinking, how come the Americans get all the press, and the next thing you know Canada has its very own prisoner scandal, just like the Americans in Iraq did a few years back.

Now obviously that’s not quite what you were hoping for when you wanted to see your county's name above the fold at Le Monde or other prestigious papers. Reading that in April 2006 three captives held by Canadian soldiers were mistreated and that even now a year latter an investigation is ongoing into the whys and wherefores of the situation.

If that weren't enough to make you cringe there is also the report that the Canadian army has been handing over prisoners to the Afghanistan security forces without checking on what their eventual fate would be. According to Canadian law any person in custody may not be turned over to a third party if there is a chance they will either face execution, torture, or any other cruel and unusual punishment not allowed by Canadian Law.

When the issue was first raised in the House of Commons, Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor denied there was any wrong doing, by insisting that the International Red Cross was overseeing all prisoner transfers. But as of March 4th/2007 the Red Cross said they were doing no such thing.

Officials in the Defence Department claim that they signed a deal where Canadian troops must notify the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Red Cross when they had over a prisoner to the Afghan authorities. The Human Rights Commission is supposed to be monitoring the well being of the troops once they are in the hands of the Afghan army.

This agreement is described as an extension of one Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier signed back in December 2005 agreeing that all prisoners Canada captured would be turned over to the Afghan army. That agreement had been widely condemned by Human Rights activists, because there had been no provisions made for monitoring by any Rights body.

While the new agreement rectifies that in principle it's almost impossible to know what actually takes place on the ground in Afghanistan. The Canadian Military Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating eighteen cases of prisoners being handed over in spite of the knowledge that they would be tortured or otherwise mistreated.

Now I don't know about anybody else but I don't like the idea of my country being considered complicit in the torturing of Prisoners of War. To give the Minister of Defence his due, he doesn't appear to either, in a surprise visit he landed in Afghanistan on Sunday determined to find out as much as possible.

He claims to have a two-fold purpose in visiting. The first he says is to meet with the people from the Human Rights group and gain assurances they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. " I want to look the man in the eyes and I want to be confirmed that they are going to do what they say they are going to do"

His other intent is to have people in the Canadian army show him exactly what the process is, what they do from the moment they capture an enemy soldier to the moment they hand him over to the Afghanistan government. I would guess his reason for this is to find out where there are any holes in the process that could cause things to go wrong, or information to not be delivered.

How could Canadian soldiers hand over prisoners when they knew they would be tortured? Who was responsible for that decision and how could it have happened eighteen times? Was this an isolated instance of one man or one platoon that has a personal vendetta against the enemy, or is it wide spread lack of understanding of the policy.

That's the information that the Minister and his staff should be trying to find out so as to prevent any repeats of the activity. I hope for the sake of my country, the men and women of the armed forces and the people who are taken prisoner that he is able to find a solution to this problem.

It's hard to take pride when one is complicit in torture, and if our government, or our soldiers are taking part in that sort of activity than none of our hands are clean.

March 9, 2007

I Was A Twenty-Something Security Risk

I have a confession to make. Those of you who have a passing acquaintance with my opinions etc, might not be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you, but to others this may come as a bit of shock and I apologise for that. I just felt that given the tenor of the times that I owed it to everybody to make a clean breast of things.

I'm a security risk. Yes that's right mild mannered, beady eye Canadian with my head full of lies I may be, but I'm also a dyed in the wool security risk. This is no new thing either, brought about by any of the many disparaging comments I may have recently made about various political figures on both sides of the border, or any relationship I may or may not have with foreigners of a different colour.

No, I'm ashamed to admit that my days of being a security risk predate either George junior or senior's presidential stints and date from a series of incidents that took place between 1980 and 1983. Not that it matters I guess, as Maher Arar has learned it doesn't matter when an incident took place, or whether you were innocent or not, once labelled a threat, always a threat.

I found out about my status in the summer of 1988. I was "between engagements". (That's what actors call being out of work it sounds a lot better) and it just so happened that my period of forced idleness coincided with Toronto Canada, where I lived at the time, playing host to the annual meeting of the Group of Eight Industrial nations (G 8)

To handle that influx of media that was sure to accompany the leaders they needed to hire a large number of media clerks; people who had experience with files, organizing information, and dealing with requests for copies of documents. Two or three local temporary employment agencies had been hired to tackle the job of recruiting individuals to fill these positions.

Since I had had plenty of experience doing office work from when I had helped manage a theatre company, I decided to apply for one of the positions to earn some needed money to tide me over. My credentials were fine, I was actually overqualified but that didn’t matter, and I was told the job was mine as long as I cleared a security check.

As I wasn't going to be having any contact with any of the dignitaries, it was considered a forgone conclusion that I would pass. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or the woman from the employment agency who had to phone and tell me that my application for security clearance had been rejected. According to her, no one else who had applied had been turned down, only me.

It took me a bit, but I figured out what it was about eventually. It was one of two things, or maybe the two combined and they both involved events that took place between 1981 and 1982.

At the beginning of the 1980's the American government was looking for places they could test one of their newest weapons, The Cruise Missile. Northern Alberta, in Canada was ideal for their needs as the topography was varied and there were miles upon miles of unpopulated land. They could launch the missiles from planes and guide them to their final destinations secure in the knowledge that no humans would be disturbed.

That it happened to the traditional hunting grounds of neighbouring Native Canadians didn't concern them overly much, nor did the fact that it was the migration route for huge herds of caribou. It's not as if the missiles had nuclear warheads on them for gosh sakes. Anyway the Canadian government at the time gave the American's permission to go ahead and test the missiles and even offered to build the guidance system on Canadian soil.

In 1981 I was one of about twenty people in front of the American Consulate in down town Toronto protesting the testing. As we marched on the sidewalk in front of the front doors, two gentlemen, who might as well have been wearing signs saying "SPY" were taking our pictures from a meridian in the road. In the course of the next two years the demonstrations grew larger and larger until in the fall of 1982 about 100,000 people turned out to march through the streets of Toronto against the Cruise missile tests.

It was probably the biggest demonstration of it's kind in Toronto, maybe even Canada. Shortly after that somebody left a van filled with explosives parked up against the factory in Rexdale, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where the guidance system for the missiles was being constructed. It didn't too that much physical damage, but some poor security guard was killed.

I remember hearing about at work and coming home and asking my roommate if we knew the people who did it. He gave an odd look and said, "we know people who know them. Watch what you say on the phone for a while." I wasn't thrilled that we had even a tenuous connection to anybody that could be responsible for killing somebody else (They called themselves Direct Action and had actually been responsible for a couple of attacks across Canada. They had blown up a couple of adult video stores in British Columbia and some power lines as well. Ironically when I moved to Kingston Ontario in 1990, they were already here having been sentenced to serve their time in the jails here) but I did think he was being a little paranoid about the phones until my father asked me why the hell my phone was tapped.

At one time or another in his career as a lawyer my father had prosecuted drug offences for the Canadian government, so one thing he was familiar with was the sounds indicating the beginning and end of a tapped conversation. After about a couple of months of being careful on the phone, of not even talking in the same room as the phone in case of a location bug, we gradually slipped back into our normal behaviour.

Eventually I just simply forgot about the whole thing, getting fully involved in my career in theatre and frustrated with the infighting among the political types, I became less and less involved with activist politics. If I hadn't had to apply for security clearance for the G8 event in Toronto I may never even have known.

Now nine years later I wonder if they consider me a threat? Probably not, because I've the feeling if they did consider me so I would have been talked to a while ago. Maybe I'm on some sort of watch, but its not one where they consider me a major threat or anything.

But still, I don't try and cross the boarder into the United States because I've the feeling they would be pushing my luck, and they might decide to detain for an indefinite period just to be on the safe side.

Well there you go, confessions of a twenty something security threat. I hope it hasn't shocked any of you too much knowing that for these past however many months your writings have shared web space with someone like me. I figured I owed it to all of you to own up to my less then perfect past and warn you that associating with me could cause you problems.

March 8, 2007

Satire: New Attempt At Peace: United Nations Resolution 929

In what has to be the closest vote on record at the United Nations, resolution 929 was finally passed. In another, among the many, unique qualities of this vote was the fact that when the final tally was recorded, there were no abstentions. Long time observers of the U. N. were left scrambling to find out if on any other occasion opinions had run so high that no one abstained.

One grey haired gentleman was so visibly moved by the show of actual opinions on the floor of the august chamber that he wept. Friends could be seen gathering around him to lead him out of the press gallery later, and it was said that all he was capable of saying over and over again was "incredible".

He wasn't the only one affected by the sudden show of decidedness from a membership so known for its refusal to commit that ordering take out has been known to take days. Ambassadors sat around in small groups or singularly talking in subdued voices, almost as if they were taken aback at their own temerity.

Most of them had been selected by their respective countries for their abilities to procrastinate and prevaricate and had never dreamed the day would come when they would actually see themselves saying either yea or nay. There were members whose country's leadership and name changed with greater frequency than a drag queens' wardrobe, who had kept their position by exercising the right to abstain like an art form.

But even they had been caught up in the emotion of the moment and deviated from their entrenched position of fence sitting to cast a vote in favour or against the motion. It was of course these wild card votes that had left the outcome up in the air. Not only did nobody know how these individuals would vote, they had been non-entities for so long nobody even knew what bribes or blackmail they might be susceptible to.

Of all the unique attributes that history may ascribe to this vote in the future, the one that most observers are still stunned by was the inability of anyone to be able to predict the vote's outcome. Not only did the issue cut across cultural and political lines, it threw old alliances out the window. It was every man and woman for themselves out on the floor and you could almost believe in the idea of sovereign states voting for the interests of their people not out of political necessity.

At the press conference where the official announcement of the result was released to the world's population, United Nations Special Envoy Kiska White of The Extra Special Team Examining Elections (or TESTEES as they are now known) alluded to that fact in her opening comments before preceding on with a detailed explanation as to the significance of the resolution's passage. What follows is an expurgated version of that announcement. (For full details check out the TESTEES web site at a location other than the link provided here) It should also be made clear at this time, that like all members of TESTEES Ms White's nationality has not been made public and all efforts were made to make the members as anonymous to each other as possible to prevent any country from having an undue influence on the proceedings.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the press and my fellow citizens of planet earth, it is with great pleasure that I'm here with you today to announce officially the results of what I consider the most important vote ever taken in humanity's existence. I don't think I would be far off the mark in saying that from today onward the world will be a vastly different place, and hopefully a better one for it.

Judging by the response of the membership of the General Assembly to Resolution 929, they obviously agreed with me on the import of its impact on the shape of things to come. Whether or not they supported the resolution is another matter, but it managed to get them all to actually vote for a change, so right there we accomplished something that nobody else has done in the history of the U. N

This resolution was a long time in the making and to see it brought to fruition today is culmination of the dreams of many people, some unfortunately are no longer with us as it has passed to us second generation TESTEEs to ensure its passage. You are all aware of the history behind this resolution; of earlier version requiring all male politicians to be sterilized before seeking office in the hopes of curtailing testosterone in positions of power and thus eliminating belligerent behaviour.

What first started as a voluntary program; who can forget the "Get Fixed" buttons that became popular for a while, later became mandatory when it became obvious that some men were too attached to the notion that the ability to breed affected their leadership abilities. Unfortunately the "Spay" your politician campaign did not meet our expectations.

Although all male politicians were eventually in compliance the world over, it did not seem to have the desired effect upon their bellicosity. Unlike their brethren among canines and felines "fixing" humans did not seem to cause a reduction in the production of testosterone and a resulting calming of behaviour.

I must admit to you that at this point quite a number of us were ready to give up. We had been so sure we had found the means through which war would eventually be made obsolete. It was at this nadir in the proceedings that our Turkish representative made an almost casual reference to his country's former habit of creating eunuchs for positions requiring calmness and zero production of hormones.

Thus was the first step taken on the long road whose end we have finally reached today: with the successful passage of United Nations resolution 929: All men from this point onward will be castrated prior to seeking political office, and all men currently holding such office will be castrated forthwith.

February 27, 2007

Canadian Politics: More Anti Terrorist Legislation About To Collapse

What has not been a good week for supporters of anti-terrorist legislation in Canada and Europe is about to get a bit worse. With the Supreme Court of Canada demanding changes to way the government utilizes Security Certificates for resident aliens, and European courts moving against the practice of extraordinary rendition and distancing themselves from the War on Terror, they've taken a couple of direct hits recently.

But it seems that saying about things coming in threes is about to bear fruit again unless some sort of miracle happens between now and Thursday March 1st. That's the date that Canada's anti-terrorist legislation allowing for suspects to be detained without charges and compelled to testify before a judge expires. Unless parliament votes to renew those sections before midnight March 1st they will become history.

With both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Quebecois guaranteed to vote against renewal the minority Conservative government will need to have the support of thirty members of the Liberal party in order to receive sufficient votes to carry the day. Although the Liberal party was the government that introduced this legislation three years ago they are now ready to let it expire.

Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper is trying to make political hay out of the fact that the Liberals introduced the legislation by accusing them of flip-flopping on the issue but that hasn't deterred them. Stephane Dion, the Liberal leader, simply returns fire and has accused Mr. Harper and the Conservatives of trying to push the legislation through at the last minute without allowing any room for real debate and consultation.

When Mr. Harper and his officials claim that they can't deny security forces such useful weapons in their war against terror, Mr. Dion and his people respond that human rights aren't something to be trifled with. When the Conservatives offer to address those issues at a latter date as long as the Liberals agree to pass the legislation, the Liberals respond with we don't trust you enough to believe you'll come back to the issue in a few months.

What the Liberals want is a complete review of the whole package of security laws as had been recommended by a joint Senate and House committee six months ago. They wonder why if the Conservatives have known all along that these two items would expire on Thursday, and that six months ago it was recommended that they should be evaluated within the context of an overall evaluation of all the special security measures passed to fight terrorism, that they have left it to the last minute to try and renew the measures?

I think the answer to the Liberal party's question about why the Conservatives waited until the last moment to re introduce the legislation is two fold. First you could put it down to the arrogance they've shown throughout their whole term in office acting as though they can do whatever they want despite the fact they are a minority government.

Second is the fact that in this time leading up to an almost certain spring election, they are doing their best to paint the Liberals as soft on terrorism and not interested in the safety and well being of the Canadian people. They have already shown no hesitation in exploiting the grief and anger of those who lost family in the Air India bombing twenty years ago. The Prime Minister has already implied that the Liberals are against extending the legislation to protect a Liberal Member of Parliament's father in law who might be a terrorist involved with that act of terror.

For all their protestations about human rights, the Liberals really don't come off much better in this incident. It was their party that did write this legislation and had no problem with it being used, as long they were the government. Secondly it rings a bit hollow for their second in command, Michael Ignatieff, to start sounding holier then thou about this act when he has in the past said he wouldn't object to utilizing information obtained through torture.

In the end the only two parties who are acting without ulterior motivation, are the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. At least they have the decency to stand by their original votes on the issue and have no hidden agendas. Of course their influence in the house is limited, without the Liberals nobody can defeat the Conservatives.

Legally, in Canada at least, the Supreme Court has already shown itself willing to suspend some rights and freedoms in the name of national security. Their ruling on the security certificates was an example of that when they said that indefinite incarceration without charges for potential terrorist threats was okay in the case of resident aliens. So there is precedent for them not to rule the legislation under dispute unconstitutional.

But the idea of the legislation when it was passed three years ago was that it would be given a full and complete review before it was renewed. The situation in Canada vis a vis terrorist threats would be examined as to whether or not there were any genuine need for the security forces to pluck people from the street and hold them indefinitely without trial.

Unfortunately due to the manner in which Canada's Conservative government has chosen to deal with the matter, no review process was possible. How many people have been arrested using these extraordinary powers, are they still under arrest, and what was the end result of their incarceration are questions that won't be answered at this time if ever.

These type of special powers should not just be renewed for the sake of scoring a few political points or for other trivial reasons. If no threat to our country exists there is no need for anyone to have that type of power.

February 25, 2007

War On Terror: Europeans Demand Justice For All

It appears that the American government's enthusiastic ignoring of basic human rights in the pursuit of terrorists has finally caught up with them. Their staunchest European supporters have begun to distance themselves from any stance that even looks like it could condone their actions.

From Great Britain, where Tony Blair has promised to have all British troops out of Iraq by 2008, to Italy, where right wing magistrates who have been zealous in their pursuit of terror suspects, have laid charges against American intelligence operators for kidnapping, the Coalition of the Willing is fast whittling away. What could cause the rats to flee the sinking ship so fast? The answer is two simple words, extraordinary rendition.

Extraordinary rendition was (and, hopefully, not is anymore) American Intelligence's practice of seizing suspected terrorists and sending them on unmarked airplanes to countries that practice torture in the hopes of getting the suspects to cough up information. Although this practice has been going on since at least 2002, it wasn't until the details of Syrian born Canadian citizen Maher Arar's plight came to light that people's attention has been drawn to it.

From the outset Mr. Arar's case was mishandled; first by Canadian Intelligence that passed on fabricated reports to the Americans about his potential terrorist connections. This was compounded by the illegally handing over of Mr. Arar to a foreign government, the Americans, when they requested he be transferred to their facilities for interrogation based on the erroneous report's information.

When the American's couldn't get him to confess to anything they shipped him off to Syria in an unmarked plane accompanied by CIA. Agents. They deposited him in Jordan, because Americans don't have official relations with Syria, where he was beaten the second he got off the plane, and then shipped to Damascus where he was imprisoned and tortured for ten months.

All this information came to light during a judicial inquiry into the wrongful treatment of Mr. Arar by the Canadian security services. The upshot of the report was that the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was forced to resign; the Prime Minister of Canada had to issue a public apology to Mr. Arar, and the Canadian government had to pay him $115 million in damages.

It has also cooled off what would have normally been warm relations between a Conservative Canadian government and a like-minded American administration. The American government is not only refusing to apologise for its mistreatment of a Canadian citizen, but they are even reluctant to admit that they have anything to apologise for. In spite of Stockwell Day's (Canada's Foreign Minister) best efforts Mr. Arar remains on the American no fly list to this day.

What's behind the American reluctance to admit to any possibility of wrongdoing on their part in the case of Mr. Arar? Is it simply a matter of "being at war means not having to say your sorry", or is there some other reason? According to the Globe and Mail article linked to above senior Canadian and European diplomats and government officials claim it's because the Americans are worried about opening themselves up to culpability in around twenty other similar cases in Europe.

Last week the European Parliament released a report condemning the 1,245 flights made by the CIA in European airspace and the twenty cases of European citizens being subjected to extraordinary rendition. Currently there is one case before the Italian courts, one before the Germen, and eighteen others pending throughout the continent.

The matter of the flights might seem a trivial matter, but it's who was on the planes and what was being done with them that has European governments so concerned. Italy's government was actually voted out of office this week due to one thirty-seven minute stopover by an unmarked plane at Rome's international airport.

The problem was that it was the CIA plane carrying Mr. Arar to Jordan. The concern is that since Mr. Arar was for all intents and purposes being abducted, he was being taken somewhere against his will illegally and his captors knew he would be mistreated, how complicit is the Italian government in the matter.

Did whoever gave permission for the plane to land at the airport know who was on the airplane and what was going on? Or had the Americans gone behind their backs and carried out illegal activities on Italian soil?

In one case in Italy a magistrate has indicted 26 US citizens, including Italian CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady on charges of kidnapping in the rendition of Mustafa Osama Nasr. The Milanese Cleric had been seized by CIA agents in 2003 and flown to Egypt where he was imprisoned, tortured, and sexually abused by his captors.

Five Italians were also charged in the case, including the head of their Security forces, Nicolo Pollari, who has been forced to resign. In case any one thinks that this the work of anti-American trouble makers, or left-wing politicians in Italy, the magistrate responsible, Armando Spataro, is know for his pro-American positions, and his centre right politics.

He has worked for thirty years fighting the Mafia and internal terrorist organizations in Italy, and he say that he and his colleagues "were absolutely sure that it was impossible to fight terrorism without respect for the law". He continued by saying that he hopes this investigation will prove that it is impossible to win over Islamic terrorism without respect for the law.

While the American government is of course denying any and all complicity in these events, and the men indicted will not be coming to Italy any time soon to face the charges, Italian law allows people to be tried in absentia. Thus all the defendants could end up being found guilty as charged and facing arrest if they ever set foot on Italian soil again.

The biggest irony of that whole case is that same magistrate has found cause to hold Nasr on terrorism charges, but not based on any evidence supplied by the Americans or the Egyptians. The only charge he has been able to lay against Mr. Nasr has been membership in an illegal organization. He believes the case would have been stronger against Mr. Nasr if not for the US practice of rendition, now he says the terror fighters are just as guilty as the terrorists.

The philosopher Friederick Nietzsche said, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." It appears that the European governments and individulas who were once allied with the American cause in the fight against terror have decided that the Americans did not heed Mr. Nietzsche's advice and have fallen into the abyss of becoming as bad as those they are hunting.

Perhaps because the Europeans have had more experience with being monsters, or having their countries be the breeding ground for those who would justify any means with the end result, they have decided it is time to draw their own line in the sand. Maybe it appears idealistic to some, but remember as well that they have fighting terrorism for thirty plus years longer then us in North America so they aren't blind to the realities of the situation.

What ever you may or may not think of their actions or their beliefs, the truth of the matter is that the European governments that were once staunch supporters of the US fight against terrorism are no longer willing to allow the civil and human rights of their citizens be denied no matter what the reason.

In some eyes the actions of the American government make them no different than the terrorists who they are hunting. In their quest for justice the Americans have ignored justice for too long and it's now coming back to haunt them.

February 17, 2007

Interview: Yasmina Kahdra

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At the beginning of January 2007 I was introduced to a writer whose work I had not only never read by never heard of before. I just naturally assumed that Yasmina Kahdra was a woman until I received the first books from his publisher in North America for me to review. Yasmina Kahdra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, and Algerian now living in France.

I have to confess that Yasmina was the first writer I had ever read from the Arab world, and even though the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature went to an Arab I have made little or no effort to educate myself. But since reading five of his books and conducting this interview, my interest has been piqued.

This was a bit of an awkward interview to conduct, because Med Kahdra only reads and writes in French and Arabic, while I can only handle those duties in English. I must say that Google translation performed admirably well with only one question causing confusion. I utilized three separate translation programs, to bring his answers back into to English to try and capture the word and the spirit of his answer.
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Med Kahdra is a fascinating man who provides us in the West with a different perspective to life in Arab countries to the one being presented in our media on an almost daily basis.

I would like to thank him for taking the time out of his day to participate in this interview and I hope you are as fascinated with his responses as I was.

1) Tell us a little about yourself, where you were born and other biographical details.

I was born, 52 years ago, in the Algerian Sahara. My father was a male nurse and my mother a settled nomad. My tribe has occupied Kenadsa (the village where I was born) for 8 centuries. She is known for her poetry and her wisdom. She has always welcomed, without regard to race or religion, all the travellers who knocked on her door: the writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, the Minister Charles de Foucauld, as well as the missionaries who crossed the desert in the direction of Tombouctou and Africa.

I was born in a tribe of poets and warriors. This is why I never felt out of place in the army as a novelist. It is my tribe which taught me how to me to share myself between the two.

2) Your father had been a soldier, and you became a soldier. Where did the desire to write come from? Most people don't think of soldiers becoming writers.

My father had been a male nurse. Then, there was the war for the Independence of Algeria, which had been colonized by France, and my father joined the National Liberation Army. After 6 years of war (1962, was the birth of the Algerian republic), he came home as an officer and chose to embrace a military career in the young Algerian army. In 1964, when I was 9 years old, my father placed me in Cadets School, the military institution concerned with officer training.

I thus spent 11 years at this military boarding school before moving on to the Academy to begin my career as an officer that lasted 25 years. But I was always writing. From the time I was 11 years old, I tired my hand at fables tales. My first published work, (Houria), I wrote when I was seventeen years old. When I became an officer, I continued to write. I published 6 novels under my real name, Mohammed Moulessehoul before seeing any reaction from the hierarchy in 1988.

Seeing that I had begun being recognised in the media in Algeria the High command imposed a committee of censorship to supervise me. I refused to subject myself to them.

This is how my first pseudonym came about, from that decision in 1989. It was Police Chief Llob's name that appeared on two small novels The Nutcase With The Lancet (1990) and The Fair (1993) In 1997, my Parisian editor wanted a name which sounded less like a profession for the publication of Morituri I chose my wife's first two names,: Yasmina Khadra. Since then I have kept this pen name, which has now had work translated in twenty-seven countries.

3) What did your family, your mother and father, think of you writing?

My family have always respected my choices. They know that I am a healthy in body and of spirit and do not look to debate my career choices. My father is proud of the direction I've taken while my mother, who is illiterate, knows that it is a good thing, but is not quite sure why. She had always wanted me to quite the army so that makes her happy. My brothers and sisters encourage me to go from the word one

4) Were there any writers who inspired you when you first started to write? Your Superindent Llob books reminded me a little of the books by George Simenon and Nicolas Freeling

I did not read Simenon, at the time. Our bookshops were disaster victims and our old books managed to do little more then make us dream. We lived in a country with a horror for writers and artists. However, I really liked the American Blacks literature: Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

By creating the Superintendent Llob character, I wanted to have a typically Algerian character. Moreover, in my noir novels, Algiers is also a central character. I did not seek to imitate my preferred authors. I wrote in French, but with my sensitivity Bedouin, my Algerian glance, my anger and my Algerian hopes.

Anyway, we also have our own artists, as beautiful and rich as Western literature. I far prefer Taha Hossein (Egypt), François Mauriac, Abou El Kassam Ech-Chabbi (Tunisia), or Pablo Neruda, Naguib Mahfouz, Malek Haddad (Algeria) etc, to European flashes in the pan.

It's a pity that you do not have access to our culture. The Arab world is not just a postcard with dunes and caravans, nor is it only terrorist attacks. The Arab world is more generous and more inspired than yours. Do you know that El Moutannabi is the Humanity's greatest poet since the dawn of time? … It's a pity that you do not know anything of it. I was initially inspired by mine. I have had the chance to get maximum benefit from a double culture, Western and Eastern without ever losing sight of where I come from.

5)Where did the idea of Superintendent Llob come from? What made you decide to write about that subject?

I created Superintendent Llob as a diversion for the Algerian reader. I have already told you, in Algeria, we did not have a large selection in our bookshops there, and the publications revolved around the political demagogy, nationalist chauvinism and the romantic mediocrity praising the Algerian Revolution in Stalinist speeches. I dreamed of writing station books, books funny and without claim that you could read while waiting for the train or the bus, or while gilding yourself with the sun at the seaside. I dreamed to reconcile the Algerian reader with his literature. I had never thought that Superintendent Llob was going to exceed the borders of the country and appeal to readers in Europe, and America.

6) In your books "Wolf Dreams" and "In The Name Of God" you switched to writing from the point of view of the police to that of the terrorists. Why did you make that choice?

What police, and which choice? These two novels give a truthful account of real social and identity mutations that drove the emergence of fundamentalism, then terrorism in my country. They are used as references in universities today.

7) Why do you write about terrorism?

For 2 reasons. Initially because it is a planetary danger, that I know of from the inside and that I can describe with clearness and intelligence. Also, because Westerners understand nothing, and never say anything important on the subject. My books consist of explanations to clarify the consciences and alleviate the spirits traumatized by the political handling of media misinformation.

That being said, I make a point of recalling that my novels are not testimony. They concern fiction and assert their literary values. I am sorry to see people throw themselves on the topic and to neglect the manner of treating this topic. I basically make literary work. I have a language, a style.

8) In your early books you talk about the corruption in Algeria and had characters say that the terrorists were being used to allow certain interests to seize power. Is the situation in Algeria still as bad as it was, or have there been improvements since the time of writing those books?

Nothing has changed in my country, when it comes to this topic. The corruption prevails more and more; predation and opportunism has became the favourite sport of the nation. Most of our elite was forced into exile, and the people are without guidance, delivered to the robbers and to the charlatans, and have come to believe things will always be the same.

9) In your more recent books "Attack" and "Swallows of Kabul" you've started writing about life outside Algeria. Why?

Why not? The real question is to know if I succeeded or not. I think that I am well positioned to speak about what occurs on our planet. My double culture makes me believe that I am capable of doing this. It is grannd time, for you, to hear the bell ring somewhere else.

10) Reading your books I could tell that you really loved Algeria. It must be hard to be in exile. Do you want to go back to Algeria? What would have to change there for you to want to return?

I like my country very much. I try to support it with my modest means, to give courage and confidence again to the young Algerian who reads me. But I am not exiled I am an emigrant. I am living in France to work, and not to take refuge. I return in my country when I want, and nobody, neither the President nor the emirs can prohibit me to go back there. Algeria is my country, and I do not have any other. I do not want to have any other.

11) What has been the reaction to your books inAlgeria and other Muslim countries? Or does the fact that you live in France answer that question?

The Algerian reader likes me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity.

12) The Sirens of Baghdad is your new novel. Does it explore the same themes as your earlier books?

(This question got slightly skewed in the translation - instead of themes as we would interpret it, it translated as subject matter – hence the answer)

I never explore the same topic in my books. Each novel deals with a different phenomenon. It is you who do not manage to separate the different subjects I treat. You are constantly in a state of confusion. The Swallows of Kabul speaks about the dictatorship of the Talibans and the condition of the Afghan woman. The Attack speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Sirens of Baghdad speaks about the 2nd war of Iraq. Radically different topics, but everywhere you retain only terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. My novels do not speak about terrorism; they talk of human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, sometimes the hopes; and of this burning and fatuous actuality which spoils our life.

13) What are your plans for the future?

I live from day to day. It is more prudent. I do not make plans; I prefer to take the things as they come.

February 14, 2007

Book Review: Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato

In 1973 Israel faced the last real concentrated invasion by the armies of the Arab world. An attacking force spearheaded by Syrian and Egyptian tanks invaded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. On "The Day of Atonement" the majority of Jewish people spend the day fasting and in Synagogue.

If there was one day of the year where the Arab armies had a chance of taking the Israeli forces by surprise and perhaps ending the war before it could even get started, this was it. What made it even more of a shock to the Israelis was that the Arabs chose to attack during Ramadan, the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Devout Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan then break their fast with a feast in honour of Allah.

In the first two days of the war it looked like the Arab armies might succeed, but after sustaining significant losses of tanks and men, the Israelis regrouped and by the end of the fifth day were able to start pushing the attacking forces back. In Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato plunges us directly into the middle of those opening days of confusion as seen through the eyes of a gunner and the gun sights of a tank.

Adjusting Sights is the author's recounting of his own experiences as a tank gunner in an Israeli armoured division during that period, so this is no fictional recreation of events. Instead the author writes with unflinching honesty about the confusion, chaos, fear, and fatigue he felt during the initial onslaught.
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He and his closest friend, Dov, had been together since the early years of school, studied for their Bar Mitzvahs together, so it was only natural that when it came time to do their National Service in the army that they should serve and train together. On manoeuvres and throughout basic training they had been loader and gunner together in a tank.

Naturally, they assumed, when the call up came for the war they would be assigned to the same tank, but it was not to be. When they arrived at the depot it was total chaos. They were standing with the rest of their crew when an officer came up and asked "who's a loader"? When Dov steped forward – he said, "Come with me, so and so needs a loader now". And Dov was gone to another tank, to another gunner; Dov was gone period.

Shortly after leaving the camp and heading out towards where they have been told the enemy might be – but that's impossible how can they be so close already, was everybody's thought, including the author. The ambush that they drove into almost killed them all. Haim and the rest of his crew had to abandon their tank and try to walk back to camp through the middle of a pitched battle.

Between the four of them they had two Uzi submachine guns, and one grenade so when the helicopter full of Syrian commandos landed almost on top of them they were sure they were done for. Then out of nowhere an Israeli troop career pulls up and out pours a brigade of soldiers who open fire and take down the Syrians.

Things like that happen throughout the author's whole ordeal – the timing of events is such that the engine of his tank starts just in time to reverse before a shell hits. Or at one point walking back to the camp they hid in a culvert for a few moments and then continued on. Another tank squad did the same thing a little later and a Syrian troop passing by tossed some grenades in and killed all but one, the one who told that story to Haim.

Adjusting Sights is not about patriots; it's not about glory; it is about survival. Individual soldiers trying to survive each moment they are under fire when they don't know where the enemy tanks are. How do you fire back when you can't see who's firing at you?

Only occasionally do they say to each other anything that sounds remotely patriotic, and it is more desperation than anything else. "We can't lose, because if we lose Israel loses", is not a speech guaranteed to make the blood boil with patriotic fervour. But it's what they felt as they fought in order to live so that their country could live.

I've read a fair number of stories and a fair number of histories about various wars and battles, and this book has to have the most genuine feel to it of any when it comes to recounting the fighting. The confusion, the panic, the moments of frustration, and the relief when it's over are all communicated without any embellishment.

Nobody cheers when they blow up another tank, or when the enemy retreats. They just are grateful to survive. Another day that they survive is another day that their country survives. But something about Sabato's matter of fact approach manages to transmit the state of shock that most of the men are in. When he describes them watching two comrades rolling on the ground to put out the flames that are threatening to engulf them in same manner as he describes trudging through the sand it's not hard to understand their state of mind.

Haim Sabato is a man who takes his faith seriously, and therefore faith plays a large part in this book. But it's not the way that I'm accustomed to seeing religion or faith employed during a book about war. There is no group prayer where they gather to hear someone tell them that God is on their side and that should go out and kill in his name.

Instead for the men who serve in the tanks their faith and their rituals are their tie to normalcy. Getting up every morning to recite the morning prayer, wrapping the Tefillin (prayer boxes worn by orthodox Jewish men for the morning prayers signifying the covenant between them and God) on to their forehead, arms and fingers, and facing the east to greet the day are something you all the time, not just in during a war.

After the fighting has ended Haim and his troop are stationed on the Golan Heights and they keep the Sabbath ritual every week. It becomes almost even more important here than it would be at home. Their faith is as much a part of their lives as breathing for some of them, so maintaining the practices and rituals makes them feel alive.

After the author was finished running to escape the ambush where his tank had been immobilized he and his fellow crewmembers were finally able to rest for a moment. As he was sitting there he remembered that he had been taught that no man may make a vow in the hopes of expecting assistance from heaven – except in moments of extreme distress.

He sits and wonders what it is he would vow and the only thing he is sure of is that the world will never be the same again. At the end of the book on Golan Heights he remembers that vow, that the world will never be the same again. He thinks about how he lived and his friend Dov din't, or how that one crewmember lived while the rest of his crew died from the grenade blast in the culvert.

That is a debt that needs to be repaid, but how do you change the world? You aim higher then you've aimed before, just as a gunner in a tank adjusts his sights to allow for the change in trajectory, so must we all adjust our sights and set higher goals if we want to change the world.

It is often said that soldiers are the ones who most apposed to war. They know on occasion that it becomes necessary to defend your homeland from invasion, but there should be no other reason for it. Haim Sabato is that type of soldier. This is a book about war which tells us we need to adjust our sights away from fighting and lift them up to a more worthy goal.

Who holds in His hand the souls of all that live
And the spirit of each mortal man
The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork
Spare the work of Your hands

Lord of all souls, the soul is Yours
But the body is also Your handiwork
For this it was made, to sanctify Your name in this world
Master of all worlds, spare the work of Your hands.
Hebrew Prayer of penitence

January 20, 2007

Book Review: Out Holocaust Amir Gutfreund

"Only saints were gassed?"

Is the first note of disquiet that enters into the lives of Effi and Amir. "Only saints were gassed?" Why of course, how could the victims of the gas chambers be bad people? Crazy Hirsh must be crazy, why else does he live in the woods in his hut and wander onto Katznelson St. and yell such a thing?

Effi and Amir may not be "Old Enough" to be told about Shoah (The Holocaust), but they certainly know enough to know that he must be crazy. Look at them, they don't even have real family; they borrow people from here and there who become Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Uncles, Nieces, and cousins, because their families have so few of their own left that they have found people to play the parts for them.

If this is what our family is like, and every family similar, what kind of question is "Only saints were gassed?" It's a question that will have to wait until later to be answered because their priorities are to find out what happened first. Grandpa Lolek who fought with the Polish army, first charging tanks on horse back, then fleeing to join a Polish regiment that fought with the allies for the rest of the war; has no problems regaling them with tales of what he did during the war.

But of the camps, nothing, nobody wanted to tell them about it. Not even Grandpa Yosef who could tell them the name of the longest river in the world, and arbitrated disputes about everything else on any topic. Like their own personal Talmudic scholar he could resolve anything on any subject, but not even he could be drawn out to talk about the mysteries of "What Happened?"

In Grandpa Yosef's neighbourhood, Katznelson St. on the out skirts of the Israeli port town Hafia, nearly everyone was a survivor of the camps. One foot in the present and one foot in the past it was Grandpa Yosef who helped them all straddle the line in safety. But it was also Grandpa Yosef who made sure that no one told the children the stories they wanted to hear.

But have you ever known children to be stopped or have their enthusiasm for a subject curtailed because they've been forbidden or told to wait for later? So it is with Effi and Amir in the recently translated Amir Gutfreund novel Our Holocaust. Being the resourceful types they try any means at their disposal up to and including bribery and theft, but nothing could break through the impenetrable walls erected to keep them from what they considered of vital importance.
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On their visits to Grandpa Yosef's they could see the results of the Holocaust on display in the faces and the actions of the people who lived on the street with him. Aside from Crazy Hirsh, who in the end is not so crazy, each of the survivors wears the camps like an extra suit of clothes that they are unable to take off and hang in the closet.

Of course eventually they are old enough to be told the stories, but by then Effi has lost interest – she's a doctor now – but even though Amir is married and raising a son and built a life for himself, he is still moved to attempt to document what happened to the family at the least, and maybe even the neighbours of Grandpa Yosef.

It starts with Grandpa Yosef; almost like a generation letting go of a breath they didn't even know they'd been holding, they begin to tell Amir what he's wanted to hear for years. From the ghettos, to the camps, to the death marches, and finally liberation, but never really freedom, he bears witness and writes it down.

Grandpa Yosef knows the why behind Crazy Hersh's question, but can't or won't answer it. Others are far less reticent when it comes to the question and have no hesitation in describing the things Jews did to each other. Some of it was in the quest for survival, but some were just men who worked willingly with the Nazis for the sake of the power it offered them. But it was not enough to save them from the fate of their brethren who they betrayed as they too ended up in the gas chambers.

Amir Gutfreund carries his namesake through an odyssey of obsession that turns him into as much a survivor of the holocaust as those whose stories he is documenting. He fumes over those responsible that are living lives of peace and prosperity, while their victims have no escape from their memories save in madness.

He worries that every year, even the year he is living in now, could be 1939, the year before the Holocaust spread its wings. Jews in 1939 lived their lives not expecting anything just like they do today. But he can also see how within everyone, including Jews, is the potential for being the perpetrators of a Holocaust.

It's the ordinariness of evil that is so terrifying, how anybody, anywhere is quite capable of carrying out orders without question. Rounding up the undesirables, placing them in camps for the good of the country. That part of human nature is everywhere, and he sees it in the people around him. One day he thinks it could happen.

Without being a survivor, he turns into one. His obsession with the past and the Holocaust makes him want to raise his son to be capable of surviving anything. He must be able to survive a winter without shoes like his grandmother did or what will become of him. Amir can't understand why his wife can't see that?

What had started out as childish interest and almost humorous descriptions of the children's attempts to discover more about their family's history, during the war, becomes, as the stories are revealed more and more serious. Even though the author has tried to avoid graphic details, it is not possible to narrate stories of the Holocaust without including details of the unspeakable evil that men can do to each other.

Personally I've never been one for wanting to read about the details of the Holocaust, so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I even began to read this book. Amir Gutfreund's approach of leading us into the actual stories by introducing us to the people who the stories are about without just tossing us into the camps head first goes a long way in cushioning the blow. But at the same time because we have gotten to know those people in advance of the stories and understand their connection to the Amir of the story we can understand his obsession with the past and the way it is affecting his present.

It is still not an easy book to read, I don't think it is possible to write a book on this subject and make it pleasant. In fact in some ways that which eases us into the story in the first place makes it all the harder to continue as the personal tales of survival are recounted. Knowing the people involved, and listening to them recount their near death experiences makes them all the more gut wrenching.

The author also makes sure that he doesn't take the easy way out and leave us stuck in the past with the stories. Instead he shows us that although the Holocaust is not something that can be forgotten, it is something that needs to be accepted and placed in a proper perspective. It can't dominate the lives of those of us who were not in the camps like it does the direct survivors, but for those who had family in the camps knowing their stories is important.

Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust is beautifully written document about one family and their coming to terms with their place in history. If you are willing to make the effort, this book will go a long way towards offering an explanation for why even people born well after the war are in some ways survivors of the holocaust as much as those who lived through the camps.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

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Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

January 4, 2007

Music Review: Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales

It's been referred to as the last noble cause, or the last heroic war. It's also been said it was the war that if the British and the Americans had bothered with it could have prevented World War Two. The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 through 1939 and by the end Fransico Franco had overthrown the democratically elected government.

The election prior to the outbreak of the war had seen a coalition government formed among moderate and socialist parties. The Republican government's goals were to reduce the power of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church and try to redress the economic disparity in the country.

Needless to say that went over like the proverbial ton of bricks with those who were going to have to surrender their power. Calling themselves The Nationalists they formed an army under the leadership of Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government.. They were supplied with weapons, air support, tanks, and troops by the governments of Italy and Germany almost immediately.

The Republicans received little or no official help from any government, save some assistance from the Soviet Union that was too little and too late. In some ways the Republican side was a typical venture of the left and centre in those, and even these days, where internal fights over power, took precedence over an enemy out to destroy you all. Soviet aid only became available after a faction acceptable to Moscow controlled a goodly portion of the doomed government.
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The Spanish Civil War was also notable for two other reasons. It was where the Nazis first put into effect their practice of targeting strictly civilian targets for the sake of the effect on morale. First Guernica, rendered forever immortal by Picasso; then Madrid suffered through bombings.

The other was the fact that in spite of their own government's refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco (Until Hitler signed his infamous non-aggression pact with Stalin, he was actually seen as a bulwark against the Red hoards by far too many Western pundits) young men and women from around the world came to Spain on their own to fight for the Republican cause.

The International Brigade was composed of German, American, Canadian, and others from across Europe who came to fight the fascists. The American soldiers served in what became known as the Lincoln Brigade and became part of the 15th International Brigade. Since there own governments had refused to aid the Republicans, and in some instances had tried their best to prevent people from doing so, it wasn't very surprising that the returning soldiers at the end of the war were ignored in their own countries.

Some of them, like the Germans and the Italian of course, had to become refugees because they couldn't go home again. When it became obvious that nothing was going to be done to honour their efforts, and in fact official policy has been to ignore the veterans of Spain almost entirely, Pete Seeger and the Almanac singers recorded seven songs that had been sung by the Lincoln Brigade while marching. In 1943 they were released as part of an album called Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade.

For the longest time it has been next to impossible to find this and other music of the Spanish Civil War. But now thanks to the Spanish label, Discmedi, they and other music of the war has been released on a great CD called Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales (Songs Of The International Brigade).

The first seven songs are the aforementioned tracks from Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade which have been beautifully digitally re mastered so they sound great. The six songs that follow that were originally released in 1940, but had been actually recorded during the war. The German actor Ernst Busch, who was already living in exile from Hitler due to his politics, recorded six songs with a chorus of soldiers called Six Songs For Democracy

They were recorded in the men's barracks so if you listen closely you can hear background noises of wartime activity. Again the sound is great, and it's really nice not to hear these songs like they're being sung to you via a sewer pipe. The only previous recording I had heard of them was so full of echoes it was almost impossible to hear what was being sung.

Following these thirteen tracks, the producers of the disc have gathered together some performances of these and other songs of the period by different performers as bonus tracks. Six of them are by Ernst Busch again and are Spanish versions of some of the songs that had been performed by Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers on the Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade album. Again he has recorded them with soldiers serving during the war, and in fact this recording was interrupted by Franco's bombing of Barcelona. On occasion you can hear where a brown out is occurring as the sound starts to fade away: life during wartime indeed.

Ernst's voice may not be what a North American audience would expect from a musical theatre actor, but he had been working with Bertolt Brecht in Germany, and they had a different attitude towards what sound they wanted on stage. Brecht wasn't interested in pretty, or in polish; he wanted the audience to listen to the words being sung to them, not to just sit back and enjoy the music.

After Busch, we have a brief visit with Woody Guthrie as he sings his version of "Jarama Valley". What's great about this song, as you will have noticed in The Almanac Singers' version earlier on the disc, is that the tune is "Red Rive Valley". The soldiers who wrote these songs had done what was fairly typical for the day, and just changed the lyrics of songs they were already familiar with to make them suit there needs.

The last four songs on the disc are from what I consider two of the United States' finest treasures; The Weavers and Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson was a star football player, Broadway and Hollywood actor, and amazing singer. He was also Black and left wing, which in the 1940s and 50s meant he was considered a threat to society.

He had his passport revoked by the American government so he could no longer travel to do concert tours in Europe. This pretty much guaranteed the end of his singing career, as very few venues in the States would book anyone who was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy. But here we find him in full beautiful voice singing two of the songs he learned from the soldiers when he went to Spain during the War to lend his support to the cause. His version of "The Peat-Bog Soldiers" has to be one of the best I've ever heard even to this day.

The last two songs included are by the Weavers. Somehow or other the Weavers were able to play the music of the Spanish Civil War during the 1950's in places like Carnegie Hall without people really twigging to what was going on. Included here are two of those songs; both were recorded in Carnegie Hall but one in the fifties and one in their reunion concert in the eighties.

The producers have also included a very good informative booklet with information about both the Spanish Civil War and the musicians who sang the songs on the disc. It is one of the best of these types of booklets that I've seen in a long time; nicely laid out with text that is not impossible to read. If you are multilingual you can read it three times, in Spanish, English, and German.

In Spain today the soldiers who fought in the International Brigade are still considered heroes of the country, in North America where they came from they've either been almost completely forgotten, and even worse some were treated like criminals by their own governments. Canciones De Las Brigades Internacionales is wonderful tribute to men who have been ignored for too long.

December 26, 2006

International Politics: We Can't Afford To Ignore Africa Anymore

Every year at this time the leaders of both the Church of England and the Catholic Church give a state of the world address to their flocks. According to the tenets of their faiths they will let the world know what they consider to be the most important issues of the day.

Of course they aren't the only ones who get to have their say, other religious leaders, national leaders, and the deep thinkers in the press all have their lists ready for consideration. Political events, war, terrorism, intergovernmental relationships, and all the other matters of importance which affect policy, economics, and the perceived balance of power in the world.

For people who share the same planet it is quite amazing how so few of them agree on what are the major issues facing the earth. They all have their own agendas and advocate what's important from their perspective: events that have helped fulfil their goals, events they are involved in, or things that challenge what they believe to be the way one should lead a life. Nothing that does not directly impact upon the objectives of their country or way of thinking seems to ever make it onto a lot of people's end of the year summations..

Some of them will offer platitudes about world peace, famine, and the scourge of AIDS in Africa but only in so far as it suits whatever social-political agenda they stand for. It's easy enough to say what a shame it is, but it's another thing all together to actually advocate doing something about it.

The pundits worry about where the next wave of terrorism is going to come from, but the answer is right in front of their faces and they don't seem to have noticed. But then again why should that be different from the way that Africa has been treated in the past. If the refugee camps of the Palestinians were hot beds for recruitment by the PLO and others in the 1960's what about the camps currently in Africa?

It's been the policies and beliefs over the years of the major powers of all persuasions that have allowed situations to get to the acute and chronic level they're at now. Why is there still fighting in Somalia when the Americans invaded it years ago to pacify the region? Why is there still the same border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that filled refugee camps and led to famine in the 1980's?

How did the massacres in Rwanda occur when the United Nations' commander on the ground kept telling the world it was happening and nobody could spare any troops to help deal with the situation? Why are there people living in camps in Darfar when the American government declared it was a case of genocide in the making?

Because we still haven't clued in that matter what we consider the important events of the year, Africa has to be the story soon or we will all be paying the price for our neglect. What kind of anger and resentments must be brewing there that could easily be inflamed and brought to focus against us for real and perceived injustices?

What the reality is doesn't matter any more. Facts like the fundamental Muslim groups in Somalia being no more likely to agree to family planning practices when it comes to preventing the spread of AIDS then the Catholic Church or the current American Administration will be irrelevant in the face of emotional appeals for vengeance.

Unless we change our policies towards Africa from being where we are perceived as an exploiter, the one who caused all the problems, to being the compassionate friend who offers help with no strings attached, anti Western sentiment in Africa will begin to escalate. Any group that is looking to recruit for the "cause" probably won't have too much difficulty finding individuals to volunteer

It's not just a matter of us giving money or relieving debt; we need to be on the ground in the camps working with people on an almost one to one basis. Our governments need to be serious in their attempts to get AIDS medicines to African victims and push for the development of a free vaccine. Our presence needs to be felt above and beyond celebrities adopting cute black babies.

Compassion has to rule our dealings with Africa not profit or belief systems. We can no longer only consider the present, but have to take into consideration the future and how we can ensure there is one for the people of that continent. It shouldn't have to be for political reasons, we should be doing out of compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering. But if nothing happens soon for whatever the reason, it might be too late.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East are all current hot spots that we can't ignore of course, but neither can we continue to ignore the situation in the Sub-Sahara, and the rest of Africa. Maybe they don’t have to be on this year's listing of top events, but if we don't start making Africans important, they might just become so for all the wrong reasons.

That can't be allowed to happen.

December 3, 2006

Refugees From Iraq

Everyday we can count on at least one if not more stories about Iraq in the pages of our newspapers. Whether debates on when the troops are withdrawn or recitations of the latest casualty figures it remains the dominant story across the media. But amidst everything else one aspect of the story is being ignored.

According to figures kept by the United Nations High Commission On Refugees (UNHCR) between January and mid November of 2006 about 425,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. At mid-year the displacement rate had reached the level of 50,000 people a month.

These numbers have increased the numbers of Iraqi refugees to 1.6 million people displaced internally, and 1.8 million forced to leave the country. The majority of these people have crossed over into one of Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. Once there they either seek permanent residency (over 150,000 Iraqis have applied in Egypt) if allowed, or continue their journey onwards to either Europe or North America.

The UNHCR's has specific concerns for each of these populations, but primary among them is the strain being placed on those who are currently looking after the refugees inside and outside the country. The continued violence in Iraq itself is making it next to impossible for any aid agency, including the UNHCR to reach those people in most need.

Although we mostly read about the sectarian violence between the Shiite and the Sunni sects, the groups that are actually most at risk are those who comprise minority elements within the country. Christian Iraqis and an estimated 20,000 Palestinians who live on the Iraqi Syrian border are two groups considered at high risk currently. The former are considered to because of violence directed against them, and the latter because of the inability of aid workers to supply them on any consistent basis with essential necessities.

Aside from the violence that impedes their efforts the UNHCR is also being placed under huge financial strain. With an annual budget of only 29 million dollars they have already reached a point of such overextension that they are almost broke. If that happens what little they are able to do will come to a halt and cause even worse hardship and raise even higher barriers for those wishing to emigrate to safety.

One of the services the Centre offers is to act as a referral agency for people wishing to be considered refugee claimants in those countries recognising Iraqis as refugees. Without sponsorship it's almost impossible for a person to even apply to be considered as a refugee in countries like Canada. In Canada the ministry responsible for reviewing applications demands either a recommendation from UNHCR or sponsorship from private individuals who already reside in Canada for a person to even apply for refugee status.

One of the reasons that the UNHCR is so over extended in trying to assist and feed so many refugees is the fact that far too many countries are refusing to designate the displaced people of Iraq as refugees. According to the organization Human Rights Watch that in spite of their being over a million people displaced from their homes since the invasion the United States, Great Britain, and the majority of Iraq's neighbours refuse to recognise them as refugees.

Without that recognition they are unable to apply for legal admission to any of these countries. Jordan, which has one of the larger numbers of expatriate Iraqi populations in the Middle East, never granted them refugee status but allowed them to take up residency. But when the hotel bombings in Amman occurred they started to arrest and deport any that didn't have legal status.

For those who are being deported their options are limited to either returning to Iraq or hoping to find another country to take them in. The problem is that with the system breaking down, UNHCR running out of money, avenues for legal applications are becoming virtually impossible to negotiate.

According to one immigration lawyer in Canada those wishing to apply for refugee status in Canada are far better off getting to the country one way or another, even if illegally, and filling their application here. Even though Canada has accepted over 80% of those who have been referred by UNHCR as refugee applicants that means is no longer viable.

Working in favour of those who do make it to Canada illegally is the fact that since 2003 Canada has introduced a policy of "no return" for those already over here. The situation in Iraq is considered so extreme that no one will be sent back even if their application is refused at first hearing. This way they are at least guaranteed safety and a chance to appeal the decision.

Canada doesn’t have the most unblemished record in the world when it comes to treatment of refugees in general. Depending on the government in power qualifications for approval can change at random. But it seems like even the Conservative Party of Canada can show compassion on occasion, by allowing the no return policy to stand after they took power has probably saved quite a few lives.

I have no idea why the United States is refusing to allow Iraqi people to claim refugee status in their country, it's the least they can do for the people whose lives they have turned upside for the last three years. Sure declaring them as refugees would be to admit that the country is pretty much uninhabitable in places, but isn't it a good thing to show a little compassion at the expense of face?

Pride may come before the fall, but is it really fair to inflict you're unwillingness to admit that not everything has turned out how you planned on the innocent? Wouldn't if be nice if the reason that the headlines didn’t talk about a refugee problem was the fact that the problem really didn't exist instead of no one wanting to talk it.

Paying attention may not necessarily save people's lives, but the chances are better them if we ignore them. Perhaps if all of those who gave such wholehearted support to the war would each invite a refugee to stay with them for the duration a good portion of the problem would be solved. We all have to make sacrifices in wartime.

November 27, 2006

A Government's Priority

It's all a question of priorities isn't it? I know that's stating the obvious, but sometimes it's the things staring us right in the face that we pay the least amount of attention to.

Everybody has their own list of things they consider important; it's simply a means of ordering our lives. When we give activities a value it enables us to decide how and when the duties and responsibilities in our lives will be met and fulfilled.

When someone uses the excuse of "It's a question of priorities" for either not doing something or doing something in an order that an other person doesn't understand they could just as easily be saying "It's a matter of what's important to me". As individuals we are going to differ in what's important in our daily routine. Mitigating factors could range from whether or not you have children, to what appointments you may or may not have scheduled for that day.

While the majority of us will set our priorities based on our individual needs and wants, there are certain areas where the needs of society at large set a value upon our actions. Municipal recycling programs dependant upon individual members of the community sorting through their refuse each week offers a perfect example.

Before programs such as the curb side pick up of recyclables or what ever system an area uses, would anyone have considered it a priority at all to sort through and separate their plastics, metals, and papers from each other? It was only when it became obvious that we were running out of space to our solid wastes that local governments made it a priority to put their energies into convincing us that it was the right thing to be doing.

For most of us it has now become second nature to sort out garbage in between collection dates and put out appropriately coloured receptacles when we are told. But in order for that to come about governments and environmental groups had had to mount an extensive educational campaign. It was made into a priority by appealing to people's sense of public duty; doing their bit for the environment and their neighbourhoods.

Recycling falls into a category of priorities that can be referred to as the societal instead of individual. True we as individuals make it a personal priority to do our recycling each week, but it's not something that would have happened if it had not become a government priority as well.

Of course government priorities are what make the world go round. From Communist to Capitalist it doesn't matter, they have their list of things they want to accomplish and they mean to do it. The difference between their list and yours is a question of who it effects and how, and the motivation behind it.

Of course, even when you know the priorities of your government that may not be of much use in helping you understand how they make their decisions or explain how they decide what's most important. Some government's claim they are guided by the hand of God, others claim that they stand for lofty ideals, another says they are guided by the traditions of their country, and yet another lays claim to a political philosophy.

Yet how is it, if there is so much diversity, that nothing seems to change anywhere in the world? How is it that so many of the world's leaders; so many different people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and philosophies; always end up with the same priorities?

At least if we are to judge by results and the continually screwed up state of the world what other conclusion can we draw. Millions of people, if not billions are starving to death on a daily basis. Millions of people are dying of one pandemic, AIDS, while other ailments that we once though extinct are coming back more virulent then ever.

The water we drink is becoming increasingly unpalatable and in some places undrinkable. The quality of our air has depreciated so badly that every summer sees an increase in respiratory ailments, and an increased number of people with those ailments dying.

While our world is burning our leaders seem to be more concerned with devising ways and the means for killing us through wars, insurgencies, rebellions, jihads, than doing anything about any of those problems. It doesn't matter if they are Muslim, Christian, White, Asian, Semitic, or African none of them seem to have the preservation or the improvement of quality of life as a priority.

It's funny you know, I always used to think that most of the world's faiths believed that life was sacred. There was the whole thou shalt not kill thing as one of the Ten Commandments, with variations through out the faiths. But what I didn't realize was that it meant Thou shalt not kill those who are like you, but go ahead and lop off the heads of anyone who is different.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we ever decided to work as hard at preserving life throughout the world as we do now at destroying it? If we were to make it a priority that everyone in the world was fed, sheltered, clothed, and went to bed at night feeling secure they wouldn't be killed over night?

How do governments develop their priorities? Did we give them the idea that we want them to be more concerned with killing the people we share the planet with rather then helping them? Or are these just ideas they've come up with on their own?

When you develop the priorities for you family, don't you always do so with their comfort and well being in mind? How often does that include going downtown with a gun and shooting people who may be drug dealers on the off chance they could sell to your children? No usually you'll talk to your children and educate them about any potential dangers they could face.

Our governments have made it their priority to go downtown and not just shoot those they think maybe drug dealers, but blow up the downtown as well. They don't seem to give much thought to our comfort and well being. They all claim they are just trying to make the world better for their citizens, to keep them safe, but it seems like more and more of the world's population dies a violent death each and every day.

Killing another people is no way to guarantee you own people's safety. Perhaps if governments started making it a priority to keep everybody safe, not just the people who voted for them, we all might live and feel a little safer.

November 16, 2006

When Not If For American Withdrawal From Iraq

Sometimes you read things in the paper that make you wonder. Yesterday two news stories about Iraq in the Globe and Mail newspaper made me wonder about the fate of that poor country. Now that the Democratic Party controls Congress the withdrawal of American troops is now a matter of how soon not if. But nobody seems to know, and maybe even care, what that means for Iraqis.

Top United States commander in the Middle East General John Abizaid had the gall to appear before the Senate Armed Service Committee and say the situation in Iraq was improving. Only last August he had warned of the potential for a full-scale sectarian civil war as the justification for continued presence of 141,000 American troops in Iraq. Now he was using the opposite argument in an attempt to not only prevent a schedule for troop withdrawals being decided on, but to increase the number of troops in Iraq.

Refuting his claims of improvement another story from the same day had an update on the mass kidnapping of employees from the Ministry of Education, (an unknown number had been rounded up at gunpoint by men in uniform on Tuesday, loaded into vehicles and driven away) and listed the combined civilian and military casualty report for the day.

Twenty Iraqis were killed and forty-seven were wounded. Eleven of those deaths were caused by a car bomb, three by a suicide bomber driving his car bomb into a tent where a funeral was being held, two were Shiites killed by gunmen, a police officer was killed in a drive by shooting, as well as various other individual killings throughout the country.

Journalists continue to be signalled out for special attention as two more were killed yesterday. Since 2003 ninety-one journalists have been killed in Iraq, many of them specifically targeted by killers as both of Wednesday's victims appeared to be. Gunmen intercepted Fadia Mohammed al-Taie's car and she and her driver were shot, while Luma al-Karkhi was also shot on her way to work.

Finally, the American military announced the death of four American servicemen who had been killed in fighting on Tuesday. With the death of a soldier attached to the 1st Armoured division and three Marines in Regimental Combat Team Seven, the number of American war dead in Iraq has now reached 2,856.

If this is a fairly typical day in Iraq, and it is beginning to seem like you can't open a paper without reading about either a fresh grave being discovered or another suicide bomb going off, it wouldn't appear there has been any abatement in violence whatsoever. Given the attitude of the Prime Minister towards the sentencing of Saddam Hussein, (he sounded like he was ready to lead a lynch mob himself) and the threats of retaliation from Shiite Muslims for the death sentence, it appears the divide between the factions is worsening.

But according to General Abizaid that's not the case. While arguing to the Senate Sub – Committee that any attempt to impose a timetable for the withdrawal of troops would impede commanders in the field in their attempts to continue the training of Iraqi troops and police he also claimed the situation on the ground was improving.

While admitting there was still a problem, he claimed that Iraqis were starting to show confidence in their government's abilities. He didn't say what they had confidence in, but guaranteeing their security can't be high on the list. When the government can't even tell how many of their employees were kidnapped, let alone prevent them from being snatched from their place of work as happened on Tuesday, it's hard to image anybody believing in their ability to guarantee safety and security.

It appears the general is trying to walk the fine line between threatening Congress with disaster and promising them success. The problem with this formulae is while there is ample proof of threats to peace and security, there is very little he can offer as proof of success. The newly elected Democratic House and Senate aren't going to be satisfied with vague assurances about almost turning the corner and seeing a turning point.

They were elected in part because of widespread dissatisfaction with the war and the length of time that American troops have been deployed. Barely a third of the American population in a recent poll support the Administration over the war. Even President Bush is saying he'd welcome advice from anybody on how to best find a resolution to the mess.

When the future chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed from Rhode Island, (he will become chair in January when the results from Nov.7th election results take effect) asked General Abizaid how much time the was left before the situation is completely out of control and descends into civil war, the response was four to six months. Senator Reed's reaction was that should be the deadline for starting the withdrawal of troops.

He wants the President to force the Iraqis to realize the enormity of their situation and get it together to take care of themselves. He figures the only way to do that is begin the withdrawal of troops. Fellow committee member and Democrat Senator Carl Levin of Michigan summed up his party's position by saying that American's could no longer protect Iraqi's from themselves.

As the Democrats were elected because they promised an alternative to the administration's position, it won't matter what arguments General Abizaid made to them or what any of the other witnesses have to say. They are going to be pushing for the implementation of troop withdrawals from Iraq as soon as possible.

It won't matter to them or the two thirds of the population that support that view, what happens in Iraq after the American troops leave. It doesn't matter that the invasion of Iraq created the situation and that many of those arguing against continued involvement initially supported it. What matters now is that it ends with as few more American deaths as possible

Unless a deal can be worked out with U.N peacekeepers to replace American troops in key places, the chances of Iraq coming through this in once piece are minimal. We are finally seeing the results of the Bush administrations lack of planning when it came to this war. In a country like Iraq with sharp religious divisions it was naïve to think that all the problems would be solved by the overthrow of Hussein.

No matter how you look at it, or what you want, there will be no graceful way out of this mess for the Americans and their military. For the sake of the Iraqi people I hope somebody thinks of something soon or the only thing left to wonder will be what was the point of it all.

November 11, 2006

What To Remember On Rememberance Day?

It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the armistice declaring the cease-fire the end of the war to end all wars was signed. Now each day in countries around the world that moment in history is kept alive through ceremonies honouring the soldiers who have fallen fighting in the various wars from that moment until now.

We still call it Remembrance Day in Canada, although what it is we are remembering has changed over the years. Initially it was to honour the generation that was devastated in World War One, but as each year has passed there have been fewer veterans of that war living, until today there are only three survivors. Although the ceremony has been expanded to include the Canadian service men and women who have fallen in battle in the ensuing years, the Red Poppy worn in commemoration is specific to that war and those who fought in it.

When the inevitable happens and the last of three survivors passes all that will remain will be the memory of those we are told not to forget about. But what is it we are supposed to remember? The politicians would have us remember their "supreme sacrifice" and they gave their lives for noble causes. Sure we can do that because most of those poor bastards probably believed that they were doing something of value and worth when they signed up to fight in the trenches.

But perhaps we should also be remembering that war to end all wars for the legacy it produced. Out of the ashes of World War One rose all the ingredients for the wars and nationalistic fervour that currently cause the world so much grief. Britain and France controlled the Middle East and although they devolved power to most of the Arab nations, Britain held on to Palestine after "liberating" it from the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The near and far east, were divided up between: Britain with India (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), Afghanistan, Burma and other territories in that region; France controlled Indo-China which included Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Dutch had Indonesia and surrounding countries. In Africa it was more of the same save that the European masters also included Italy and Belgium among its membership.

The Russian revolution had started before the end of World War One resulting in the Communist rulers of that country having negotiated a separate peace with Germany prior to the 1918 armistice. In 1919 British and American soldiers joined with troops of White Russians to try and overthrow the new regime but were unsuccessful and by 1925 Stalin had established himself as supreme leader.

Although direct confrontation between the West and the East was still a couple of decades away the new government so scared the Western governments that they were willing to appease people like Adolph Hitler and Mussolini as they were seen as defenders against the socialist hoards. It wasn't until they began their own moves against Europe in 1939 that they realized their own danger and almost didn't live to regret their decisions.

In the years since World War Two we have seen almost every former colonial state become a hot spot of some sort or another. India and Palestine were both partitioned into distinct countries along ethnic lines in an effort to curb the very violence that continues to plague them today. In the African countries where colonial authorities had played ethnic tribes off each other in attempts to ensure their rule, their withdrawal resulted in horrible scenes of genocide and deprivation.

From the 1960's and the refugee camps of the Biafrans, through the horrors of Rwanda and the current situation in Darfur that legacy continues. Europe saw her own share of "ethnic cleansing" with the death of Marshall Ttio and the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its distinct parts. Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims began to slaughter each other indiscriminately for no other reason than ethnicity.

Since the end of the war to end all wars, the world has careened deeper and deeper into the embrace of armed conflict. Instead of remembering the horrors that accompany war we have been asked to remember a set of meaningless platitudes that do little too actually speak to the experiences of those we are claiming to remember.

Would we not be honouring their memory further if we were to use these occasions as opportunities to speak against warfare, instead of using them as fodder to justify current follies? In his powerful anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo creates a character who somehow survives losing his arms, legs, face, and ears. We spend the whole of the book inside Johnny's head sharing his memories and the creeping awareness of how sever his injury is.

When he finally figures out what happened to him, and how to communicate (Using his head to tap out Morse code on his pillow he can spell out demands and questions) he requests to be used as a reminder of how awful war can be. He asks to be put in glass case and taken around to recruiting stations and political rallies – anywhere people are going to congregate – and have a sign hung on him that says this is war.

The reaction to his request is pretty much what you would expect; they drug him and prepare to hide him away. All he wanted he says was to give people the opportunity to see what the flip side of honour and patriotism are, what the true nature of war is.

Remembrance Day in Canada is currently a means of honouring all those who have died in wars occurring in lands far away defending concepts and not their country. But if we truly want to ensure they did not die in vain, we must use this day to remind ourselves of the horrors of war so that we can work towards breaking the cycle of violence that started in August of 1914. Other wise it's all been a waste.

November 7, 2006

The Second Coming Of Daniel Ortega And The Sandanistas

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Nearly twenty-six years after they rode a revolution to power, and sixteen years after they were defeated in an election, the political party that American Republicans love to hate is back. Daniel Ortega of the Sandanista party of Nicaragua looks to have won a commanding enough victory in Sunday's elections to win the Presidency outright, without need of a second round run off vote.

There's quite a bit of history behind this election, and perhaps before a new smear campaign is begun against the Sandanista leader, a quick overview is in order from someone who didn't think of the Contras as kin to the American Founding Fathers.

In the late 1970's a popular revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the reign of the Somoza family. De facto rulers of the country since the turn of the century, either directly as president or the power behind the throne, the Somozas had protected the interests of the elite and American business at the expense of the majority of the population.

The 1979 uprising led by the Sandanista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Leberación Nacional in Spanish or more familiarly known by its initials F.S.L.N.) was aimed at improving the lot of the majority who lived in poverty through an aggressive program of land reform, nationalization of industry, education, and improved health care. Major private landowners – mainly American and British- who used prime agricultural land for ranching instead of food growing were forced to surrender their land for redistribution to the people who had been their former tenant farmers.

After years of seeing American backed governments, like El Salvadore and Chile, in Central and South America oppress and kill its own people, the revolution in Nicaragua became a rallying point for people looking to affect change in the Western Hemisphere. Aid workers from around the world, but primarily the United States and Canada came to the country to help what they saw as building hope.

They helped villages set up agricultural systems that we would take for granted like irrigation, figure out how to maintain the Russian tractors (the United States had imposed a trade embargo in 1985 under Regan so they were forced to turn to anyone who would sell them equipment) they were using, built school houses, and educated teachers in the skills needed to teach young people.

Now I'm not going to idealize them, they were still a single party government in most ways until the 1990 election which saw their defeat, but with the assistance of Cuba and other South American countries they managed to increase the literacy rate to 50% from single figures, and eliminate Polio and other diseases that plague the poor.

Part of the reason for them being unable to hold elections was the Regan administrations creation and funding of armed terrorists called the Contras which placed the country on permanent war footing for most of the 1980's. When the United State Congress refused to fund the Contra's, Oliver North, an American Marine Officer serving with the National Security Council, supposedly set up an arrangement to sell arms illegally to the Iranian government in order to raise money to fund the Contras without anyone else in the Regan administration having knowing about it. (Talking to a Regan staff member about it in 1987 he laughingly said "yeah, everybody knew about it from the secretary pool up – how the hell are you not going to know about an arms deal worth that much money – where do you think he got the weapons from – a pawn shop? But of course none of us knew a thing officially.")

From bases in bordering countries with American friendly leaderships the contras would stage attacks against unprotected villages using helicopter gun ships piloted by "retired" C.I.A. agents and mortar rounds to kill people working in the fields and blow up housing, hospitals and schools.

Friends who were there helping to build school houses in the late eighties tell of coming under fire on almost a daily basis, from small arms and mortar rounds. Whether on purpose of accidentally it seemed that any work they had accomplished the previous day would be destroyed during the attacks. Once a good mortar crew finds the range they can hit the same area day after day without too much trouble, and there just wasn't anywhere else that the school could have been built.

The village was so isolated and near to the border that it took two weeks before a platoon of soldiers from the Nicaraguan army could get there to chase the Contras away. One friend said they were finally able to finish the schoolhouse while the platoon was there, but he has no idea if it survived after the volunteers and the platoon left.

As the civilian casualty toll mounted and the Americans showed no signs of stopping their terrorist campaign against the people of Nicaragua, then President Daniel Ortega entered into negotiations with non-Contra opposition parties to arrange open elections. In 1990, with the promise of restored American aid and the end to terrorist attacks a non-Contra, non-Sandanista President was elected.

But through out their time in opposition the Sandanista's have remained a viable political party always getting at least 35% of the popular vote in federal elections. This year it looks like their time has come again. As in other countries in South and Central America over the past year or so have done, it looks as if Nicaragua is prepared to try a left of centre government.

With more then 60% of the votes counted in the first round of Presidential elections former president Daniel Ortega, the Sandanista candidate, has over 38% of the vote, more then enough to not only win the first round, but guarantee an outright win without the need of runoff elections in January.

Sixteen years after his defeat in the polls Ortega will take power if this lead, as is expected, holds. One of the reasons for his success is the more moderate face he has shown then in previous years. The fact that his running mate is an ex-Contra leader has given people hope that this government will finally be able to unify the country by setting an example of reconciliation at the top.

While the current American administration through their embassy in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, has made some noise about "voter irregularities" the independent Nicaraguan Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency were responsible for releasing the earliest results showing Ortega's substantial lead at the behest of those running against him. There are over 18,000 international observers monitoring these elections including former U. S. President Jimmy Carter.

While it's obvious that Mr. Ortega will not be as friendly towards the current U.S. administration as his chief rival, a banker, it's too early for people to get hysterical and be painting him with the same brush as Chavez the leader of Venezuela. Even in the days of the revolution he was a reluctant ally of Russia and far less of a Marxist revolutionary he was made out to be. Considering his running mate is Jaime Morales former spokesperson for the Contras, the chances of a Red Flag hanging from the flagpole are relatively low.

The reality that the current and future American administrations must come to grips with is that Central and South Americans no longer want to be part of American Manifest Destiny. For over a hundred years, and longer in some countries, the United States has held undue influence over the internal matters of the sovereign nations of the countries to the South of them.

It's time for the United States to stop forcing countries to put the interests of the United States ahead of their own. If they want to win friends and influence people they should remember what they did in Europe after World War 2 and create a type of Marshall plan to assist the nations of South America to develop their own economies that offer well paying jobs and health care to their employees.

Or at least give them the opportunity to do so without raising insurmountable barriers in front of them in the form of embargos and sanctions. America is looked upon by the poor and the downtrodden of these countries as the enemy because they see them as the friend of the people who have kept them in poverty and ignorance for a hundred years or more. If these people choose to vote for a party that promises an end to that can you blame them?

Communism is not about to take over the world any time soon any more, if it ever were, so don't you think its time to stop worrying about "The Red Menace". Learn how to live in peaceful co-existence with your neighbours and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. South and Central America are never going to go back to being the personal fiefdoms of the United States and its business community. One way or another they are going to be more and more resistant to that idea.

This doesn't have to a confrontational situation though, but the choice is yours. Use the election of Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua as a first step in that new direction. You never know, you could find friends in the most unlikely of places.

November 5, 2006

Saddam Hussein Verdict: Justice Or Vengeance?

Well the least suspenseful trial in history since Nuremberg is about to come to an end in Baghdad today, Sunday November 5th. From the moment American troops pulled Saddam Hussein out of his rabbit hole it was obvious there would only be one verdict in his trial – guilty. If any other verdict could possibly have been returned they wouldn't have had to invade Iraq.

But do you know what the charges are against him that this verdict is being handed down today? He is on trial for his alleged role in the death of 150 people following an attempted assassination attempt in 1982. That's right he and seven co-defendants are on trial for something that happened twenty-four years ago, which was in retaliation for what in most countries is considered an act of treason.

For one second try to remove everything you know about the circumstances of who and what Mr. Hussein was and consider this trial just on the basis of facts. First of all the events in question took place nearly a quarter of a century ago and at the time Mr. Hussein was considered one of America's staunchest allies in the region. The faction that tried to assassinate him were members of the same sect who had recently overthrown the government in Iran and were seen as destabilizing force in the area at the time.

Secular Muslim and Arab nations at the time were cracking down heavily on all groups who posed potential threats to their governments. Remember one such group had just assassinated Anwar Sadat of Egypt shortly before this time and his successor was filling prisons with anybody who even looked like they were willing to support an Islamic jihad.

The other thing to consider is how dependable is evidence from twenty-four years ago. If there is even a shadow of doubt that he is guilty of this specific crime, or if the evidence is only circumstantial, how can he be sentenced to death? I don't know the circumstances surrounding this incident; were these people just rounded up and killed, were they arrested and summarily executed without trial, were they given a show trial and then executed, or were they given an opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law?

The problem with the first two scenarios is providing irrefutable proof that Saddam Hussein had planned and carried out these murders deliberately. The problem with the third is proving that they were just show trials, and the fourth is if they were properly conducted by a judiciary system and he signed the orders for their death sentence to be carried out, how much different is that from any one of the death sentences that George Bush signed when he was Governor of Texas?

All right I know that might be a little bit of an oversimplification, and that any judiciary under Saddam Hussein was going to be rigged. But even so, there are going to be far too many holes in the rationale for finding a death verdict in this instance to make it seem like anything else but an excuse to hang Hussein. Exactly the same thing he is being accused of doing in 1982.

The run up to this verdict has the occupying American army and the Prime Minister of Iraq so nervous that they have imposed a complete curfew on all people, and traffic in Baghdad and three surrounding cities. Nobody is allowed to be on the streets what so ever. The airport has been closed and security at all checkpoints has been beefed up.

It is being assumed that one side or the other will react no matter what the verdict. If he is found guilty and sentenced to hang then Saddam's fellow Sunni Arabs could very well increase the intensity of their violence, which has already seen a horrid upswing in the past week. On the other hand if he isn't sentenced to hang the Shiite Arabs who were in opposition to Saddam could very well have a similar reaction.

The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, hasn't helped matters by interfering in the judiciary process by publicly declaring his hope that Mr. Hussein is sentenced to hang. The fact that he represents the majority Shiite Arab community that was persecuted under Hussein's regime gives the trial more the appearance of an exercise in vengeance then an attempt to obtain justice.

If bringing Saddam Hussein to trial was an attempt to begin the process of reconciling the two sides in what's becoming an ever increasingly violent sectarian battle it's not having the result intended. Instead of the Prime Minister's hoped for taking the heart out of the insurrection, putting Hussein to death on charges like these runs the risk of turning him into a martyr in the eyes of the minority Sunnis.

You would think with the situation so volatile that they would try and hold off on issuing a death sentence, either indefinitely, or at least until the charges Saddam Hussein is on trial for have enough substance to leave no room for doubt in anybody's mind. The mass murder trial he is facing for ordering the deaths of Kurdish villagers that began in August justifies a death sentence far more then the current charges.

A death sentence for Mr. Hussein based on the current charges will be death sentences for many more people aside from him and could well be the first step towards the civil war that everyone fears. Confusing justice and vengeance is a mistake at any time, here it would be a very bloody one.


October 30, 2006

Arming Iraq: Whoops Wrong Arms.

Ever since George W. and company climbed on their horses to go off and coral them some terrorists in Iraq there's been talk of them going even further a field. Periodically one of the gang, Deadeye Dick, Dapper Don, or even Curious George himself would throw a clay pigeon up in the air for target practice to see if expanding the territory was a viable option.

During the days of full-scale insurrection when there was still fighting going on between American troops and a visible enemy there were all sorts of suggestions being tossed around in the press about who was supplying what to whom. The two names at the top of everyone's list as being the biggest supplier of arms to those resisting American occupation, were always the Iran and Syria.

Now neither country has the best of reputations when it comes to the training and arming of those whose interests run counter to that of the West and animosity between Iran, Syria and the United States has been something that's been pretty much a guarantee for the last twenty-five plus years. (All of which made the Regan administration's sale of arms to Iran in the mid eighties to circumvent Congress' refusal to fund a terrorist organization – The Contras- even more cynical)

Syria has been ipso – facto ruler of Lebanon for who knows how long, and been rumoured to supply aid and succour for proscribed organizations for even longer. But in spite of that the U.S. has not made a habit out of overt threatening gestures towards that country. Whether there is some connection between that and Syrian willingness to torture individuals at the behest of Western governments is anyone's guess.

Ever since the overthrow of the Peacock Throne of the Shah of Iran (another example of the U.S. propping up a despotic ruler and earning the hatred of the locals) by the Islamic Revolution of the late nineteen seventies relations between the U. S. and Iran have just been on this side of outright war. In the hopes of doing away with them without any direct involvement they heavily armed the regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and had him attempt their dirty work.

Unfortunately he was far too incompetent and insecure a leader to have permitted the survival of able military minds and the Iran/Iraq war became a bloody stalemate, with neither side ceding territory and both sides suffering massive losses. It was only after it was discovered that Saddam had experimented with biological warfare on a Kurdish town in Iraq that the Americans began having second thoughts about him as an ally in the region.

When he decided to re annex Kuwait back into his territory, it was the excuse the American's needed to move against him. Proving that old adage "If At First You Don't Succeed – Try Try Again" has merit what they didn't succeed in doing in the early nineties they have partially accomplished now. Saddam Hussein is no longer ruler of Iraq, but neither it seems is anyone else. They have a government in name only, and if it wasn't for the American army and friends they probably wouldn't last a month due to continual outbreaks of violence ranging from suicide bombings to minor fire-fights on an almost daily basis.

Originally the plan for the neighbourhood probably included a couple of more stops on the Axis Of Evil tour, but as Iraq has dragged on the clay pigeons fired off dealing with the invasions of either Iran or Syria receive cooler and cooler hearings. No matter how often its repeated that the weapons being used against American soldiers and the rest of the Coalition are coming from one of those two countries the enthusiasm for expanding the war just isn't there.

The news today out of Washington after an audit of the military hardware supplied by the Pentagon to Iraqi security forces isn't going to help that argument in the slightest. According to figures released by the office of the special inspector general for the reconstruction of Iraq, the U.S. Defence Department can't account for four percent of small arms that were delivered to Iraq.

While four percent may not sound like much it adds up to 14,030 semi-automatic pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons that have simply vanished off the face or the earth or can't be accounted for. Now we're not talking about regular G.I. inventory, what each soldier carries and a unit keeps in reserve; we're talking about brand new equipment that was purchased specifically for the Iraq security forces. That means this stuff went directly into the hands of the new government in Baghdad.

I don't think anyone would have too much trouble believing that the majority of that four percent has ended up with other than those who it was originally intended for. How many American troops have come under fire from small arms fire that was manufactured in the same factory as the weapons they carry? That can't be much of a morale booster to find out your buddy was blown away by arms bearing a made in U. S. A. sticker on it.

Now obviously 14,000 plus weapons aren’t going to be sufficient to arm all those forces keeping American troops stuck overseas, but they have to playing a significant role in the proceedings. Maybe before George and the rest of the gang take on anyone new they should learn how to ensure they don't supply arms to the people they're fighting. It might make the job a little easier.

October 26, 2006

Defining Terrorism: Violence Is Violence

In the wake of the September 11th 2001 attacks on the United States, Canada, like her neighbour to the south, created a slew of new laws specific to the detention of people as related to terrorist activities. These laws gave the government the power to detain people not just for committing terrorist acts, but also for their potential to commit said acts.

While that's all very well and good and maybe even necessary, the difficulty lies in defining exactly what a terrorist act is. Part of Canada's law defining a terrorist act was struck down as being unconstitutional the other day by Superior Court judge on the grounds that it impinged upon the right to freedom of religion.

In his ruling he said that defining terrorist activities as criminal acts motivated by religion is a serious infringement on religious freedom. While some are dismissing this action as not really being that big a deal, because it doesn't add anything to the already nebulous definition of what actually is a terrorist act, the fact of the matter is that it does eliminate the possibility that anybody is going to be picked up as a potential terrorist based on their religion,

It seems that Canada is using a process of elimination in an attempt to define what exactly constitutes terrorism and an act of terror. As it stands now our attempts are in line with pretty much the rest of world and the United Nations. But the problem is nobody has actually defined what exactly terrorism is. U.N. Resolution 1566 might say things like attacks on civilians to coerce a government into do or not doing something are acts of terrorism, but there is no definitive definition as to what makes a person a terrorist.

The problem is there is a certain amount of moral ambiguity about some of the ways we would define terrorism. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter is one of the most often repeated paradoxes of the twentieth century when people are talking about geo-political realities. If we have to start with that as an accepted reality are we ever going to be able to come up with a definitive definition of terrorism?

Was the U. N. on the right track in trying to define it by the activities carried out by a group in attempting to achieve it's goals, or is their an actual philosophical difference between those who are freedom fighters and those who are terrorists? Just because we support their cause, the Africa National Congress and Nelson Mandela for instance were declared a terrorist organization by the government of South Africa but they had worldwide support, does that make them right.

Sentiment is a dangerous thing and can cause a person to lose track of the reality of who or what it is they are condoning. Back in 1980 there was a group Irish Republic Army prisoners who went on a hunger strike because they wanted to be political prisoners and not treated like criminals. There was a lot of popular support for them both at home in Ireland and abroad in North America (where it really counted of course because the happy Irishman Reagan was president of the United States) But a few years later the pendulum swung against them when they began their bombing campaign again and blew up a car bomb in a public square killing numerous people for apparently no other reason than to show that they could still get away with it whenever and however they wanted.

The I. R. A. and other groups like them claimed to have fought for freedom but they always seemed more than willing to deny others their freedom when it suited their needs. Denying others the ability to move about at will because you might be waiting to blow them up for no other reason that they are a different religion then you are doesn't sound like fighting for freedom to me.

It sounds more like using innocents to blackmail governments into doing what you want, or to sap the morale of the public so much they will pressure their government into caving. This was much the same tactic used in World War Two by both sides to justify their bombing of civilian targets; destroying the morale of a nation's citizens in the hopes of speeding up the war's conclusion.

If that isn't an example of using the citizens of a country to coerce its government into making a decision I don’t know what is. But at the time most political leaders and public fully endorsed the policy. In fact bombing raids are still carried out where we know that civilians could be at risk, but we consider that acceptable because we are not directly targeting them.

The real problem with trying to define terrorism by its actions, motivations, or the composition of the group doing the deed, is the fact once we start looking too close the case can be made for almost any act of violence or warfare against another people be called terrorism. If one country chooses to attack another country, no matter how noble or just their actions might seem they are still going to be committing acts of violent aggression against another group of human beings.

I'm not saying that I'm naïve enough to believe that there are not times when the only course of action is to take up arms, but I don't believe that we can differentiate between acts of violence by labelling them with words that denote one as being better than another. Blowing up a civilian aircraft is despicable and cowardly and is the action of people who have no regard for human life.

But why is it considered more of an affront then mobilizing thousands of people and pieces of equipment with the intent of taking life and destroying property? Just because one lays claim to the reigns of power in a country does that give you some sort of exemption from being responsible for the deaths of people? We say that terrorism are acts of violence which have no military objective, whose only purpose is to kill and spread fear as if somehow having a military objective makes killing acceptable.

Perhaps the reason we struggle to define, or differentiate between terrorism and other forms of violence is that too many of the justifications used by groups we refer to as terrorist sound far too similar to the ones utilized by everybody else. How can we obtain moral high ground if we let terrorists have the same reasons we have for utilizing violence as a means of problem resolution?

When the judge in Ontario struck down the law which would allow someone to be defined as a terrorist if he committed a crime motivated by his religious convictions he was only bringing Canada into line with rest of the world. We still have laws on the books that will allow us to lay charges against individuals as terrorists, but those same charges could have been laid without any special provision made to the criminal code of Canada.

In fact by giving these acts the appellant terrorist aren't you also giving them what they want by making them out to be some sort of hero instead of being a common criminal? Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing a person for an act, or an attempted act of violence and could put a person away for a good long time even without calling them a terrorist.

Whether I like it or not is irrelevant, but our society has two types of violence, authorized and un-authorized, there's no point in beating about the bush and trying to qualify that any further. We are never going to be able to come up with definitions of terrorism that will not in some ways paint us with same brush. It doesn't matter to the person who is killed whether it was a terrorist bullet that took their life or that of a soldier: dead is dead and there's nothing you can do about it after the fact.

October 20, 2006

Iraq And Vietnam: Lesson Of The Past Lost On The Pentagon

It had to happen sooner or later but I'm sure any Republican Senator or Representative facing an election this coming first Tuesday of November would have preferred it four weeks later. George Bush used the V-word in reference to his folly in Iraq. He didn't actually use the word himself, but he acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was indeed analogous to the V-word.

Now die-hard conservatives are going to complain about leading questions from a Clinton Democrat (A.B.C. correspondent George Stephanopoulos who got the President to admit the similarity was a former Clinton administration flak) attempting to discredit the policies of the administration in the lead up to the elections. But George Bush has been around politics all his life and should know how to avoid an easy yes and no question.

In fact all he was asked was if he believed the current circumstances in Iraq were analogous to those surrounding the Tet offensive in 1968. He could have easily said, "No I don't believe the circumstances are at all similar". Truth be told he would have been quite correct militarily if that had been his reply. There is really nothing in common with the situation in Iraq and the circumstances of the Tet offensive in terms of what's happening in the field..

What Stephanopoulos was fishing for, and hooked George on, was a comparison between the feelings of the American public now towards the operation in Iraq and the burgeoning feeling of widespread outrage about the war in Vietnam that Tet engendered. It was George's willingness to go along with that assessment that could prove problematic.

Thinking about it some more I realize that any official administration statement linking the two operations, even saying weather conditions were similar would not look great in print. (Vietnam was never a war – it was a police action and the war has been won in Iraq so we're not allowed to call them wars. It's such a nasty word anyway, implying death and destruction like it does, maybe we should just do away with it altogether.). Bush likens Iraq to Vietnam as a headline, no matter what the fine print, would have any Republican hoping to be re-elected this November running from the President like their butt was on fire.

Vietnam is the great bogey monster of modern American military history. It's not so much that they lost the war on the battlefield; it was they didn't understand the battlefield well enough to be able to obtain the easy victory they felt was their due. From the earliest part of the twentieth century the American military had wandered the globe with relative impunity intervening whenever they felt the need.

Ever since Teddy and his roughriders rode up that hill they had protected American investments and interests without any difficulty. America loves a winner and it is her manifest destiny to be one with ease and end up covered in glory.

Vietnam ended all that. There was no easy victory and there was no glory, there was just a seemingly endless stream of unmet expectations and casualties. The Pentagon can blame the media all they want for turning the public against the war in Vietnam, but all they were doing was there job. They reported what the politicians and the generals promised and then they reported what actually happened. Was it their fault there was such a gulf between the two?

The military has spent the last thirty years restoring the finish to their reputation that Vietnam tarnished, There were a series of small wars and invasions, Panama and Grenada, that they carried out with apparent ease, and the first Gulf war gave them the opportunity to perfect their control of the media during an armed conflict.

America was going to be proud of their military if it was the last thing the Pentagon did and they didn't really care what they had to do to accomplish that end. The one lesson they learned from Vietnam was that without public support they weren't going to be allowed to play with their toys and be given millions of dollars to spend. So all their efforts have been geared towards that end.

For the first while things were going along just swimmingly. The invasion went according to plan, the non-existent Iraqi army collapsed like the house of cards they were and casualties were minimal. They even had a triumphal march into Baghdad. It's only been since the "war" has ended that things have begun to unravel.

First there were the revelations that soldiers had been having fun torturing prisoners, some even going so far as to have their pictures taken with them as mementoes of the occasion. There were the various "rebel clerics" who had to be put down which resulted in the heavier casualties then had occurred in the invasion. (That one of the "rebels" had been an opponent of Saddam', his father had been put to death by the ex dictator, seemed to get lost in the shuffle)

But the torture was able to be passed off as the work of rogue elements ("you're always going to get a few bad apples who are going to spoil if for the rest of the class" – although how they all ended up working together and how nobody else in the prison seemed to know it was going on remains a mystery) and the public was willing to accept a reasonable amount of casualties as long as there was the appearance of accomplishment. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs after all.

So even those events weren't the disasters they could have been. The Pentagon handled them with the dexterity of a Madison Ave. agency smoothing over their celebrity endorser's nasal problems. It's only been as the occupation has dragged on and casualties have mounted that unease among the general public has begun to grow.

The problem for the Pentagon is that they have nothing they can announce except casualty reports. There are no battles, aside from the occasional raid on a suspected insurgency hide out, so there has been no decisive victories to celebrate and make the mission appear to be progressing.

Seventy-three American soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi military have been killed so far in October as they come under increased attack in Baghdad from insurgents. Ten Americans alone were killed last Tuesday and forty Iraqis yesterday in attacks in various regions. Numbers like this make it very difficult for the military and the administration to keep painting a rosy picture or predicting a day when American troops might start coming home.

It's that last detail that is most problematic for many Americans. It's obvious that if American troops were to withdraw today the Iraq would descend into an outright civil war. But it's also obvious that the American public is beginning to tire of the ever-increasing casualty numbers.

In a recent poll two thirds of the respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, and that 45% thought the Democrats were more liable to make correct decisions regarding the war as opposed to 34 for the Republicans. Those are not the kind of numbers that make politicians running for election happy.

No matter how hard they've tried to prevent a repeat of Vietnam the military has failed. Iraq, like its predecessor, was the subject of many promises and while they have fulfilled some of them, they have yet to be able guarantee the one thing that is beginning to matter most; an ending. Public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam because of mounting casualties in a seemingly interminable campaign.

History is repeating itself whether the Pentagon likes it or not, and the longer the conflict drags on the more it will. If George Bush was correct in agreeing with his questioner that there are similarities between the current situation in Iraq and those surrounding the Tet offensive in regards to public opinion then the Republicans should look to their history books.

The Democrats were in power in at the time of the beginning of the Tet offensive. By the time the following November rolled around Richard Nixon was starting his first term as a Republican President. If things are allowed to continue as is it's not just this November they need to worry about, but 2008 as well.

The Pentagon thought they could correct the problem of losing public support by controlling the press. Unfortunately it also depends on producing results as promised. That's the real lesson they've failed to learn from the Vietnam War.

October 16, 2006

Canadian Politics: Afghanistan, What Were We Fighting About Again?

There were two headlines in today's Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, that caught my eye. They both dealt with the war in Afghanistan and to my eye provided an interesting perspective on how well the objectives of this conflict are being met. One dealt with the war effort, while another was about life for about fifty per cent of the civilian population.

We can't seem to have a week go by without new reports of casualties, deaths most often, of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Today was no exception as the names of two soldiers killed while guarding road construction were released. It seems the area that we spent so many lives and time pacifying last month isn't as peaceful as was thought.

What was cited as a victory, turned out to be the Taliban just doing what guerrilla forces the world over have done since the Napoleonic Wars in Spain in 1805 when the term was invented (Spanish for small war); retreat in the face of superior firepower and come back to fight again another day. Over the last couple of weeks five Canadians have been killed along the same stretch of highway by either rocket attacks or bombs planted along the roadside.

I think the Canadian military have been taking stupid lessons from someone, which is depressing because you always kind of hope that the people leading the soldiers of your country might have a few brains. Judging by two comments quoted in the press today, I have to say that hope took a pretty sever beating.

The first example was one officer's attempt to paint the Taliban an even darker shade of evil, by saying that they are obviously against roads, because they keep attacking the Canadian soldiers who are guarding the building of a road. You don't think the attacks have anything to do with the fact that the Canadians are seen by the Taliban as an invading force has anything to do with it? Nope its just those godless Taliban are against roads.

The other officer, obviously attempting to offset the death of two more Canadian soldiers reported that in the ensuing skirmish that many rounds were exchanged with the Taliban, and that by the end the Canadians were shooting far more than the Taliban were. You don't think that maybe the Canadians were shooting at an empty hillside and the Taliban had left shortly after they had done all the damage they could without sustaining casualties?

It's not often a lightly armed guerrilla force is going to get into a drawn out conflict with a heavily armed troop of soldiers who can call in air support now is it. But this officer seemed to make it a point of pride that Canadian soldiers could blow up an empty hillside as well as any army in the world.

It was almost five years ago when the Canadian army followed the American lead into Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the oppressive Taliban regime and rooting out suspected terrorist training facilities. We were filled with horror stories, true unfortunately, of the horrendous treatment women were undergoing at the hands of the fundamentalists who were ruling the country. Their interpretation of the Koran was the Muslim equivalent of the Christian barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen take on the bible.

So what are we supposed to make of the fact that after five years of supposed democratic rule that just down the street from where the Canadian army is based is a prison housing a thirteen year old girl jailed because she had refused to marry a fifty year old man who she had been traded to by her father in exchange for another teenage girl? Or that in the same prison a husband, wife and daughter are all in jail because they offered a young woman who came to their door shelter not knowing she was a run away from the same sort of arrangement?

Because of their compassion the three of them were accused of prostitution and have been in jail since. According to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations the practice of jailing women for disobeying their male relatives or husbands is almost as widespread now as it was under the Taliban. These aren't isolated cases in small hill towns either but major metropolitan areas like Kandahar where there is a heavy international troop presence.

In other words in five years time the only thing that has happened is that a nice face has been put on the same old attitudes. Even when the fighting was at an ebb and the Taliban was supposedly "defeated" it seems like nothing was done in a real way to try and improve the lot of women in the country. Women are still considered as property that can be bought and sold on the open marketplace and seemingly nothing is being done about it.

Five years ago when our government agreed to send troops into Afghanistan it was an understandable attempt to liberate a people from a truly contemptible circumstances. Can anyone tell me what the objective of the mission is now? Why are we still fighting against an enemy that was supposedly vanquished before the invasion of Iraq? Why are the conditions that we were supposed to correct still in effect? The longer this war lasts the more questions there are raised then are answered about Canada's involvement.

When the Conservative Party Of Canada led by Prime Minister Steven Harper announced they would be keeping the previous government's commitment to expand Canada's role in the war in Afghanistan the majority of Canadians opposed the idea. With the government's parroting of Bush "We will stay the distance" rhetoric and talk of extending the stay of troops in combat situations, Afghanistan is fast becoming a major political issue in Canada.

In fact it is probably fair to say that Steven Harper's political future could hang on how well he deals with this issue. The province he needs to make serious gains in, Quebec, to win a majority government is also the province most opposed to the war. When there was even rumour of a Quebec battalion, The Vingt-Deux, being sent over seas the reaction was strong enough that the idea was quashed before it was spoken of officially.

Even a hint that a further expansion of the war would cause direct Quebec involvement would cause his shaky support in that province to disintegrate completely. His rigidity on social programs already harms his chances in Ontario, so not only can't he afford to lose support in Quebec, he is in need of gains there to even maintain his minority government status.

It would be ironic if the war everybody else seems to have forgotten about brings down a government in Canada.


October 12, 2006

Canadian Politics: Steven Harper: George Bush's Dummy

How long do you think it will take for people to begin to notice that George Bush's hand is stuck up Steven Harpers's butt? They really are like a cheap vaudeville act in that you never see either set of their lips moving. Soon we will start seeing pictures of them together with George drinking a glass of water in order for Steven to look like he is speaking independently?

I wonder what it is about Canadian Prime Ministers and the way they treat American Presidents. With very few exceptions they are either annoyingly sycophantic like Mr. Harper or former toady to Ronald Reagan, Brain Mulroney, or so deathly afraid of them they despise them. Who can ever forget the image of Mulroney and Reagan singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" as the chiselling bastard was selling the country away during the negotiations for the North America Free Trade Agreement?

I think for Mr. Harper part of it is that he's horribly disappointed that the people and press in Canada don't treat him like the way Americans treat Mr. Bush. Canadians don't accord the office of Prime Minister any of the respect that the Americans give the office of their leader. How else could a person like Bush command respect if not for the office; it's sure not for his sparkling intellect?

What Mr. Harper forgets is that he's not Canada's head of state; nope that honour belongs to whoever happens to be Governor General. (In this case a black woman of Haitian decent, Michelle Jean, is the Queen's representative in Canada) Canada is a constitutional Monarchy and for all you listeners out there preparing for Jeopardy and the category "Obscure Forms of Government" that's where you have an elected parliament, with a figure head monarch, or a representative, as head of state.

So Steven can run around acting all presidential, but he has to remember that come the morning after he is beholden to parliament for all or any of his power. In other words his office carries little or no cachet. Our system of government should put more emphasis on what a political party can do rather then any so called leadership qualities of the Prime Minister.

Of course that's not always the case, but so far to my mind the only individual who has been able to make a splash on the world stage while Prime Minister of Canada was Pierre Trudeau. No one else has come close to having the charisma to be able to have a direct influence on events. Sometimes it was a negative influence, but influence it was all the same.

So here we have Steven Harper standing and delivering, or getting one of his minions to do so, in this case Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, for George Bush. Mr. O'Connor had the nerve to blast fellow NATO members about their unwillingness to offer their soldiers up to slaughter like Canada and The U.S. are in Afghanistan.

He seems to have forgotten that not so long ago Canada was operating under those very rules of engagement that he is so quick to condemn, that Canada has never considered herself one of the aggressor countries, and that close to 60% of Canadians have no interest in seeing our soldiers "pay the ultimate sacrifice".

But the worst part of this is he's changing the face of Canada. We've never been seen as militaristic, aggressive, or any of the words normally associated with countries that have goals and interests they support with military power. We don't want to be that and most of us have been very proud of our record as peacekeepers around the world.

It used to be that a Canadian flag meant impartiality and could be trusted by all sides in a conflict. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Peacekeepers it was only considered natural that Canada should be part of the team that accepted the award on behalf of the peacekeeping brigades around the world. We invented the term and the concept for goodness sake.

Our original role in Afghanistan was to be doing what those other NATO nations are being criticized for by our government. We were there to help the people of Afghanistan not kill them. Hasn't anyone wondered why after four years of being over there our casualties have pretty much tripled?

Even in the days of the original warfare back before the invasion of Iraq by the Americans Canada's troops weren't subjected to this type of risk because that's never been considered our role to play in armed conflict since Korea. I know it wasn't Harper's decision to change the role our troops are playing in this conflict but he's enjoying being the leader of a country at war far too much for my liking.

If I have to hear the smug, self-satisfied expression "they've paid the ultimate sacrifice" again from his lips I might puke. He sounds like he's proud of the fact that he's sending young Canadian men and women to their deaths. In fact he's so proud of what he's doing he's talking about extending their tours of duty "until the job is done".

That's funny I didn't even see George Bush in the same room, let alone the same country, and his voice is coming out of Steven Harper's mouth. Talk about your dummy acts. Where have you heard those words before, albeit in reference to another war, but still coming from the mouth of George Bush? If Bush's hand isn't up inside Harper controlling his mouth I'd be surprised.

Now wait a minute you say, what about the softwood lumber deal, what about the backing down of passports for the border? What about them I say? The softwood lumber deal pretty much screws Canada's lumber industry out of five billion dollars owed them in illegally collected duties, allows the American industry the right to cancel the deal without notice whenever they want, and instead of a tariff being paid to the American's they have to pay an export tax to our government. Monty Hall couldn't have made that sound attractive.

The passport thing is probably hated as much by the Border States as it is by Canadian industry, and I can see pressure being put on the Bush administration from Vermont to Washington as nobody wants to lose the cross border business. The only ones screaming for the border passes are a few extremist right wing cuckoos, or those who border with Mexico where the "problem" is something different all together.

There's one other thing everyone might want to remember. Just before the last Canadian election Steven Harper had an unprecedented meeting with George Bush. How often does the leader of an opposition party in Canada, or in any country for that matter, meet with the President of the United States? All we were told was that they had discussed items of mutual interest. What's even more interesting was that this meeting lasted longer then the official meeting between Prime Minister Steven Harper and President George Bush, and there were no photo opportunities afterwards.

It was pretty obvious by then that Steven Harper's party was going to be forming a minority government in Canada in the upcoming election. You don't think the two of them might have been planning which bones the Bush administration was going to throw Harper's new government to give them credibility?

Border passports and the softwood lumber deal had been festering for a good long time so if Harper could wave his hands in triumph over his great accomplishment at standing up to the Americans that would go a long to silencing critics that he was merely Bush's puppet.

To be fair, the two of them have a lot in common to begin with; homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and a belief in protecting the rights of those who advocate any of the above. In Canada it is illegal to advocate hatred or discrimination against anyone on basis of race, creed, sexual orientation, or anything else that might differentiate one group of people from the mainstream.

But Steven Harper believes that law is unfair because it prevents Christian Schools from teaching that if you are gay or believe that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body you are an abomination. He sees nothing wrong with teachers getting up in classrooms and using their position of authority to teach new generations hatred in the guise of belief. I don't see much difference between that and them getting up in front of their classes and teaching that blacks are inferior to whites and that segregation is acceptable, Jews are to be hated because they killed Christ, and that Muslims are dirty heathens and have to be killed for their own good.

But even with all that in common, one can't help but suspect that George Bush is pulling the strings that make Steven Harper dance. With one hand up his butt and one pulling the strings the illusion is pretty hard to discredit. But once you think about it, it's obvious, Steven Harper is George Bush's dummy.

September 17, 2006

Know Thy Neighbour...Don't Kill Them

There was a scene in the Douglas Adam's book The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy where his character Arthur Dent says something that we would consider harmless, that turns out to be a deadly insult to another race of beings. The consequences of Arthur's unknowing insult were astonishing; a civilization was wiped out and an invasion of earth was only prevented when a Cocker Spaniel swallowed the invasion fleet (something to do with space, time, and relative sizes)

I might have got some to of the details wrong, it might have been a Labrador retriever that swallowed the invasion fleet, but I think you get the gist of the matter. How hard it is to translate ideas and concepts from culture to culture. It's not even always a matter of having to work translate from one language to another, although that complicates matters even more, because you can share a language but not an approach to conceptualizing with it.

Our way of thinking is shaped by the philosophies that we have been immersed in from the moment of our birth. I can reject them all I want intellectually and search for another means of defining how I live my life, but they are still the concepts my brain uses to bring definition to ideas and philosophies.

To give you an example I've been reading the books of Ashok Banker now for the past year and a half, specifically his retelling of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. Through out the six books of the series the central figure, Rama, is continually described as an adherent of Dharma and its his absolute devotion to that concept in the face of all obstacles that lends him his greatness and earns him the admiration of even the Gods and Goddesses.

Each time I think that I've come up with a way of being able to put into words what I know emotionally Dharma to be, my intellect fails me. I can use words like fulfillment of duty to my heart's content and although it might tell you that there's a relationship between duty and dharma it still is off the mark.

It's not that the English language is unsuitable for explaining the concept, although it would be probably less awkward if I did speak Sanskrit, it's just that I keep wanting to impose our structure of thinking on it. It's extremely difficult to throw off thousands of years of genetically imprinted thinking, and forty-five years of implementing it in just over a year.

It's like peeling back multiple layers of skin from a fruit or a nut; each time that you think you have worked your way through to the kernel of truth there's another husk between you and the truth. Subtle nuance that aren't thick enough to prevent you from seeing the ultimate goal, but they are sufficient to keep you from touching it.

For instance, I recently ventured the opinion that one could choose to fulfill or not fulfill ones Dharma. But I was gently corrected and told that Dharma was either adhered to or not adhered to and choice had nothing to do with it. I think I understand the difference, but I don’t think I'm capable of putting it into words except to hazard that dharma simply exists and choice implies doing something. I can choose to do, or not do, that which helps me fulfill my Dharma but I can't choose Dharma.

I still don't know if even that's right, but that where my thought process has taken me to after a year and a half of reading, thinking, and talking about it with others. It's been a slow and steady progress towards understanding on something deeper then an intellectual and philosophical level and I'm still only getting occasional glimpses of the complete picture.

To me this diversity of thought is something that is to be celebrated and be in awe of. I find it amazing that the human race, with its one basic pattern, has developed such a diversity of means to express concepts and beliefs. But if we look back at the scenario put forward by Douglas Adams we can also see how this beauty can become dangerous if we allow ourselves to be wilfully ignorant of the rest of our planet's inhabitants.

Instead of having the decency to be grateful for the abundance we have been given, some of us, too many in fact for anybody's safety, believe that they represent the only right way of thinking and being. Not only do these people not make any attempt to see what beauty the person next to them has to offer, they work hard to extinguish it and replace it with there own beliefs.

You want to guarantee that someone is going to resent and hate you for generations to come? Simple, try and steal their language, culture, and belief system away from them and jam yours down their throats. One of the few occasions that I know of that this didn't happen was in Canada. No not with the native people who lived here when the Europeans showed up, but between the English and the French.

In the mid 1700's when the British finally defeated the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec City they knew they would need to keep them as allies in the years to come. So they guaranteed them the right to speak their language, practice their religion, and control the education of their children.

Of course they more then compensated for that one moment of compassion with their actions throughout the remainder of their empire as they blithely banned the languages and beliefs of any and everybody else whose country they expanded into. The residue of that resentment is what feeds a good chunk of the terrorist actions around the world.

Haven't you ever wondered why the men who are the authority figures of these organizations speak like they have gone to Oxford or Cambridge University? It's because they either have, or have been taught English since they started schooling. India is not one of the largest English speaking countries in the world because they chose to be.

After so many years of getting away with our hubris of believing we could act like we want and treat people with disrespect and disdain things have started to come back and bite us in the ass. We shouldn't be so surprised, there is only so long that people can take being stepped on before thy chew the boot.

The only way we can even begin to stem the tide is to change the way we treat others and begin to make the effort to understand our differences and celebrate them. It doesn't mean your going to have to become a devotee of Dharma but it does mean stopping believing yours is the only way. Of course it's a two way street and both sides have to prove to each other that they are willing to take the leap of faith required for this to work.

Nobody says this is going to be easy, it is far easier to try and kill someone than to get to know them. Maybe it's time we started, we need the practice.

September 6, 2006

Canada Under Fire In Afghanistan - By Americans

The United States of America spends literally billions of dollars each year on military spending. They have one of the most comprehensively equipped armed forces in the world with state of the art military equipment for each arm of the service. If you are in the navy you could be on an aircraft carrier or a submarine that's powered by its own nuclear power plant. If you are in the army, or the marines you have at your disposal all the most sophisticated means of either defending your self or killing others.

The air force claims that it can drop a bomb down somebody's chimney from a thousand feet in the air and has smart bombs that can be programmed to go where you want them to a good percentage of the time. They even have planes that can sneak up on people called stealth bombers because they can elude detection by radar.

It's really quite amazing what money can buy these days when it comes to military hardware isn't it, it's just too bad so little of that money gets spent on training the troops in how to fight a war. Even kids playing with toy soldiers know that in a war the object is to kill more of the enemy's soldiers than he kills of your soldiers. At the end of the battle the side with the most soldiers left alive usually wins.

Now I'm not a military strategist and I didn't go to a military academy, so maybe I'm unaware of some of the finer points of tactics. But it would seem to me that killing your allies and reducing their combat effectiveness would be counter productive to achieving the target of having the most soldiers left standing at the end of a battle.

For the second time since the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict Canadian troops suffered injuries and fatalities from American aircraft either bombing or strafing their positions. On Tuesday September 5th an American A-10 thunderbolt strafed Canadian troops using his Avenger gun. Firing bullets the size of pop cans, he instantly killed one soldier, former Olympian Private Mark Anthony Graham, and wounded over thirty others, five seriously enough to be evacuated out of the country for treatment.

In April 2002 two National Guard air force officers attacked Canadian troops on exercise manoeuvres killing four soldiers and wounding eight others. Yesterday the soldiers were just waking up, having breakfast and preparing their gear for an offensive against the Taliban when they came under attack. Canadian military officers are at a loss to explain how their LAV-3 armoured vehicles could have been mistaken for a group of insurgent Taliban.

Now I can understand how in the heat of a battle situation mistakes can be made, you come under fire, you shoot back but you overshoot or the situation has changed in the ten seconds it took you to respond, and you end up accidentally firing upon your own troops. In theory everyone is supposed to know where everyone else is, but things on a battlefield can change so quickly that enemy and ally positions can switch in the blink of an eye.

According to Major Geoff Abthorpe of the Canadian Army "they're (pilots) supposed to make visual contact…The LAVs were out on an exposed open slope, so what actually happened is hard to say." In other words before you go firing from the hip at anything parked by the roadside you have to have visual confirmation that it's an enemy.

Canadian troops have been taking part in an offensive in the area since Saturday as part of the N.A.T.O. force trying to push the Taliban out of the area. They were preparing to launch an offensive that morning, but were forced to cancel because of the attack. As the day continued the force came under heavier and heavier fire as word spread amongst the Taliban that the troop had been shot up before the offensive that day even began.

So not only did this pilot cause the death of a soldier, seriously injure five others, scuttle a day's operation, he also increased the likelihood of the Canadians incurring more casualties as the Taliban knew they were temporarily stunned by the early morning attack. Fortunately they came through the rest of day unscathed and were able to regroup come nightfall.

The weekend had already been rough on the Canadian troops, as they had suffered four fatalities on Sunday. To lose another of their number to "friendly fire" in such a stupid and irresponsible manner must have been a real moral sapper. The troops had been in position there over night so all air force personnel should have been aware of who was supposed to be where.

Air force pilots in the American armed forces are most often officers, which means the majority of them would have gone to a military academy to help prepare them for their role of leading men into battle. You'd think somewhere along the line they'd have learnt not only about the importance of following the rules of engagement for specific battle field situations but how shooting allies is detrimental to the war effort.

It's really hard to understand how mistakes like this one could happen with all the technology at a pilot's disposal and the fact they were not in a battlefield situation. It's one thing to miss a target and cause "collateral damage". It's another all together to choose the wrong target completely and let loose with your weapons indiscriminately.

The reputation of the American military had taken a bit of a beating in Iraq with tale of torture and vengeance killings against innocent civilians. Killing your allies through carelessness isn't the right way to go about repairing your image.

August 14, 2006

Cultural Imperialism: The Path To Extinction

My guess is that every time there has been a major world power they think of themselves as the epitome of what humans can strive to be. From the times of the Pharaohs through the Hellenistic era on up past the Romans and the Ottoman empires, the Austro-Hungarian, The British and now finally the American empire; they have all shared the same chauvinistic belief that they are the definition of civilization.

In the past for an empire to be effective they would have to physically expand, seizing territory from other nations to give them the benefits of their superior ways. Unsurprisingly the original inhabitants of the country would take umbrage and tended to discover that the way of living they had practised for generations prior to the newcomers showing up was pretty good.

Although there were many mitigating factors that affected the result, there was usually only two ways this type of conflict of interest could be resolved. Either the newcomers would be forced to give up their role as rulers of the land, or they would completely overwhelm the original inhabitants and reduce them to a shell of their former selves. While continental Asia and Europe fell into the former category, most of North, Central, and South America are the latter.

As the world has changed and technological advances closed the distances between countries until they have become virtually non-existent, it is seldom necessary for a country to actually use physical force to impose itself on another. Armies only come into play when physical assets like natural resources are part of the motivation to dominate.

While all civilizations have had the tendency to try and increase their power bases locally, the rationale for a great many expansions has been based on a need for survival. They have better hunting territory which we need access to for feeding our people, or their land is better for growing crops were the types of reasons that would see Native tribes in North America attempt to appropriate another's land.

Conquest for the sake of conquest in order to impose your worldview on other people seems to be reserved to those cultures whose focus has gone beyond basic survival. The need for expansion is therefore one based in pride and chauvinism. It seems impossible for them to understand that anybody could be happy living in a manner they consider primitive, or that the other culture could have anything of value to offer.

When a culture no longer has as its only focus survival, the belief systems that sustained them through that period will become out of synch with the needs of those who no longer depend on a direct relationship with the planet. A new type of system is needed that replicates the new social order of those with more power than others.

Monotheistic religions with their systems of punishments and rewards for good and bad behaviour and codes of conduct to control people are ideally suited to a society where a small number of people control most of the wealth and must ensure the obedience of countless others. Whether this is how the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came about, or that they simply flourished because of that fact is now irrelevant

Especially in the case of the latter two, they have been the focal point and motivation for much of the empire building from around 900AD until today. From the Ottoman empire to the Crusades of antiquity they have each tried to dictate how others live or find new countries where they can establish themselves as the predominate belief system.

In North America we have had around four hundred years of this type of rule, more then long enough to develop the chauvinism required to believe that our way of life is not only the best, but to even consider another way preferable means you are potentially an enemy. But that type of cultural paranoia is not limited to the West. When you isolate any species from the rest of the world or outside influences for too long they tend to become insular and fearful of change.

They cling to their outmoded ways of thinking and attempt to force the world to accede to their wishes even if that threatens the well being of others. One need only look at the linkage between foreign aid and anti-family planning that the current administration in the Untied States has implemented for an example of that. Or check out the Iranian government's attitude towards the same issues and you'll see the same thing if not worse.

In fact the United States and Iran have a great deal in common with each other when it comes to foreign and domestic policy. Both governments are very afraid of anything they don't understand, insist upon turning back the clock to a time when women had less control over their bodies, have blurred the line separating church and state, and have elements who believe that they should be imposing their way of life upon the rest of the world.

Each country either fosters or has fostered insurrections in other parts of the world in order to counter countries they consider too different from what they think of as the right way of being. Neither thinks anything of proceeding unilaterally on issues of international consequence even when a large proportion of the world is lined up against them, and they both believe that they have been chosen to do God's work on this planet.

Aside from the obvious worry about what seems like an inevitable clash between these two polar opposites there are other things to regret about living in a world where societies are still dominated by cultural prejudices. There are of course those who suffer from the fall out of either country's influence when it comes to foreign aid.

In Africa where AIDS steals so many lives, health care services and preventative measures are hindered by both nations' refusal to accept that people are going to be sexually active and that steps are needed to ensure their safety. With aid money from America restricted to agencies that will only preach abstinence, and fundamentalist Muslims preaching that women have no rights and sex is not something to be talked about, a difficult task becomes next to impossible.

Than there are the battlefields around the globe where they both have interests in the outcomes. Somalia where a Muslim militia is trying to overthrow some sort of secular government; The Sudan where similar circumstances are underway, and immense oil reserves are also at state; and of course the Middle East. If the United States is funnelling money into Israel, somebody has to be providing Hezbolah with the wherewithal to be unleashing the firepower it has at its disposal. Caught in between, in all three parts of the world, are thousands upon thousands of innocents who just want to have lives like the rest of us; to believe what we want and live out our days in peace.

Aside from those obvious results of single-minded culture at work there are other less fatal, but equally regretful consequences. I can't speak for life under Muslim rule, but I can speak from my own experiences. I look around and see what people are missing by believing they are the centre of the universe.

Can they appreciate the subtlety of design in the Moorish architecture in Spain, the beauty in the drape of a Sari, or the simple awe that's inspired by a Shinto temple? Or does all that matter to them is what's on television? Our empire building has not created a cultural imperialism that destroys other people's modes of expression, it simply doesn't recognise its existence or cede it enough importance to make it worth bothering with.

I live across the street from a family that has rented out four apartments together in an apartment building. Almost everyday they sit out on the fire escape, drink beer and yell at each other starting at around four in the afternoon and sometimes going as late as after midnight. On occasion they've ended up having fights on their front lawn or screaming abuse at each other at the top of their lungs.

Our society has created the circumstances where these people think they are better than someone who lives in Pakistan because of the colour of their skin and because they aren't one of us. I'm sure they are not exceptional and there are millions of people the world over who think like that, no matter where they live or what they believe in.

Until as a species we can shake off the chains of cultural imperialism that we have tied our self up in we will not evolve. The species that doesn't evolve risks extinction.

August 4, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Lie That Is Afghanistan

Back in 2001, the shock waves had barely abated from the horror of September 11th when George Bush announced his intent of invading Afghanistan to overthrow a regime openly committed to terror attacks on the West. The Taliban had gone from being the plucky rebels fighting the Communist hoards of Russia to being despotic overlords responsible for evil deed after evil deed.

But in spite of the propaganda, and whatever other agenda's may have been pursued, it seemed at the time that the Taliban were something that the world should be concerned about. The people of Afghanistan, for whom survival has been a tenuous and iffy proposition for the last twenty years, needed help badly. The country needed basic infrastructure rebuilt, educational facilities created, and anything that might have promised hope for a future.

It seemed like the perfect country to begin a type of Marshall plan for the developing world. Where the original served to rebuild Western Europe in order to curb the spread of Communism, in Afghanistan hope for the future would be the best enemy against terrorism. Terrorist organizations don't just form overnight, or on the whim of one person.

Rather they require a generation of disaffected and despairing people, and opportunistic zealots who can give the masses something to live for. In the Cold War it was supposedly about economics and ideology; freeing the proletariat against free elections. Now it just feels like hatred in both directions and to hell with issues or causes.

But there are ways to make terrorism less attractive to the majority of people, just as there was a way to make Communism unattractive back in the 1940's. Give people hope for the future. Help them rebuild their houses, improve their irrigation systems so that their crops have a better chance of success, build roads so that their produce can get to markets. Instead of investing money in bombs to drop on them, invest in their industry so that jobs can be created, show you care by investing in their people by rebuilding the local schools that had been destroyed.

Sure there will always be those who are dissatisfied, but they exist in every society – witness the bombing in Oklahoma City if you require any proof – but if we do our best we can at least remove popular support from their cause. Without grassroots popular support it becomes harder for groups like the Taliban to vanish into the villages of the backcountry because they won't be welcomed or supplied.

Unfortunately this opportunity was squandered. Once it appeared that the Taliban had been routed and the terrorist training facilities overrun, victory was declared, a sham government was installed and a token number of multinational troops was left behind to enforce the peace. It was a situation that cried out for long-term aid and direct involvement by the parties involved in assisting with the rebuilding of the country.

Unfortunately token involvement was all that was considered necessary and the new government was left to fend for itself in a country that had nothing and was being offered little. It only took a couple of years and the Taliban is now back as strong as ever, with the support and backing of people through out the countryside. Troops that were supposed to be overseeing the rebuilding of a country have all of a sudden found themselves in the midst of a full-scale guerrilla war.

When Canada became part of the multinational force involved with the invasion of Afghanistan it was with the understanding that the services of our troops would be best utilized in support positions. They would see some combat, but on the whole there work would really begin when the major hostilities were ended.

After all the training our troops have received for the last quarter century or more has been geared towards peacekeeping missions that involve trying to ensure that cease fires are obeyed and truces kept. It's highly specialized and dangerous work for which they have been recognized the world over as being some of the best men and women to place in those situations.

Canadians have had every reason to be proud of the men and women who have done this difficult work in some of the world's hot spots. The Golan Heights, Cyprus, Beirut, Rwanda, and Bosnia have all seen Canadian troops within the last twenty years in the blue hats of the United Nations. We have come to accept that casualties are part of the deal and we mourn each soldier lost as if they were members of our own family. Perhaps because of the rarity of the event we feel it that much more when one is lost, and their lives are not taken for granted or part of a parade of statistics.

For the first time since the Korean War a Canadian government has placed our troops into a full combat situation in a ground war. No one under the age of sixty or seventy in this country has ever experienced the reality of soldiers dying on a weekly basis, and casualties almost daily. It's not something we were prepared for, if you can ever be prepared for it, and we are not liking it.

A majority of Canadians were against the idea of involving our troops in a more direct combat role in Afghanistan for the simple reason that is not what we expect from our troops. Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada in their anxiousness to be one of the big boys and play tough ignored the feelings of the people of Canada.

They compounded that insult by trying to remove the public's means of participating in mourning the loss of the young men and women who lost their lives. First they cancelled the lowering of flags to half-mast on Parliament Hill. Then they banned press coverage of caskets being returned to Canada and the ceremonies for the families at the airports.

The meaningless platitudes about sacrifice and duty are becoming more and more suspect as the question of duty to who forms in people's minds; duty to the Canadian people or Canada? How can that be when they are not dying to defend our soil or even what we believe in? It's more like duty to Steven Harper's ego and his government's misguided policy of drawing us ever further away from a path of respected impartiality into one subservient to our neighbours to the south.

Canada's opposition parties are calling for a review of our policy in Afghanistan in the wake of yesterday's events that again saw the largest number of Canadian casualties in one day since Korea. Yesterday it was four dead and ten wounded.

It seems each week we continue to set a new high water mark for dead and injured. Is this what this government was elected to do, set record numbers for Canadians killed on active service for their generation? What will next week bring; five dead and eleven wounded in one day's fighting?

Fewer and fewer Canadians are willing to find out anymore. Every poll taken since the vote last February deciding to extend and expand Canada's troop commitment in Afghanistan has shown an increasing number of people against the idea. Even the Liberal party who had originally suggested the renewal and voted with the Conservatives last winter are rethinking their position.

Ujjal Dosanjh the Liberal Defence critic commented that the mission has become far more of a combat mission then what had been intended by the previous administration when they had made the proposal in the first place. They had envisioned the Canadian troop continuing with the rebuilding of the country in those parts where pacification was further along than in the region they now find themselves in.

As rumours fly that members of the armed forces don't feel like they have been properly prepared for this type of mission, and that their training is inadequate to deal with the situations they face, the Canadian government continues to spout platitudes guaranteed to sentence more young men and women to death.

Not a single one of these people needed to make the supreme sacrifice on the alter to Steven Harper's ego. How dare he and his Defence Minister claim to know the soldiers in the field and speak of their being honoured to do their duty. These people wouldn't know responsibility and duty if it bit them in the butt. If they did they wouldn't be able to sleep at night for their shame at stealing a family's children, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives from them.

When they say things like they are determined to stay the course until 2009 all I can think of is a line from an old Phil Ochs song: "It's always the old who lead us into war/ it's always the young who die." But we can't just lay the blame at the feet of the Conservative Party of Canada. We have to ask ourselves how did it happen that a party without a majority of the seats in the House of Commons was allowed to involve us in a full scale combat situation?

Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada are arrogant bullies who need someone to stand up to them. Hopefully the opposition parties are finally beginning to show some backbone and will stand behind their public rhetoric and call them on their actions. These people have to be stopped before the damage they do is irreparable.

The Canadian military has a long and proud history dating back to World War One. It is a shame to see such a glorious history treated with such disrespect and callousness. There are times and places when a country's soldiers must expect to find themselves in potentially life threatening situations. But we owe them the courtesy of making it something worth dying for. Afghanistan and their current situation is not one of those times and anyone saying otherwise is lying.


August 1, 2006

Israel And Palestine: Mapping The History

A month or so ago somebody asked me a question that took me aback. Not just because of the question, but because of who this person was. She is someone who I've always thought was informed and knew about issues and their background. So I was quite shocked when out of the blue she asked me if I knew who the Palestinians were.

I must have look puzzled, and some of my shock must have shown on my face, because she clarified by asking, what she meant was where did they come from and how did the situation originally come about. I was still shocked, not the least because I wondered how many other people don't know what had happened back in the late 1940's through to post 1967?

How that when the state of Israel was formed in 1949 five Arab armies attacked determined to throw the country into the sea; that the Israelis fought off their invaders and tried to cross over into the Arab half of the partitioned country but were repelled by Jordanian troops. In the aftermath a majority of the Arab population left on the Israeli side of the partition fled to the Arab side looking for a home and became the original Palestinian refugees.

I'm not sure what the British envisioned as happening with the part of the land not given over to Israel after partition. Did they foresee a new Arab state being formed? As it is the neighbouring countries Jordan, and Egypt absorbed the land. Of the two only Jordan was willing to allow the refugees to enter into their country.

But they were not allowed to settle anywhere outside of areas that the Jordanian government designated. Thus were born the first refugee camps. Jordan was nervous of allowing too much intermingling between her people and the Palestinians because they were afraid of what they saw as a breeding ground for disaffection and terrorism.

Originally there were fears among all the Arab countries who had taken part in the war after partition that those who the land was meant for would possibly take action against them or instigate unrest in their countries. It was one of the reasons that none of them were eager to allow the refugees to make any sort of permanent settlements in their countries.

The Palestinian refugees and what are now known as the occupied lands are two entirely different issues, which is something conveniently forgotten on both sides of the discussion. In 1967 the Israeli air force and armoured brigades staged pre-emptive strikes against a build up of pan Arab forces. By the time the dust had cleared they had "occupied" territory that had not originally been within the boundaries of Israel. This included the West Bank, including the half of Jerusalem that had been deeded to the Arabs, the Gaza strip, the Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights.

The map remained unchanged until 1982 when as a result of the Camp David Accords Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt, which had no impact on the Palestinian refugees because they were never living there anyway. Since that time the territory that Israel controls, save for the Golan Heights, is all part of the original land mass that was supposed to have been two countries.
00 - Map 1967-1982
The question has always remained in my mind what happened in the post 1949 period to the Palestinian State that was supposed to have been formed simultaneously with Israel? The land was under Arab control – Jordan on the one hand and Egypt on the other – but in the twenty-eight years from 1949 until 1967 nothing was done to form a state.

It wasn't until after 1967 that anyone seemed to come up with idea of the creation of Palestine, after the Arab countries had lost the territory to Israel in the Six Day War. Why during the years that Israel was establishing itself domestically, building infrastructure etc, did the Arab world allow the Palestinians to live in the squalor of camps and not build the state that they were designated?

Part of the reason was of course refusal to accept that they wouldn't one day push Israel into the sea, but you'd think after a decade or two you’d start to want something a little more permanent. Anyway the same towns that exist today in the West Bank existed then. Bethlehem and the rest have been there for a couple of thousand years, and didn't vanish out of existence.

Yes the Arabs who lived in pre 1947 Israel territory felt forced to vacate their lands that some had lived in for generations, and probably I would have felt the same resentment and fear that they did when that occurred. There are Arabs who still live in Israel to this day, but I'm sure the comfort level for them after five armies of Arabs had just tried to wipe out their neighbours must have been pretty low and not conducive to staying put.

There is no denying the poverty that the Palestinians live in, but to lay the blame totally at the feet of Israel for circumstances that have existed before they exercised any control over those territories is wrong. The Arab world has to be held accountable for ignoring the plight of their own people for twenty-eight years. Was it a deliberate ploy to foster hatred for the new state of Israel? Or was it just the governments of Jordan and Egypt wanting as much land as possible?

Those are just a couple of questions whose answers are too late to be of value anymore. The other one being what would have happened if the land had been put to the use it was meant for. Would an Arab state have grown alongside of Israel, and how would that have changed the dynamic of the Middle East, as we know it today?

What ifs are fine for fiction, but can only make you crazy in the real world. What is important is to remember that other options did exist at one time, but for what ever the reason it was chosen not to exercise them. What they do offer us, aside from regrets, is a sense of perspective and the realization that once again grey, not black, and not white, is the predominant colour of history.


July 20, 2006

Canadian Politics: Playing For The Crowd

The English language can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes, with its weird spellings and how the same word can be both a verb and a noun. At the same time that is also part of its charm. Turning a noun into a verb can sometimes provide an immediate mental picture and comprehension because of the previous associations.

This may seem like an odd opening paragraph for a political article, but I thought a word of explanation was needed prior to utilizing one such word to describe not only the most recent week of Mr. Harper's term, but his performance overall. Grandstand. My Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary has the following two definitions for that word: "n. a raised series of seats for spectators at a racetrack, sports stadium, etc. – To act in a way so as to impress others or win applause. adj."

Now all politics involves grandstanding to some extent or another, it just goes with the territory of trying to impress people enough to get elected. That's a given and pretty much expected behaviour from those folk. Systems where the office of the leader is elected independent of the rest of the government, as in republics like the United States, seem more inclined to accept the fact that their leader will be playing to the crowds as part of his duties.

But in the parliamentary system of Canada where the Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the most seats and is not elected separately, there is significantly less power associated with the position then that of head of state. In theory the Prime Minister is simply the most important minister in a cabinet of people formulating and implementing policy to conduct the affairs of the nation.

In practice of course the amount of input individual ministers has is dependent on the willingness of the Prime Minister to delegate responsibility or share the spotlight. In the case of Mr. Harper he seems very hesitant to let the majority of his cabinet out in public. One of the first things he did upon taking office was forbid anybody to say anything to the press without clearing it with his office, then he cancelled the impromptu press conferences that used to happen in the hallways of parliament after caucus meetings and sessions in the House ended.

In the last election no party won sufficient seats to have complete control of the House of Commons. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada won the most seats, but he is outnumbered in the House by a combined vote of the opposition. Under normal circumstances this would make the governing party a little circumspect with their agenda, and send them searching for allies in the house to prop up their government.

They would make concessions to other parties, with the result that the policies implemented would bear a more accurate reflection of the country as a whole instead of just one party's politics. But that's not happening this time for two reasons: the largest opposition party, the Liberals, are choosing a new leader, and the Conservatives are acting like they have a majority government.

The only reason they are able to get away with that type of behaviour is because they know the Liberals dare not vote against them and go into an election with a temporary leader. If the Conservative want to pass a piece of legislation, all they need do is make it a confidence motion, meaning if they lose they have to call an election, and the Liberals are forced to either vote with them or abstain.

They have also done their best to bypass parliament whenever possible, and have to be brought kicking and screaming into the legislature for votes on issues even though they've know they won't lose the vote. Steven Harper much prefers to stand up and make pronouncements to the country than have to deal with the messy business of actually letting other opinions be heard on a subject.

The first major example of this came when it was decided to go along with the previous Liberal government's plan to extend and expand upon Canada's role in Afghanistan. In polls taken across the country it turned out that most people were against the idea and wanted a clearer understanding of what would be involved with this commitment.

When the opposition cited these polls as reasons for recalling the legislature for a debate on the matter, the response was that Canadians didn't understand the complexity of the reasons for our troops being in Afghanistan. Finally the Conservatives were forced into allowing two days of debate on the issue. It was voted on and passed without Canadians feeling anymore comfortable about the issue.

Then there was the whole softwood lumber accord fiasco. For the past few years Canada and the United States have been locked in a trade dispute over the amount of softwood lumber Canada has been exporting to the United States. In spite of their being a Free Trade agreement between the two countries, the United States had charged $5 billion dollars in tariffs on softwood lumber.

Negotiations have been ongoing since before the election and this April Mr. Harper stood up in Parliament and with same degree of accuracy of Neville Chamberlin declaring "We have peace in our time" after allowing Hitler to walk into Czechoslovakia, said, "We have a deal". Two weeks ago, just before his first official visit to Washington, he proudly told the newspapers the same thing again.

It turned out that last April there wasn't a deal so it was made abundantly clear that something needed to be ready for signing on July 6th/06 when Harper was scheduled to meet with George Bush. This way Mr. Harper could look like his policy of toeing the line on American foreign policy, instead of the independent course charted by the previous governments was paying off.

Of course when the Canadian lumber industry started pointing out all the holes in deal, and why they didn't want to sign it, and the opposition parties started to demand that it be voted on in parliament Mr. Harper got in right huff. He told the lumber people to like it or lump it, and that if the opposition dared defeat it in parliament he would make it an issue of confidence and force an election on them.

Which brings us to the events of the past week and a half. Mr Harper went off to his first major international event, the G8 summit in France where supposedly energy was going to be prime on the agenda. That all blew up everybody's faces of course with the way things have been playing out in Israel and Lebanon. The leaders of the eight plus one (Russia) spent the days agreeing on the wording of a release about the situation.

But unlike the rest of the leaders, who know better than to say anything of consequence as a situation continues to develop, Mr Harper proved he couldn't resist the opportunity to be in the spotlight and made a statement where he said that he thought Israel has the right to defend herself and that her response was "measured" in other words appropriate. The next day eight Canadian citizens visiting Lebanon were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Now you can't blame Mr. Harper for Canadians being killed in Lebanon when the country is invaded by a foreign power, and I don't even think you can blame him for the fact that it takes time to get Canadian nationals out of the country, and anybody who does is being a jerk. In fact considering the resources available to Canada I think he's done the best we can hope for in the circumstances. Nobody else could have a done a better job.

His mistake wasn't even in saying that Israel has a right to defend herself, because that's almost a universally held believe in Canada. It was his eagerness to make the big statement of support for the American position in the Middle East, before even finding out the true nature of the situation that grated on people's nerves.

While Canada has always supported Israel, most of our governments have also been able to maintain the respect of the Muslim and Arab world as fair and impartial because we have had a foreign policy distinct from the Americans and British. With the exception of the first Gulf War, we have always been seen as the one to be used as the peacekeepers in these situations. From the Suez crises in the fifties to the Golan Heights in the seventies, Canadian troops have worn the blue helmets in the Middle East and earned the respect of most countries.

But Mr. Harper seems so eager to impress the American's that he went even further then they did in their reaction to the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. By saying this was a measured response on their part was pretty much condoning the shelling of civilian populations in Lebanon, which is bound to occur when going after groups like Hezbollah.

It's not the fact that Canadians were killed; it's the fact that he did not consider the possibility of Canadian civilians being at risk because of the Israeli actions that's the real problem. By condoning their actions one day it appeared he was condoning the killing of anybody who was in the way of their assault, including his own citizens.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not placing a higher value on the lives of those eight people just because they happened to be people who lived in the same country I do. That attitude is even more reprehensible then supporting the assault in the first place. Israel issued an apology to Canada for the killing of those eight people, have they issued one to Lebanon yet for the killing of God knows how many innocents?

Instead of trying to rectify his mistake and helping to search for a solution to the crises or to repair the damage he might have done to our reputation as peacekeepers and a country with an independent foreign policy, Mr. Harper has decided to play to the crowds. He's flying to Cyprus to meet with Canadian citizens who have been evacuated from Lebanon.

You can almost visualize him and his advisors meeting and trying to figure out the best thing to do that will play well for the crowds. What flamboyant gesture can he make that will compensate for looking like he didn't care about the lives of Canadians? Fly to Cyprus and look all compassionate and worried, maybe even get his picture taken with a group of evacuees looking paternal and statesman all at the same time.

Just like his "surprise" visit to Canadian troops in Afghanistan before their tour of duty was extended by two years and they became involved in a more direct combat situation, he's playing for the larger audience then those who are in attendance. While it's understood that politicians will do that on occasion Mr. Harper seems to be making it a permanent fixture of his government.

Steven Harper seems to have forgotten that we are a constitutional monarchy where the Prime Minister does not rule unilaterally. He has done his best to not only cut the opposition parties out of their role in government by avoiding parliament as much as possible, but he has made himself into the sole face of his own party.

While grandstanding to the converted might keep the party faithful in line, it's not doing anything to strengthen his support elsewhere. Not only will he not win his coveted majority in the House of Commons he could very well lose the next election entirely if he's not careful. As the last Conservative Prime Minister of Canada discovered, Canadians don't like being ignored or being drawn too close into the sphere of American influence. That's a lesson Steven Harper would due well to remember.

July 19, 2006

A History Of Abuse

That creaking sound you hear in the background as you start reading this post is the sound made by the runners of my Hobby Horse rubbing along bad kitchen tiles as I climb into the saddle and prepare to ride one of my favourite pet theories into the ground. The fact that this theory springs from my view of the world should be warning enough that it will be one sided and completely biased, unlike the even handed and rational approach that everyone has grown to expect from opinion pieces on the Internet.

Those of you who have read my writing with anything approaching regularity will know that I make no secret of the fact that I'm a survivor of incest – sexual abuse by my father and a recovered substance and alcohol abuser. Thankfully, while I may have emotionally abused some people along the way, the majority of my abuse was self-directed.

Unlike my father, or his father before him my self-loathing and fear never found focus on an external target. What damage I inflicted on others was caused by the inevitable backwash of somebody hitting bottom; imagine a the whirlpool created by a boat sinking and the damage caused to those craft at the periphery of the vortex and you'll get a general idea of what I'm talking about.

I've done my best to make my peace with myself about that by understanding why it happened. Not using the abuse as an excuse, but finding in it for myself the explanation for abhorrent behaviour that I was never able to understand, was a huge relief. There can be no feeling worse than not knowing where a compulsion comes from, or doing something in spite of the voice in your head yelling "It's wrong"

As to what causes somebody to abuse another person, either sexually or otherwise, there are certain generalizations about the character of abusers that that I think are safe to take as givens. One is that the chances are that the abuser had him or herself been abused without ever having been treated for it.

This would create a person so full of resentment, anger, and the need to exert power over someone else, that at the first signs of things going wrong in their life they would find a target, or object of blame, who would become the outlet for all those emotions. This goes a long way towards explaining why men, who are conditioned to repress their emotions, are most often the abusers, and children, the most vulnerable people in society, are most often victims.

Sexual orientation has nothing to do with sexual abuse. It's about exerting control and power over something in your life because you have no control over how the world makes you feel. Resentment at having been treated badly and what you perceive as repeated slights against you gives you the justification for your actions.

If they can do this I can do that is taken to extremes a rational mind wouldn't even consider. Think about any time you have felt resentment towards another person, or about something that had been done to you, and magnify those feelings by the largest number you can imagine and you might get an inkling as to what goes on in the mind of an abuser.

Having experienced those feelings myself whenever I used to justify doing the things I knew would hurt another I can vouch for their seductive qualities. Even now it can take some effort on my part to overcome the path of least resistance that it allows. You never have to worry about standing up for yourself, fear being rejected, or have the validity of your feelings questioned. You just wallow in feeling hard done by until you find a means of venting that repression on someone else.

After I was well into my recovery process and was able to start talking about my father the person, beyond just his role as abuser in my life, I began to remember things that happened to my father as a child, and what his father (my grandfather) had experienced as a young man. I started to formulate a theory about the interrelationship of abuse with the last 150 years of history.

The world my grandfather was born into in Europe of 1898 (Family history note: my father's family name was Chalmers and his father was born in Scotland, my last name is different as I legally changed it to my mother's last name of Marcus) bore eerie similarities to our current world situations both socially and politically. Nationalism had been on the rise for the previous fifty years as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to come apart at the seams.

Italy and Germany both had become unified countries, instead of a collection of independent city-states and regions. Russia was a seething mass of discontent as the many were becoming tired of the few controlling their lives. The Balkan states were in their usual state of unrest as the myriad ethnic groups all had their own nationalistic desires.

While this was happening politically the world was also trying to come to grips with what at that point was the most accelerated rate of progress ever experienced. The Industrial Revolution was the birth pangs of our free enterprise system of capitalism and although it increased the fortunes of some individuals, and solidified the middle class, it created a vast underclass of working poor.

With coal providing fuel for everything from home cook fires to factory furnaces the air quality in major cities like London was worse than any contemporary circumstances one can consider. Most of the working class lived in a squalor of raw sewage, unsafe drinking water, and violence that we can't even begin to imagine.

For a society that had been mainly agrarian based previously the rapid shift to industry and commerce was far more traumatic than our current progression into the automated computer age. I can't even begin to imagine the levels of stress this must have induced in people and the long-term implications it must have had on family life.

In 1914 the first Great War began and at 19 my grandfather was a medic at the Battle of the Somme in 1917 when he was wounded in a gas attack that cost him a lung. In those days the closest term they had for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome due to war was shell shock. Even that was so suspect that people suffering from it were on occasion shot for treason as deserters because they were unable to fight anymore. They were able to do a decent enough job of patching people up physically from their wounds, but nobody received any mental medical treatment for the trauma of seeing destruction on such a wide scale.

My grandfather was one of those who could have used treatment, because after my father was born in 1929 he never worked another day in his life. I don't know the extent of the abuse my father suffered at the hands of his parents. At one point he did let slip to my brother that the only memories he had of his childhood were being beaten by his father.

My father's abuse of me was only the continuation of the abuse that had begun back in the 19th century where the conditions that made abusers possible were fermented. Treatment for women who suffered from sexual abuse only really began in the 1970's while it's probably still not commonplace with men.

We are the first generation of people who are dealing with the fallout from the birth of contemporary Western Society. The mantra that is common to all of us is "The Abuse Ends Here". Instead of continuing on the legacy of our sick families, we are seeking to change that inheritance. Not only are we willing to deal with these circumstances, but there are also people and facilities available to treat us, as never before.

Unfortunately that won't make much of a difference for the rest of the world, aside from our immediate families and friend. Conditions in the world haven't changed all that much in the last 150 years, except for on the scale of how things are done and the increase in numbers of people affected. Are we planting the seeds of abuse in the mind of some child that will germinate over generations like so many others before him? Think of the young men and women who detonate their bodies as bombs, the children being turned into soldiers, and the ones surviving the bombings everywhere from North America to Indonesia.

We would never dream of allowing conditions to exist that allows the fermentation of disease, but that's exactly what we are doing with the current path our world is following. If we had set up a petrie dish in a laboratory we couldn't have created conditions any more ideal to create abusers.

June 30, 2006

Canadian Politics: Military Spending

People are nearly always surprised by what I have to say about the military. They take one look at me, or read some of the things I've written, and conclude that I'm one of those folks who don't give a damn about the armed forces of my country. My opinion is that if you are going to have a military you can't be half assed about it and not properly fund it. That's unfair to the men and women who we send out into an ever increasingly dangerous world.

Canada has a military that has stood them well over the years, and measured up favourably to many a larger force when called upon. Until the end of World War One Canada's foreign policy was still being set by Great Britain, which meant that when they went to war so did we. Which explains how Canadian troops ending up in South Africa fighting in the Boer Rebellions.

It also meant that Canadian troops were placed under the ultimate command of the British, which may go a long way to explaining the reputation they earned as shock troops in World War One. Whole towns lost a generation of men at Ypres probably because some British general decided to soften up the Germans by sending waves of Canadians at them. It may have cemented Canada's reputation as a military force in the early twentieth century, but it was at a horrible price.

World War two was the first war that Canada actually entered on it's own via a vote in parliament. That it came one day after the British declared war on the Germans, and there was only one vote against (J. S. Woodsworth, a devout Christian and conscientious objector, was the only voice of dissent) probably said more about our strong ties to England than our burning desire to go to war.

Whatever the reason for entering the war, Canadian troops went into battle for the first time led by their own generals. Unfortunately they still ended up being placed under the command of the British armies, which led to the unholy disaster of Dieppe in 1942. Planned by the British, it involved attempting to land a force of troops in occupied Germany, primarily Canadian for reasons that are still unclear to this day.

Perhaps it was to appease the Russians who were clamouring for a second front in Europe to relieve some of the pressure they were feeling being the only the forces actively engaging the Germans in Europe. Or maybe it was to gauge the feasibility of invasion at that time. What ever the reasoning was it ended up being a slaughter and less than half those involved were able to get out again leaving the rest behind either dead or captured.

When the actual invasion took place in 1944 Canada played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands. To this day the people of Holland remember their liberators and honour them annually. Ottawa, the capital of Canada, has received so many gifts of tulip bulbs for its flowerbeds, that every year they hold an annual tulip festival. These are partially in recognition of the fact that the city sheltered the Dutch royal family during the war, but also due to our troops role in the liberation of their country.

In the 1950's Canadian troops started to wear the blue helmet of the United Nations for the first time. In the early part of the decade it was the civil war in Korea, but it was in 1957 during the Suez Canal Crisis that the role of the Canadian armed forces was to be defined for the next twenty odd years. In order to separate the combatants; Israel, France, and Great Britain, against Egypt and prevent the intervention of the Soviet Union; Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Lester Pearson, proposed a buffer zone of neutral troops overseen by the United Nations. Thus was born the concept of peacekeeping forces.

Until the first Gulf War and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney changed the direction of our military, Canada's armed forces became synonymous with peacekeeping. In all the hotspots around the world; Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Viet Nam and any other place the blue helmets were called upon you could usually find Canadian troops. They were respected by people on both sides of disputes as being fair and impartial and served with such distinction that when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Peace Keeping forces, Canada was called upon to act as one of the recipients.

Unfortunately a succession of governments over the years has constantly under funded the forces. It hasn't mattered which political party has been in power, they've talked a good game and not done what's been necessary to keep Canada's military up to date and adequately funded. A major part of the problem has been an inability to define a clear-cut role for our troops.

Each new political master has a slightly different vision of what duties and actions are forces are to be capable of carrying out. Over the past couple of decades there has been flirtation with changing them from a buffer zone to a direct participant, but no real commitment has been made to match the needs to the desire.

You can't send troops into a combat situation with troop carriers whose armour can't stop the lightest rounds of fire or rifles that date back to the seventies. They need to have more than just one set of uniforms so they don't show up in a desert environment wearing olive green fatigues as has happened in the past. But most importantly they need an annual budget that allows the troops and their families to live without financial worries.

This week's announcement of nearly $15 billion in spending on military equipment to replace the aged fleets of helicopters, supply planes, and merchant ships maybe necessary, but it hardly comes close to addressing the real problems facing individual soldiers. It allows the Conservative Party to say they are correcting Liberal negligence (The Liberals had included $12.6 billion in their last budget for capital expenditures on the military) and stage photo opportunities around the country and look like they are doing something, but the actuality is far less impressive then the perception.

There has been no real increase in the annual military budget for the last decade. Each year they have less money to spend on the troops, but the demands on their resources has increased. What must the morale of the troops be like if they are living close to or below the poverty line?

Kingston Ontario where I live is home to a Canadian Forces Base. During the sixteen years that I've lived in Kingston the local papers have run at regular intervals stories of enlisted personnel having to utilize the local food banks to make it through to the end of the month. Is this a way to run an army where we don't even pay the soldiers sufficient money to properly clothe and feed their families?

Our government seems to want to turn Canada's military into a more a more aggressive force than previously. Instead of just serving as peacekeepers as we have in the past, our troops are seeing front line duty as active participants in a war zone. It's all very well and good to invest in equipment, but shouldn't a commitment in terms of financial support to the people who make up the front line troops be as important if not more so?

Our government just claimed they found $5 billion dollars more surplus than they had counted on, so it's obvious we have the money to increase the military's annual budget without taking money from other programs. In fact if this government wasn't so obsessed with giving it's buddies in the business community tax breaks to lay off workers, close factories and sell out to foreign investment, they could probably afford across the board increases to the military and social programming.

If they can quietly pass a bill raising Members of Parliament expense accounts how can they say there is no money for annual increases to soldiers risking their lives at their government's request? This government had to be shamed into honouring the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan, has banned the press from filming caskets of dead soldiers being returned to Canada, and claims that the Canadian public doesn't understand the need for our soldiers being in Afghanistan.

Perhaps what the Canadian public doesn't understand is how, in spite of all the flowery rhetoric wafting out of Ottawa, the government seems to be all talk and no action when it comes to supporting the troops. It's all very well and good to buy expensive new equipment for the armed forces, but without people you don't have much of an army. Maybe the government should try to remember that in the future.

June 21, 2006

Satire: Small Arms Sales: A Reasoned Response

The problem with the gun control debate is that people react emotionally instead of dealing with facts and reason. Instead of careful, calm, and realistic consideration of the bigger picture they latch on to cheap sentimental arguments that are meant to appeal to their audience's sense of outrage and decency.

Whether it's a municipal politician trying to score points after an inner city shooting talking about policy that's either beyond his or her comprehension and ability to effect, or their equivalent at the federal level, they don't bother looking beyond the weekend's body count. They can certainly wax poetic and play people's heartstrings like a banjo, when frail, white girls are hit in the cross fire, although their silence when it's black people shooting black people is also telling.

But fortunately most politicians know which side of their bread is buttered, and who spreads it the thickest for them, and can be usually counted on to make the "Tough On Crime" speech at such moments. They use these incidents as opportunities to help foster their tough, I'll keep our streets safe image, which is what people want to hear.

There is always somebody who might try to make a stink about the fact the person was killed by a gun, but not too many people pay that much attention to them. I always wonder what they would have preferred killed them – a steak knife? At least a gun can be quick and painless and they won't have suffered like they would have after being stabbed to death.

Where people really hit their stride and manage to garner attention for themselves is when they take on the international trade in anti-personnel weaponry and small arms. Look at Princess Di, wasn't even married to the Prince Charles anymore, and got herself into the public eye by setting up a campaign against land mines.

Did she once pose in front of a factory where the workers are busy assembling the mines that are being sold around the world? Did she once check out the unemployment lines that exist in those countries and see what a boon to their economies it is to have these positions in the local community?

No she traveled around the world posing with peasant farmers, women, and children (probably even a dog for all I know) who have had various limbs blown off because they ran their tractor, or team of oxen over a land mine. This of course created a wave of sympathy for these people, who normally, the rest of the world doesn't give a rat's ass for. But because they looked so pathetic, standing next to pristine Lady Di., the guilt button was pressed big time.

All of a sudden it became the fault of the land mines that these people were getting injured. The next thing you know some international treaty is created that's banning land mines and putting huge numbers of people out of work. All of this because people weren't with it enough to check former war zones for anti-personnel devices and were losing body bits. It seems only common sense before ploughing your field where fighting has taken place that you should do a quick scan for mines. But instead of teaching people that, they pass a treaty trying to ban landmines and do a lot of damage to the economy.

That whole mess is a perfect example of not looking at the big picture and public opinion being influenced by a manipulative appeal to their sentiments. Just ask the famine folk, nothing works better to guilt people into ignoring their better instincts, than some pathetic, large eyed, dark skinned face wearing a tattered undershirt. Lop off a body part or two and you've got a spin-doctor's dream.

That whole land mine debacle has proven that the threat to small arms manufacturers is real and the industry is in danger. The nest big threat on the horizon is the Control Arms Campaign being run by Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and the International Network on Small Arms. Oxfam and Amnesty International are experienced professionals when it comes to giving the guilt complexes of Western liberals a working over and can't be taken lightly.

Five years ago the United Nations held its first conference on the small arms and light weapons trade, and the second one is this week. Movements like the Control Arms Campaign use these meetings as flashpoints to pump up the volume on their attempts to paint the trade of weaponry in as bad as light as possible.

Expect over the course of the next week to be reading about how small arms kill more people each year then the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how they contribute to violence against children around the world (25,000 children kidnapped and used as soldiers in Uganda, children being raped at gunpoint, and watching their parents killed or raped), and that there are a minimum of 640 million small arms in existence today.

You won't be hearing anything of course on the direct and indirect effects on the world's economy that the anti-personnel and small arms industry has. Nothing will be said about the countless jobs it creates in countries all over the world, the amount of money made by the shipping industry in transporting the goods, or the numbers of people employed by those responsible for the movement of the weaponry.

Even the numbers are deceiving; 640 million small arms may sound like a lot, until you take into consideration the number of wars that are ongoing at any one time, plus all the standing armies, reservists, police forces, and paramilitary outfits around the world. The industry is just barely managing to keep up with the demand

You can't hold the industry responsible for how their products are put to use; that would be like holding car manufacturers responsible for traffic fatalities. How is a company supposed to know when they are given a contract to supply ten thousand semi-automatic rifles what the purchaser is going to use them for? Of course they have a general idea, they are weapons after all, but they are not in a position of being able to say are you gong to use these to form a child army, burn women and children, and chew veins in your teeth?

What other industries have such restrictions placed on them? None. Like all other industries the armament business strives to provide a product that works, and is as safe as possible for the people utilizing it. It's a highly competitive and cutthroat industry, where you are only as good as your latest innovation.

If the people at the Control Arms Campaign have their way countries will be forced to regulate arms shipments crossing their borders. Any type of control or restrictions placed on this industry will place many firms in jeopardy. Reputations are made based on the ability to deliver quantity as well as quality with the least amount of fuss possible.

What would happen if a company receives an order but is not able to fill it right away because they have already shipped their quota for that month? They lose a contract, and probably a client. Seeing how this is such a reputation based business, word will get around that the company can no longer meet expectations, and their order books will dry up and they'll go under.

This scenario will repeat itself over and over again until a once thriving business will be on its knees, just barely scraping by. Think what a devastating effect this could have on local economies and international trade. But nobody will be mentioning anything about these facts at the United Nations conference on the small arms and light weapons trade this week.

No they'll just talk about fifteen year old girls who have been kidnapped and help captive for nine months, and the children being conscripted to fight wars in the jungles in far off lands. What any of that has to do with the actual business of the arms trade is beyond me.

Logic and reason don't seem to have any place in the arguments marshalled against this long-standing and essential service. Make sure you think with your brain not your heart before you decide which side of the argument you favour.

.


June 12, 2006

Losing The War On Terror

With the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, purported to be the al-Qaeda number one guy in Iraq, the American military is working itself up into a fine old state of excitement. After military personnel combing through the wreckage of the bombsite found Mr. al-Zarqawi's diaries, phone books and computers, Major General William Caldwell said the troops had found a "treasure trove" and that 56 raids had already been carried out as a result.

That after a bombing raid that was strong enough to kill five people, and reduce a house to a large amount of rubble, soldiers were able to find diaries, phone books and one working database in a computer, pushes credibility somewhat. To believe that any of the information written down or recorded at this location is pertinent to the workings of al-Qaeda either in Iraq or anywhere seems a little ludicrous.

You live in an city that's occupied by one of the largest occupying armies ever seen and you head up the operations of the most wanted terrorist group in the world and you're going to leave information like Osama's home number in your diary? Better yet your personal notebooks are going to filled with detailed plans of all future operations in Baghdad, down to detail of everyone's name and address that's going to be involved.

Just in case your memory has really gotten bad, you also create a database that lists all the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all contacts. Even more fortuitous is that it's the one database that manages to survive the bombing attack. Amazing.

There's no denying that some journals or phone diaries survived, or that the American army may have carried out 56 raids as they claim to have in today's Globe and Mail newspaper. But did you notice they're awfully silent as to the nature of whom they've exactly raided and what the raids have accomplished.

Oh they can spout security issues all they want, but have you noticed if they ever do anything right they make damn sure we know about it no matter how important the security issue might be. The only time there are security issues are those occasions when saying something will look embarrassing. It's not quite as impressive to say we hit three take out Falafhal stands, an all night grocery store, and the guy's grandmother's house last night, as it is to we've already conducted 56 raids.

Sure there might be one or two genuine bits of information that they picked up, but remember this guy also ran a web site and most of the stuff he's going to have just lying around in his computers will be the usual propaganda garbage that is of no use to anyone. Why do these guys always feel the need to exaggerate the importance of what's happened? They've been doing it for so long now that it gets harder and harder to know when anything of genuine importance happens.

That they killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is without question, but you have to wonder why they had to do it in this manner. Why bomb a house when you occupy the territory the guy lives in. Why not just stake out the place and pick him up off the street one-day when he leaves so you can have him for questioning. If he's as important as they claim he was wouldn't he have been more valuable alive than dead as a source of information?

If the terrorists are able to pick up anybody they want at random off the streets no matter how well protected they are and hold them for ransom, how come the U.S. military and Intelligence forces aren't capable of doing the same thing? They don't seem to have any hesitancy about using torture on low level Iraqi soldiers to try and find out information, why not pick this guy up and try and find out the location of Osama or details of al-Qaeda's upcoming attacks?

What advantage is to be gained by killing one individual, and any civilians that happened to be in that building at the time? All they've successfully done is create another martyr who has died for the cause and created more victims to be held up as proof of American perfidy.

Haven't they learned anything from watching the Israelis attempts to cut off the head of the snake by targeting leaders? These groups are like a mythical creature where you cut off one limb and two more grow to replace it. You may cause a temporary lull in activities, it you're lucky, but the more likely reaction will be an increase in terrorist attacks.

In fact the first word out of al-Qaeda has been that they are planning a series of reprisal attacks over the next little while. General George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, responded by saying he expected them "to try to do what they said" He continued by saying:

I think what you're going to see is an enhanced security operation here announced by the prime minister in Baghdad over the course of the coming week and a tightening of security in the Baghdad area. So ... it's expected, but I think we'll be prepared for it. But again, you can't stop terrorist attacks completely

I thought the point had been to prevent that sort of thing from happening by getting rid of this guy. Isn't that what this all about, the whole war on terror, a matter of ending the attacks and keeping people safe? So why is it that not only when they do bump one of these guys off they not only expect the attacks to increase, but admit that they really can't do anything about them?

Is it because that, even though they know this strategy doesn't work, they have no option but to keep exercising it because they've closed the doors on all other options, too securely too long ago, for them to be reopened? That all of a sudden if they change the focus of their foreign policy to more Marshall Plan and less "bomb them back to the stone age" no one will trust them anymore?

Or is it even worse and they still believe that they are on the right track despite all contrary evidence. The Taliban have regained more of a foothold in Afghanistan and are making life miserable again for the Coalition troops. A Taliban like force has just captured the capital of Somali and has taken over ipso facto rule of the country (including banning televising the World Cup which might see an end to their rule quickly if their not careful). A homegrown terrorist cell, not of immigrants but of people born in Canada, was uncovered in parts of Ontario Canada this past week. Although it waits to be seen how real a threat they were, the fact they exist at all should be worrisome.

In other words the conditions that existed five years ago haven't changed and the motivations, real or otherwise for young Islamic men to become involved haven't decreased. It's very easy for charismatic leaders to whip starving people into frenzied states of hatred against an enemy. It's immaterial whether that enemy is to blame for their woes or not.

Whether it's Israel, the U.S. or just the West in general, it doesn't seem to matter any more. We’ve all come to symbolize in the eyes of the terrorists the cause of their of problems for one reason or another. Our current actions are doing nothing to dispel that image among too many of the people who would be most likely to join the ranks of the terrorists.

Not finishing the job properly in Afghanistan was the first mistake made by the American administration. Instead of scurrying off to Iraq and committing all it's resources there, it should have capitalized on the universal support it had for the action against the Taliban and commenced with a serious rebuilding program. That would have been the heaviest blow they could have struck against al-Qaeda. Don't give them any ammunition of substance.

It might take a while, but people will believe their own eyes sooner or later, and if they saw American troops working with farmers building irrigation ditches instead of foxholes they would know who was and who wasn't the enemy. Sure it won't be universal, but not everybody is going to like everybody anyway.

But twenty-twenty hindsight is pretty much useless except as a means to hopefully learn from previous mistakes. I'm sure the last thing most people expect to hear from me is that troops have to stay in Iraq until the jobs done, but that's just the way it is. Coalition troops cannot abandon that country to civil war and the infrastructure disaster that exists now.

The quickest way out now is to put as much energy and money into helping the country rebuild, but not by depleting their oil reserves to generate the funds necessary. This has already proven a nightmare of graft and corruption as millions of dollars of that money has gone missing in the hands of the American civilians responsible for the reconstruction and the military in one part of the country.

Tangible proof has to be given of the American's desire to rebuild and not just to invade Iraq for them to gain the respect and trust needed to quell the terrorists. Withdrawing the troops without that sort of commitment will leave a vacuum like the one in Afghanistan that will be filled by the terrorists and will be further "proof" of the fact that Westerners don't care about Muslims.

The real war on terror has to be fought in the hearts and minds of the people living without hope in refugee camps and amongst the young men who believe they have no future. There has to be some sort of viable alternative offered to the false lure of heroism that is promised by the terrorists. If not all the victories on the battle field will be for nought, and all the lives of the young men and women that have been spent to this point will have been wasted.

It's still not too late to change from a war on terror to a war on the causes of terrorism, but we need to make that distinction soon, or we may find ourselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of violence. That should be the real terror we are fighting against.


May 1, 2006

American Canadian Relations: The Carrot And The Stick

Oh, oh. We're in trouble again. Yep just when you've been told how everything is so nice-nice between Ottawa and Washington along comes a Bush Administration report saying that Canada is home to Islamic terrorist cells due to our liberal immigration and refugee laws.

Now this has been a rallying point for the political right in America before the dust had even settled in New York City from the destruction of the World Trade Centre. But this is the first time that any official document from the administration has been openly critical along these lines. One has to wonder why they would be releasing this report now when for the first time in over a decade they actually have a willing puppet sitting in Ottawa as Prime Minister.

But lets look at the report and see what sort of evidence they've prepared to condemn us folk up here north of the 49th parallel. First of all they complain about the fact that ever since the fiasco surrounding the mistreatment of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (a Canadian who was handed over to the Syrian government to be tortured by the Americans because he was suspected of maybe having links to people who might have been terrorists and in the end has never been charged with anything) our government has been a lot less enthusiastic about sharing information with the Americans.

Could it be possible, that after our government had arranged for a few others to be handed over to foreign governments for torture at the request of the Americans, only to find out that none of the men have been guilty of anything except being middle eastern and knowing each other, they might not have trusted their sources of information? Is it at all possible that perhaps they had decided they didn't trust the American government with the fate of Canadian citizens anymore?

The fact that our government has proven just as adept as the American's at depriving citizens of their rights seems to have escaped the Bush administration's notice. In this report they name five people who they claim are known terrorists living in Canada. The fact that four of them have been under arrest for years under our security certificate program and the fifth is under tight surveillance and reporting conditions so the government knows where he is at all times seems to have been left out of the report.

What's even more confusing is this piece of text that is quoted directly from the report: “With the exception of the United States and Canada, there are no known operational cells of Islamic terrorists in the hemisphere.” So what does that mean? That all the terrorists come from Canada? That Canada has them and does nothing about them? Or is just a general observation meaning that there are people in both countries that could possibly be terrorists?

Finally they get around to mentioning the one man who has been effectively shown to having contacts with terrorist organizations, but instead of mentioning that he's dead they say we are home to the Khadr terrorist family. Well they didn't seem overly concerned about airlifting Bin-Landin's family out of the United States days after the planes were crashed into the buildings, even though they had connections to a known terrorist. So if those family members could be considered innocent, why can't another man's family, in spite of what he's done? Only Khadr senior has ever been linked to Bin-Landin, which is more than you can say for Osama's brothers and sisters.

But the key question here is why release such a harsh sounding report about a country that has always been one of your closest allies, has been involved in the war on terror right from the start, and is still suffering casualties. (Remember a country called Afghanistan, which was the country invaded before Iraq. Canadian soldiers are still fighting and dying there) The current Prime Minister of Canada is so enamoured of President Bush and his policies that he's even taken to imitating the American way of preventing journalists from being present when the caskets of soldiers come home to Canada from the battlefield. (The father of one of the soldiers who died recently was so incensed by this that at his son's funeral he took the time to criticize the policy twice, once during his eulogy, and once during a video memorial to his son)

While it's true that part of the report was written while the previous government was in power, it wasn't finalized until well after the change of governments. Perhaps that's the point. They know they have a sympathetic audience now who will be more willing to listen to their complaints. The Conservative Party of Canada while in opposition was highly critical of Canada's immigration policy, for reasons of their own, and in support of the terrorist argument.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the Bush administration finally surrendered in the soft wood lumber dispute now that there is a government in power that likes them. Up until the change they were quite willing to defy every court ruling that went against them, and couldn't give a damn about our government's reaction. All of a sudden they have a complete change of mind on the subject and even agree to repay the majority of the duty that was collected illegally from Canadian firms.

You don't think it has anything to with paving the way for Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party to start arguing in favour of being more co-operative when it comes to dealing with issues of security and immigration do you? Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper couldn't have planned any of this during their meeting prior to the election could they?

Mr. Bush tells Mr. Harper that he'll make him look good to the Canadian people by giving him the softwood lumber deal, and Mr. Harper has to get tough on immigration and terror in exchange. They agree that issuing a report critical of the previous government's record would be the perfect thing, because that will give Mr. Harper the ammunition he needs to convince the Canadian people that his approach is the right one.

Look he can say, it's already yielded us results in the softwood lumber dispute which the Liberal government let drag on for years, but I was able to solve after only in three months in office. Even though it has been reported in the papers that the deal has been in the works for over a year, which means most of it was accomplished before Harper was in power, all people will remember was that he was Prime Minister when it the dispute was resolved.

It's classic carrot and stick motivational techniques, with one hand you goad the donkey with the stick to the butt to propel him forward, with the other you dangle a carrot in front of his face to entice as promise of a reward. It's already working wonders, listen to the response from some Ministry of Foreign Affairs mouthpiece in Ottawa named Rodney Moore.

“Canada's new government believes in maintaining a vigorous counterintelligence program to safeguard our national security. The government does not tolerate inappropriate activities and will restore our reputation as a leader and dependable partner in defending freedom and democracy in the world.” The Globe and Mail April 28th/2006

In other words those other guys might have been willing to let all sorts of terrorists run rampant throughout our country, but not us. It's funny you know, because I could have sworn it was the previous government that brought in all the controversial laws that suspended people's right to a trial, or even of being told why they were being arrested. It wasn't until the opposition party protested that they weren't doing enough to protect the rights of Canadian citizens that they reviewed the case of Mr. Arar and began to reconsider some of the harsher measures.

Ten points if you can guess who the opposition party was that was so desperate to defend the rights of Canadian citizens. Isn't political expediency fun?

I wouldn't be surprised if in the next little while we see the Conservative government trying to force through new laws governing the application process for refugees. It's already difficult enough as it is for someone to gain admission to Canada as a refugee. Unless you're from a country designated by the United Nations as a nation in need you or can supply proof of some sort that your life is in physical danger, or that your liberty would be constrained if you were to continue living in your country of origin, you won't be allowed admission into Canada.

I wonder how hard it is to get the people threatening to kill or torture you to put it in writing: "To Whom This May Concern. We are planning on torturing the bearer of this note on Wednesday and all being well putting him to death on Friday. Yours Sincerely etc. etc"

If you are proven to be any sort of threat to society, or there is sufficient evidence to suggest you are a potential threat through either previous associations or behaviour you won't be allowed in either. Sure some people sneak through the cracks, but they will no matter what anybody does. The only way to prevent that is by forbidding people to come and visit your country completely, or implanting tracking devices in all tourists.

In the end it really doesn't matter how the government responds. It's all about sending messages to each other anyway. The American government is simply reminding the Canadian government of Steven Harper that they have to live up to their end of the deal and get Canada back in line with American foreign policy, instead of being independent of thought like the previous government was.

Issuing this report a day or two after agreeing to a new lumber deal was no coincidence. If you don't give the donkey the stick soon after the carrot he might start thinking for himself. And we can't have that, now can we?

April 24, 2006

Casualties Of War

Every city, town, and village in Canada, and I would presume the United States, has one. A cenotaph for the people from that locale who have died in the wars that our countries have fought memorializing their contribution to whatever cause was considered worth sending them off to die for.

In Canada some of them are old enough to date back to the first foreign war we sent troops overseas to, The Boer War in South Africa, but the majority of them start with World War One and continue on up to Korea. I don't know what's been done for the men who have fallen since that time, if the names of those lost in Peacekeeping missions are just added on after those names lost in Korea, or if each different engagement has been given it's own monument.

I highly doubt it would be the latter as until recently Canadian soldiers have not been involved in the field of battle for any extended period that has resulted in significant casualties (Outside of a supply plane on the Golan Heights shot down by the Syrians, accidentally, in which nine personal were killed)

In the United States I know you have erected the black wall in Washington D.C. in memory of the soldiers who died in Viet Nam, and perhaps local cenotaphs will have added lines for those who died in the first Gulf War, and more recently Afghanistan and of course the current conflict in Iraq. In Canada individual towns are probably doing the same thing these days as our body count in Afghanistan increases.

But what are our central governments doing? You know the guys who either sent the troops over or decided to extend their mission and increase their role exposing them to increased chance of casualties. They exhort us to support our troops by not speaking dissent against the job they are doing, but what in turn are the governments doing to recognise the fact that son, husbands, and fathers aren't going to be coming home to their loved ones.

What recognition of the responsibility they have for causing these young men and in some cases women, to spend their lives because they were ordered to do so, have they offered? Are there monuments springing up for the soldiers being killed in Iraq? What is the Canadian government doing to honour the troops who have been dying on the roads of Afghanistan?

One of the first of the new press laws that went into effect for the Iraqi war was that no one was allowed to film or take pictures of the soldiers being shipped home in the proverbial box. The only lesson that the government seems to have learned from the Viet Nam war is that they needed to try and limit public outrage over the cost of the campaign in lives. Don't let them see images of flag draped caskets piling up on the tarmacs of airports across the United States and they won't really visualise the numbers seems to have been the logic behind that thinking.

Why else would you prohibit coverage of those who have made the "ultimate sacrifice" as they like to say, for their country? Do they think so little of what these people have surrendered that their only consideration is a public relations issue? It feels like they are trying to sneak the bodies home so that they can be forgotten about. If we don't talk about them, or see pictures of them, it didn't happen in the minds of the public.

They'll continue to mouth platitudes about supporting our troops, but if they have the nerve to get killed, that's a whole different story. We don't want anybody to know about you. I also have to wonder what's happening to all the seriously wounded soldiers. Where have they been shunted aside to be forgotten about?

Up in Canada we're not much better. For the first time in a long time we've begun to experience what's it like to have our military in a war zone. Almost on a weekly basis we are either reading about new deaths or casualties from Afghanistan. Most recently four soldiers were killed on patrol by a roadside bomb that destroyed their military transport and killed three of them instantly while the fourth died in hospital from head injuries.

Under the last government every time a Canadian service man was killed in the line of duty all the flags on Parliament Hill in Ottawa were lowered to half-mast. In 2002, the last time four soldiers were killed at once, then Prime Minister Jean Chretian and his Minster of Defence were part of the party that assembled at Trenton Military airport to honour and greet the dead soldiers.

The death of four soldiers may not seem like a lot to the American army, but Canada is a lightly populated country with a small, close-knit armed forces. The loss of four soldiers is a heavy blow and resounds deeply through out the country. Although nothing can replace the loss of someone's loved one, I'm sure that the families of the slain appreciated the fact that the Prime Minister made the effort to be part of the party honouring the fallen.

By attending the event, he was, in a small way, taking responsibility for his decision to send these soldiers into a situation where they faced the possibility of death. At least he wasn't denying their existence or denying them public recognition for their deaths.

Contrast this to the policy of our new government, Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada. Taking their lead from Mr. Bush's administration they figure the less attention paid to the dead the better, and have cancelled the practice of lowering the flags on Parliament Hill to half mast. Their excuse, they don't want to favour one war's dead over another.

While I'm sure survivors of those who died in the Boer War appreciate the sentiment, the families of the four men who died over the weekend might be a little nonplussed. Considering the government reaction in 2002, the last time this many Canadians died at once in combat, they might be puzzled as to why all they get from this Prime Minister is a platitude about paying the ultimate sacrifice and excuses for not honouring their kin.

In fact it seems like they've taken it as another opportunity to haul out one of their favourite pundits, ex Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, to speak the party line of how they hope these casualties don't make the Canadian people less supportive of something whose importance they don't understand. If the Canadian people don't understand the importance of this mission whose fault is that?

It wouldn't be the people in charge whose job it is to tell the people they govern what's going on and why? Of course if it's your official policy to keep the public in the dark about something, than you can't get upset with them for not understanding now can you? Anyway who says they don't understand the importance of the mission, and have still decided they don't think the sacrifice of Canadian lives is worth it.

Instead of insulting people by telling them they don't understand so they can't make a decision about it, why not make sure they know the reasons for the policy? Are you afraid that they still won't support it, and you'll then be without an excuse?

Afghanistan was where the first salvo of the War on Terror was fired and Canadian troops have been there since the beginning. At four years in length our involvement there has become near as long as our involvement in World Wars One and Two and longer than the time our troops were in Korea. For probably the first time since Korea our troops are in battlefield situations on a daily basis and the risk of casualties is mounting as the Taliban focus on them as a prime objective.

It seems to me if the Taliban can recognise the size of Canada's contribution to this effort, the least our own government can do is match their interest in our troops. What's it going to hurt them to publicly acknowledge the deaths of the men who are doing the job that they've been ordered to do. Everybody knows about the casualties anyway, diminishing their importance only insults their memory and cheapens their sacrifice.

April 18, 2006

Partition: A New Solution For Iraq

(The following information was found in Washington D.C. by unknown people and distributed to various other unknown people on the Internet. Given the location where it was found its provenance is obviously good even if it has no basis in fact or bearing on reality.

It appears to be the transcription of a secret meeting of the National Security Council, with people obviously aware they were being recorded because of their use of code names. We can only guess at the identities of some of those involved, but it seems fair to assume that "Sure Shot"(S.S) refers to Vice President Chenny, Red Hot Momma, (R.H.M.) to Secretary Rice, and Top Hat (T.H.) to President Bush. We have no clue as to the others involved, but since their contributions are usually ignored and largely insignificant they don't really matter.

Below is a faithful reproduction of the transcription, just as I received it. I'm telling the truth, so you can believe me)

S.S. "Gentlemen, we need to (sound of a throat being cleared) oh sorry, and lady… geez I just can't help thinking of you as one of the boys… (Sound of general laughter gradually tails off into embarrassed silence)…Well, ahem, anyway, as I was starting to say we need to take a serious look at the situation in Iraq and the whole government issue. The stalemate over their parliament is just not ending …"

T.H "Geez Dick…what…Oh yeah, sorry. Sure Shot, I thought you said your people we're handling this. You and Rumsfield…what, oh crap he ain't here what does it matter if I call him by name, were supposed to have calmed the rag heads down by now. How I'm I going to be able to invade Iran if we can't get these dummies to behave? You told me to say the war was over, so that I could start a new one. I want a new war to wage Dick. This one's boring…What? oh damn Sure Shot."

S.S. "Well, Top Hat, we all admire your enthusiasm, and your eagerness to continue the agenda (murmurs of agreement) but sometimes you can't expect the unexpected…"

T.H. "Well thanks for stating the fucking obvious, Sure Shot, you can't expect the unexpected…I'm not the press, can you please talk something close to English when you talk to me. Goddamn it I need some bourbon, is this going to take a while, the Rangers are playing and I'd like to catch a couple of innings. Hey Connie, can we get the Secret Service boys to tune in the Ranger's game on their earpieces? One of you boys can give me the score as we go okay… thanks. Oh all right Dick just keep your shirt on, (sound of bottle and glass being placed on table) oh hey thanks, I guess I can cope with what you got to say now. (Sound of liquid being poured) Go on now, you look you might hurt yourself if you keep frowning like that. Don't know if I can round up yet another heart for you so soon."

S.S. " Well as I was saying, we all admire your eagerness to get on with our agenda in the Mid East, but we really can't afford to leave Iraq and go after Iran until things settle down a lot more. We need the government there to be in place. The problem is that the three major groups can't agree on anything important. We also need to keep all three of them happy too or we end up with even worse problems than we have now. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any obvious or easy solution to the situation. We can't take over governing the country again, that will tie up far too many troops and lose us what allies we have there already."

T.H. " Well, so what is their problem anyway. We got rid of Saddam; we gave them the vote, what more do they want. Some people just aren't very grateful are they? They should just be happy with the fact that we're letting them have their own country, it's not like they 're civilized or anything, good God half of them don't even drink."

R.H.M. "If I may T.H., Sure Shot, thank you. The problem is sir, I don't think they're ungrateful it's just that we're talking about two separate sects, and one group who are a different race altogether. While the Sunni's and the Shites are both Muslim, they practice different types and follow different leaders…

T.H. "Like Catholics and Protestants you mean…"

R.H.M. "Very astute sir, quite similar. Plus the Kurds are a different people completely and have wanted independence from Iraq for ages. Even though there is one group in the majority, there are enough of the other two to create problems. On top of that, each group has experienced discrimination at the hands of the other."

"Saddam was a Sunni, so even though they are a minority they got all the favourable jobs and treatment. Now they are frightened that the Shites will want revenge. The Kurds, on the other hand, have been hunted and killed by the other two groups, and really don't trust either of them…"

T.H. "You could say they are like a Muslim Jew, than couldn't you. Catholics and Protestants may not get along, but we all hate Jews, ha, ha, ha, ha."

R.H.M. "Yes sir, very similar again. So you can understand the depth of the mistrust between the three main political parties, and why Sure Shot and I are having such a hard time solving this situation. It's generations of mistrust that can't be overcome overnight, and might even take years if not a generation or two passing before they begin to trust each other again. The best we can hope for is to find some compromise candidate for Prime Minister that will be acceptable to all parties. Which means we will have to ensure that the current Prime Minister "agrees" to step down."

T.H. "Damn right he'll agree, or he might just get to visit Cuba for a few months, and not with Fidel. (Sound of liquid being poured into a glass) What I don't understand is why with all our damned intelligence are we so surprised by these turn of events. How come no one saw this coming? That's why I gave you this job Sure Shot; you said you knew all about how we could best handle it."

"I didn't think that meant so your boys could line their pockets. By the way you better warn them to start covering their tracks a little better, the auditor general is cracking down. They're not just stealing form the Iraqis now but they're skimming off the top of U.S. money too. Nah don't worry about it too much, we got worse problems than a few hundred million vanishing."

" I think we need to be rethinking the way we're going about this. Trying to make one country outta three people just ain't looking like it's working. Why can't we partition up the country into three parts, and give each of them a chunk for their own, which they can rule autonomously."

"That way they won't be arguing over who gets to be in charge, cause they all get to be in charge of their own little piece of the pie. Each of them can get a chunk of the oil fields, so they don't squabble about that, and than they can govern their own people. Give everybody a couple of months to move into their new neighbourhoods and bingo bango three new countries and everyone's happy"

"We can set a deadline of the fourth of July, so they know who they have to thank for it every year. Our troops pull out, my approval rating goes through the roof, just in time to invade Iran, and quash those mullah jerks once and for all. I don't know why you guys didn't think of that? It sure seems like the easy answer to me. I bet you no one's ever even thought of it before."

"But that's all these situations need is common sense, which I gotta say seems like it sure is short supply around here on some days. I wish you guys would come to me sooner with your little problems; it would sure save us all a lot of trouble."

"I want you guys to get to work with this with Rumsfield right away, and I want to see a logistics report about it on my desk in a week or so. If there's nothing else, me and my buddy Jack here are going to catch the last of the Rangers game. All right class dismissed."

That's where the transcript ended, with T.H. leaving the room. There was no date on the paper, so there's no indication as to what stage these plans are at. But I'd think we should all be prepared for some sort of startling announcement from the White House about Iraq in the near future

April 1, 2006

Canadian Politics: Not An April Fools Post

I had fully intended on doing an April Fool's post this morning, I had even managed to get as far as writing a few paragraphs when I realized my heart wasn't in it. Perhaps it's because so many of the headlines in recent days have been such that nothing I could have written could compete with reality for surrealism and inanity.

If I had written as dialogue some of the things that have come out of people's mouths in recent days, I would have been laughed at for being so unrealistic, paranoid, or just plan crazy. Maybe these things aren't funny in that sidesplitting way we like to associate with April Fools, more like funny in the, holy, I can't believe this is happening kind of way.

Look at the Conservative Party of Canada for instance. They were elected on January 23rd 2006 and they haven't bothered to call parliament to deal with two fairly important issues having to do with international relations. It seems they have discovered the secret of dealing with a minority government's precarious position by the simple expedient of delaying a sitting of the House of Commons as long as possible.

One of the issue's that Canadian politicians are not being given a say in is our increased military presence in Afghanistan. When Prime Minister Harper was questioned about a debate on the issue in the House, he claimed that a debate would only risk the lives of soldiers.

The very strange thing is that he has full party support for the Canadian Army in Afghanistan, what some are worried about is our increasingly active role as aggressors instead of peacekeepers. Maybe what he is worried about is the fact that he doesn't have public support. A poll conducted last February found that 62% of Canadians were against sending troops to Afghanistan, and 73% were in favour of having Parliament voting on the issue.

While the prime minister wants people to believe this is a reaction to the increase in casualties that Canadian troops have experienced in the last month, the poll was taken in mid February, before our soldiers were repositioned onto the front lines. Even better was the pollster's remark, a former Conservative party advisor that the results show that Canadians obviously don't know enough to make an informed decision.

So on one hand you have the Prime Minister of Canada accusing his people of being cowardly, and on the other a Conservative party pundit saying the people are ignorant and don't know how to make decisions. Is this some new strategy they have developed for wooing voters? Some sort of reverse psychology trick where they heap abuse on the people whose support they want for their policies. I can see why they don't want to take the issue before parliament, with an attitude like that they could alienate the opposition parties and be out on their ear after the first vote.

Canadian troops have been in Afghanistan for a long time now, and the public have had a lot of information about the situation there, and the roll our troops are being asked to play. Canadians do not as rule feel comfortable with our troops in an aggressive role in a conflict. As the pole suggests we are much happier when our troops are doing the peacekeeping role that has earned them the respect of nations around the world.

It took us years to reclaim that respect after we agreed to be participants in the first Gulf War back in 1990. It was not until we made the choice not to join the Coalition in Iraq that people remembered we were more than just an extension of American foreign policy. No offence to any of my American friends reading this, but no country wants to be seen as someone who just apes their neighbour. (Anyway the only way we could have participated in Iraq was by withdrawing our commitment from somewhere else in the world. We simply didn't have the resources available; never mind that the majority of our population was against involvement)

If you're interested in a good source for information on Canada's role in Afghanistan, including a military assessment from our Chief of Staff General Rick Hillier, The Globe and Mail newspaper has put together their version of a master post that provides links to almost everything that has been written in the last month, in their paper, on the subject.

The second major foreign policy decision that the Conservative government made without consulting parliament was to cut aid to the Palestinian authority. This makes Canada the first country after Israel to cut aid to the new Hamas led government.

Even the American government knows better than to do that. Without that threat to dangle over the heads of Hamas what chance have any of the governments outside of the area of forcing Hamas' hand when it comes to peace talks. Cut off all aid to them, and they will just say screw it, and not even bother to negotiate peace.

Once they get over the initial euphoria of having won the election, they are going to realize that they need Israel far more than Israel needs them. Where else are their people going to get employment? Who else has the technological expertise to help them set up farming communities in the dessert?

Like Arafat before them, they will soon realize that angry rhetoric won't provide jobs for their people, or put food on anyone's table. It won't open universities, build hospitals, or even public schools. Without peaceful relations with their neighbour they will not survive long. They will also soon learn that no one has patience for suicide bombers anymore, and that retaliatory raids from Israel can't be used to generate sympathy except among the naïve and gullible.

Governments need to take a stick and carrot approach with Hamas, not just cut them off unilaterally in a vain attempt to woo the Jewish vote in the rich suburbs outside of Toronto who voted Liberal in the last election. This was an issue that should have been subject to an all-party debate.

When a government has a minority mandate, they should not be making unilateral moves in this manner on issues of importance. They didn't receive the endorsement of the country to act on their own in any matter. The people of Canada elected a minority government because they did not trust any one party to rule the country by themselves. They expect in those situations for the House of Commons to play an active role in the decision making process.

Finally, from this past week, comes an all time low from a Conservative member of parliament. As has been widely reported in the Canadian press, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it perfectly clear he doesn't want any members of his caucus talking to the press, or releasing statements to the press without getting them cleared by his office.

Much like in the election, he's trying to make sure that his lunatic fringe is muzzled and doesn't come out with any comments that might scare away moderate voters. Well with Mr. Harper out of the country in Mexico meeting Presidents Bush and Fox, somebody got past the protective cordon.

On Thursday of this week Colin Mayes sent an article to his community's newspaper which included this statement: "Maybe it is time that we hauled off in handcuffs reporters that fabricate stories, or twist information and even falsely accuse citizens.”

Interestingly enough this statement was in reaction to people complaining about Mr. Harper limiting access to his cabinet ministers, and comparing those actions to that of a totalitarian state. It's certainly the sign of a great thinker that he would counter such arguments with threatening to jail members of the press who say things like that. Nothing totalitarian about threatening to jail the press is there?

One could almost feel sorry for Mr. Harper. He's tried so hard to keep the kooks in his party under wraps to make him and his people look statesmen like, and not scary to the moderates who might be wavering between him and the Liberal party. I would suggest muzzles and duct tape from now on, but that might not look good.

Perhaps an electrical buzzer implanted in a sensitive spot that is connected to the nervous system, or at least the parts that control speech. Whenever one of them opens their mouth to talk they will receive an electrical jolt to remind them to keep their mouth's shut.

Like I said at the beginning of the post sometimes there is no need for April Fools' posts. The world, especially the world of Canadian politics, is a strange enough place on its own.

March 26, 2006

Hostage Crises

On March 23rd/ 2006, three western kidnap victims were rescued from their captors by a joint British, American, and Canadian special operations task force. Unlike the majority of people kidnapped in Iraq, these men were active in work protesting the American occupation of Iraq.

The organization the three gentleman (originally four, but an American, Tom Fox had been found murdered a month ago) work with, Christian Peacemaker Team, primary focus since 2003 has been working to protect and guarantee the human rights of the detainees of what they call the illegal occupation of Iraq.

The three released gentlemen were accused of giving aid and comfort to those opposed to the occupation forces by the new President of Iraq, although his seems to be a minority opinion among Iraqi as religious groups on either side of the Sunni/Shite conflict had pressed for the release and led prayers for the safety of the hostages. They have also been criticized in the Western press for not expressing gratitude to the soldiers who rescued them. Their reply was that they wouldn't have been taken hostage if the soldiers hadn't been there in the first place.

Closely involved with this rescue operation were members of Canada's JTF2, Canada's Secretive anti-Terrorist squad, and officers of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. No details are being released about raid itself, or the Canadian squads participation, except to say that it was a British led action. When asked to comment on the raid Department of National Defence spokespeople merely said that giving out any information would be too dangerous.

There is a nondescript building in downtown Ottawa that people walk by everyday without giving it a second glance. Why should they, it looks just like any other boring government office building. But behind that boring façade lurks the home of the notorious JTF2 squad whose identity is so well guarded that squad members don't even know they are members.

They are Canada's elite anti-terrorist squad; the beadiest eyed Canadians you'll find from sea to shining sea. As a counter terrorist organization its job is to keep track of all those who pose a direct threat to the citizen of our country. Those guards on parliament hill are not just for decoration purposes. They're in place to make sure that the members of parliament stay locked up in the House of Commons and don't escape to threaten and bother innocent Canadians.

Of course Canadian face other threats to the internal security of their country and the JTF2 must be ever vigilant in making sure that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (C.S.I.S.) do something else aside from spying on each other, or resorting to old pastimes. There's nothing like a barn burning on a winter's night to keep you warm, and it does look pretty against the a cold night sky. (In the late 1970's it was revealed that the R.C.M.P. had set a series of fires, including a barn, and blamed the Front de Liberation de Quebec (F.L.Q.) for them.)

But today there is a more serious task at hand, Captain "X" (real names are presumably never used because it's doubtful that's the gentleman's genuine appellant) has been called to his superior's office to be debriefed from his last mission: the rescue of two Canadian and one British hostages from their kidnappers in Iraq.

Captain "X" entered the office of his superior officer where he was immediately blindfolded so as not to be able see the face of the man across the desk from him. He wasn't worried about the two men who had blindfolded him revealing his identity; they would have their eyes and tongues removed by the end of the day. Such prices had to be paid for the security of the country.

He was guided to a seat and the microphone/vocal disguiser was placed in front of him to talk into. When he spoke he would sound like Minne Mouse crossed with Elmer Fudd and no one would understand a word he was saying. Which was as it should be; these debriefings were so top secret that it had been decided that no one should be able to understand them, including the officer conducting the review.

Initially it had been debated as to what purpose a debriefing had if no one listening. It was decided that it would be good for the one being debriefed for the opportunity they had to go over the operation again in the cold light of day to analyse it for mistakes before he or she had their brains wiped of the information.

Captain "X" described how he and his squad members had met up with members of the British elite Special Armed Services (S.A.S.) squad who were in charge of the mission. They had already been able to secure one member of the kidnap team for questioning and had found out the location where the victims were being held

"We planned to go in at night, taking advantage of their night vision goggles, which would allow us to travel without light. As the one American hostage taken with the two Canadian and single British hostage had already been killed, we had no idea how long we had before they just killed the rest of them.

The raid and the release went off without a hitch, except for the disappointment expressed by some members of the unit at not being able to make us of any of their new toys. They had all wanted to see what the effect of a plague bullet would be on a human. Chimps had succumbed within a minute of being shot.

The hostages had not seemed particularly thrilled to see their rescuers, and there was quite a bit of muttering from the squad members that maybe their duty still needed to be carried out, and how the plague bullets needed to be tested. It didn't go much beyond that level of idle threats at that point.

But then the former hostages started to espouse their unchristian ideas of pacifism and became almost indignant about being rescued. Unfortunately we were not able to take any action against them at the time as medical personnel and press almost always accompanied them.

If worse comes to worst action can always be taken against them on their return to Canada. Accidents have been known to happen to people before, especially people who have just been through a very extended period of trauma. Stumbles down stairs, walking out into traffic are all common enough occurrences for someone whose mind will be having trouble focusing. We are currently evaluating the feasibilities of such activities.

Our assessment of the organization, Christian Peacemakers Team, is that they are a highly dangerous and subversive group that has been continually giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Their attitude towards war is dangerous, and if it spreads among the general population, could lead to severe outbreaks of peace.

Many of my men are good Christians and are highly affronted at seeing their religion being taken in vain in the name of peace. To say that Christ would have supported them over us is proof enough that they are a threat to order and good government in Canada, and must not be allowed to communicate these subversive tendencies to the rest of their citizens.

I recommend that this threat be eliminated in as discreet and expedient means as possible."

March 22, 2006

The Language Of War

War. For a word with only three letters, it sure packs a wallop. War. There is nothing even remotely pleasing to the ear in the sound it makes when you say it. War. Supposedly the state or condition that humans work hardest to avoid, but seem to be most comfortable using as a means of conflict resolution.

We are at war. Four one syllable words that change everything. With those four words thousands of years of intellectual evolution can be erased and humans immediately revert to primal beings that react to me good, you bad stimuli.

There's the internal debate within the country that goes to war that brooks no compromise or middle ground. You're either for us or you are the enemy. Those against the war are just as astringent in their opposition as their opponents are in their support. Listen to the voices of those for and against a conflict, not the words the voices, and most of the time, you can't tell them apart.

For something that most of the world's religions and philosophies preach against, war is awfully popular among us. We create myths around our warriors and our generals, we invoke the attributes of the warrior when we want to praise someone, and the word itself is one we can all instantly identify with.

Why else would our governments continually utilize it when they want to give the impression of action? We have wars on everything now; poverty, child hunger, famine, debt, drugs, and even war. The only times we don't seem to have war anymore is when we are actually involved in armed conflict.

We have police actions, military interventions, occupation forces, peacekeepers, and peacemakers. They all involve the movement of troops, the firing of weapons, the destruction of property and the loss of life, the same as war does, but technically speaking none of them are a state of war.

As much as I hate doing this, I do have to cede Mr. Bush the point, that technically speaking, his announcement that day on the aircraft carrier that the war was over was correct. If you adhere to the definition that war is the existence of a state of conflict between two sovereign nations, then the war in Iraq has been over since that day.

Once the Americans became the official occupiers, they granted themselves the legitimacy that goes along with being the government of a country. This gives them leave to call anyone who continues to fight against them insurgents and terrorists, instead of enemy soldiers. (Which also means none of them need to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention governing the fair treatment of enemies captured during conflict, but that's another story)

One can question the legitimacy of the American backed government until you're blue in the face, but it doesn't prevent it from existing. Much like the American backed government in South Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, the only reason the one in Iraq is able to exist is because of the presence of American military power.

Once again, although I don't agree with his rosy assessment of the situations timeline, I have to give Mr. Bush credit for admitting this truth. He makes no bones about it in fact, that American troops are there to stay until Democracy is established, or the Iraqi troops can handle the dissidents on their own.

(That this scenario could lead very easily to the return of a Saddam Hussein type strong man in power either hasn't crossed his mind or it's not something he likes to mention in public)

Aside from the idolatry we have granted military figures throughout human history, our connection to war comes through in the way our language is replete with its idioms and parlance. Why do we call a successful sexual encounter a conquest? If we weren’t so fascinated with military life would we refer to everyday activities as camouflage or a woman's make up as "war paint"

We have advertising campaigns, and political minefields. Every cooperate executive sees him or herself as a general sending troops into battle against the bottom line and exhorts them to take no prisoners in their war for profits. Even as children we are told to keep in step and not march to the beat of a different drummer.

For all anybody talks of peace, there are very few examples of language that would serve as a reminder of tranquility used in today's vocabulary. We are even told to avoid using the passive voice as it weakens our writing.

That is the heart of the matter right there: war is strong peace is weak. When Mr. Bush, or any politician, wants to lessen the impact of an armed struggle he won't refer to it as war, but something less aggressive. Peacemaking or peacekeeping sounds so much gentler than war.

Even a police action conjures up visions of a state trooper walking down the main streets of Baghdad, not a Marine. Nobody believes for a second that that is the reality, but it's a comforting image to hold onto.

Gentleness is considered weak. Being kind and considerate doesn't get you the recognition that fighting off a burglar does. I don't care how anti-war you claim to be, until we learn to change the manner in which we think, war will still be the primary emotional force of our society.

Conflict, and confrontations are everyday occurrences in most of our lives. Have you ever considered what it would be like to have one day when you didn't confront one person or react in anger to something you heard? Can you even picture a day like it?

Anger at actions done to you on a personal level is a healthy. But we live in a society that is constantly angry, that's constantly utilizing the language of conflict and war to define itself. That's not healthy. Not for us, not for our children, and not for the world. Perhaps it's time we did something about it.

March 14, 2006

This Is Progress?

You know how people tell you that as you get older you will get more conservative? Well I never would have believed it of myself when I was younger, but it's gradually dawning on me that it's true. This doesn't have anything to do with politics or social issues; if anything, I'm even more radical now than when I was younger.

The thing is, as strange as it may sound; the two are interconnected. As I find myself more and more in opposition to what goes on around me in the world, I also realize it's because of my desire to conserve things that are in danger of being lost due to the constant push forward called progress.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of Luddite who is against progress and technology to the extent that I want to smash machinery and return us to the Stone Age. I make far too much use of technology, and appreciate the opportunities it gives me, to want that.

What bothers me is the fact that instead of technology being considered in light of what it can do to improve the human experience, it's the technology itself that has become the focal point. Technology for the sake of technology; building a faster computer because we can, not because we really need to, doesn't do anything except increase the profits of one chip developer at the expense of another.

Does anybody really need a 4gigabyte mhz processor for their home computer? What purpose does it serve? What kind of software is anybody going to run at home, which really merits that type of processing speed?

It used to be said that when you drove your new car off the lot it would depreciate by a good chunk of change. Now a days, by the time you get your computer home, unpacked, and set up its obsolete. That maybe somewhat of an exaggeration, but after six months I'll bet that if you wanted to stay au courant with the latest games or software, you'd have to go out and buy some upgrades.

But I shouldn't pick on computers; they are just an obvious symptom of our culture's ever increasing desire for bigger and faster. From food; super size me and thirty minutes or free, to cars; the Humvee, just like the Marines use for those off road desert battles, and even sexual potency; Viagra, get it up quicker and keep it up longer.

I'm sure people have always made this type of complaint throughout the ages. When the wheel was invented there was most likely somebody making doom and gloom predictions about it being an indication the world was going to hell in a hand basket. But the wheel actually improved the human condition, while super-sizing meals, and fast food in general, has led to North Americans being some of the unhealthiest people on the planet.

So much of our progress is devoted to providing quick fixes to problems. Instead of trying figure out a cause, we look for a means of masking symptoms. Viagra is a balm to the ego of predominantly middle-aged men, allowing them to pretend that the reasons for their impotency don't exist. But it's not a cure. A cure would involve having to actually think about what's causing your problems.

Almost every year Bill Gates and company release a newer, better and flashier operating system. Then the software developers, the game creators, and the hardware builders have to make everything compatible. Woe to the poor consumer who doesn't want to buy or upgrade to a new system. The next time they go to buy something for their computer, it's only to discover it's no longer compatible.

During the last twenty years, as personal computers have proliferated and millions of dollars have been spent on their development and promotion, the AIDS virus has reached epidemic proportions in Africa and is spreading into other South Asia. Just like computers. the AIDS virus has spread rapidly but none of our vaunted technology is being put to use to counter the outbreak and find a cure.

What drugs are available to help slow the onset of the disease are priced so expensively by their manufactures that those afflicted can't afford to buy them. Why we would put something so vitally important into the hands of people who are out to make a profit off the backs of other people's suffering is beyond me.

It seems that whenever we do make some technological advance that could benefit people, there is a price tag attached which puts it out of reach of those most often affected by the problem. Explain to me how that's progress.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars devising the means to kill people more efficiently and to put cameras in bombs so that generals can give snappy press conferences complete with pictures and jokes. I'll never forget watching a press conference from the first Gulf war and some general showing film footage from the nose cone of a bomb as is closed on some poor person pedaling his bicycle for all he was worth across a bridge about to be bombed. The general made some joke and all the reporters laughed like little sycophants.

They were like children with new toys. That was the war where they started to use technology to supplant reporters, and go over their heads straight to the people using words like collateral damage to describe the death of hundreds of civilians. One of CNN's reporters, Peter Arnett, managed to file reports from Baghdad throughout the bombing raids.

When he started to substantiate the claims of the Iraqis that the "smart bombs" were still killing civilians, and blowing up hospitals he was accused of being brainwashed or un-American. He had the nerve to remind people that their new toys did just as good a job ripping people's arms off and killing woman and children as the old dumb bombs.

So much of our new technology seems to be centred on providing people with instant gratification and mindless entertainment. From the cell phone which can play music, send e-mails, take pictures, and who knows what else, to satellite television which gives you over three hundred television stations, there is always something available to provide you with a distraction from the world around you. To watch the movies you've made with your phone, or the latest episode of your favourite reality show you can now get a 100-inch television to further deaden your senses.

Of course if size is not the be all and end all for you, there are plasma T.V.s and High Definition television and lord knows what else. I look at all this stuff and I wonder why. What purpose does it serve other than to improve your television experience? Am I the only one who finds the idea of television being an experience an incredibility bizarre notion?

Is there anyone who can tell me how any of these things are a benefit to humanity? Do they do anything aside from cost a lot of money to buy? Every night after school and work the family gathers together; daughter goes on line to her chat room to talk to people who want to meet her; son plugs himself into his mp3 player to listen to songs about bitches and fancy cars; and mom and dad stare at there big screen television.

There's nothing wrong with progress when it is progress. The endless manufacture of newer, faster, bigger and shinier commercial goods is not progress; its greed. The constant development of more and more efficient means of destroying other members of our species is not my idea of advancements for the good of civilization.

Instead of moving away from our former existence as near primates who communicated in grunts, and used violence to solve our problems, we've just become far more sophisticated in our choice of clubs. The grunting hasn't changed much at all.


March 1, 2006

The Face Of Afghanistan

In this world of ours where it's so easy to forget things when they are no longer front-page news, it's useful to be able to stumble across pictures or other memory stimulants that remind us of events that have been ongoing for years. Everyday the headlines scream out news about events in Iraq, but before Iraq was Afghanistan, and it too is still the scene of ongoing attacks and death.

I know this is an exaggeration, but at times, it feels like Afghanistan has been forgotten about. You very rarely hear or see about it on the news; press conferences are dominated by information sessions about Iraq; and all people care about is when do the troops come home from the Middle East, perhaps forgetting how many thousands of troops, including American and Canadian, are still stationed in Afghanistan.

Perhaps we in Canada are more sensitive to that situation because we have troops there, and our role is increasing in responsibility. On Tuesday, a Canadian, Brigadier-General David Fraser took command of the International force in Southern Afghanistan that is replacing an American security force that had been patrolling the area.

During the acrimony over Canada's refusal to participate in the Iraq coalition it was conveniently forgotten by many critics, that Canada had been one of the first to agree to participate in Afghanistan. Canada does not have a standing army of any real size, so at the time of the Iraq invasion, we couldn't have contributed in any significant manner anyway, without having to drastically reduce our commitments in other arenas.

Although recent polls are showing that more Canadians are against our involvement than in favour, there was initial support for our involvement. As Americans can understand, as casualties have mounted more people have started to question why we are still there.

The answer to that is unfortunately painfully obvious. Afghanistan is no more stable now than it was four years ago when the invasion took place. Unfortunately, the Taliban and their allies are highly experienced guerrilla fighters and know how to use the mountainous terrain of their homeland to full advantage.

They were never defeated, as far as they were concerned, the war has just moved into a phase that is familiar to them from when they fought the Russians back in the 1980's. Like the Viet Cong in the Viet Nam, they just fade back into the villages and towns of the hill countries when they are not fighting and are next to impossible to monitor.

Even after the liberation of Kabul, the capital city, the fighting has never really stopped. There have been lulls in the conflict, where attempts at rebuilding and solidifying the government are made, but this a country that has very little history of central governance.

Power has always rested in the hands of local warlords and tribal groups. Foreign powers from the British Empire, to the Soviet Union, and, now, the current international force, have found it to be a task of immense proportions to attempt the implementation of any long-term central authority.

Unlike Iraq where there are the oil fields that fuel an economy, Afghanistan is still primarily an agrarian society once one leaves the cities. Conditions have always been difficult for people who try and survive through farming in the formidable terrain of the countries rural districts and outlying provinces.

Since the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan has known little peace. Far too many times the press will use the expression war torn, and it's meaning has become diluted. But if there were a country that qualifies for that assessment, it would be this one. Everything from families to the means to eke out an existence has been torn apart.

People's lives have been destroyed beyond repair, their futures shattered and their hope destroyed. The human spirit may be hard to destroy, but it certainly can be damaged almost beyond repair.
National Geo Afgan Woman

The picture on the left above has to be one of the most famous to come out of the Afghan War. Steve McCurry took this photo of Sharbat Gula in 1985 for National Geographic Magazine when she was perhaps twelve, or thirteen. Seventeen years later, he was able to find her again to take the picture on the right.

For so many of us her picture in 1985 became a symbol representing all the misplaced children in the world. Hauntingly beautiful, her wide eyes stare at us in a silent challenge that we can't ignore. Looking at her we ask ourselves how can we let this have happened.

It wasn't until Steve tracked Sharbut down seventeen years latter that he learned her story, of how she ended up in that refugee camp in Pakistan. In 2002, when he met up with her again, she might have been thirty. She's not sure because both of her parents were killed in a bombing raid when she was around six during the Soviet invasion and the knowledge of her birth date died with them.

The child on the left has grown into the woman on the right. The face has changed, but the eyes are still haunting and tell us all we need to know about life in Afghanistan for the people who have been caught up in the wars that have been continuous for the past twenty-one years.

I'd like to think that the Canadian army is in Afghanistan so that her children will be able to get the education Sharbat dreams of them getting. In the nineties, she was able to return to her home village where she was married at age sixteen. (The only day in her life she can recall being happy was her wedding day) They have no running water, no school, roads, or medical clinics. They grow basic crops on some terraced fields and there is a stream that runs down the mountainside for fresh water.

The debt that is owed the people of her generation cannot be repaid except by providing a future for her children and ensuring that at least she can stay in her village for the rest of her life. This is the task that faces General Fraser and the troops under his command.

If there is a reason for our armies to be in Afghanistan, don't let it be for something as nebulous as the war on terror, or making the world safe for democracy. Let it be to give that face something to smile about again. Than, I think, they will have truly accomplished something magnificent.


February 19, 2006

The Great Cull

It is obvious that something has to be done. Things have been going from bad to worse, Loss of habitat and increasing over population has been putting a strain on the species' ability to maintain sustainable healthy levels.

Behaviour patterns that could initially be overlooked have now become so predominant that the tranquility and harmony necessary for continued existence has been threatened. Overcrowding, inbreeding, and pockets of isolationist behaviour, have combined to cause all sorts of anti-social tendencies to manifest themselves.

Incest, violence between mates, offspring being abused, abandoned and left to fend for themselves, show that breeding patterns have been adversely affected by these trends. But it doesn't stop there. Interrelationships outside of that dynamic have become untenable as well.

Simple interactions between male of the species, and even females, have become fraught with tension. Foraging behaviours have become more aggressive as more are competing for less. Instead of the previously seen willingness towards compassion, the elderly, lame, and others unable to fend for themselves, are being left to the mercy of predators and the elements.

Worse yet, is an increase of clashes that are not based on survival. There appears to be a continual struggle to assert dominance over each other at a personal and species level. Dominant males have become far more belligerent, utilizing their strength not just to secure better forage and favour among females, but to impose their will on lesser elements within the species.

This in turn has given rise to resentment among those less developed, and has caused an increase in bellicose behaviour. Respect for standards of social norms, regarding the resolution of disagreements, have fallen by the wayside. Instead of direct confrontations between individuals to solve disputes, there has been a steady increase in attacks on secondary individuals.

Another disturbing trend that has been noticed due to the alarming increase in population, is the continual degradation of the species' natural habitat. Not only have normal sources of food become depleted from the effects of over foraging, but also their supply of fresh water has rapidly diminished.

The major culprit for this is that with increased numbers comes an increased amount of refuse. Not only does that foul surface water supplies, but it also contaminates the water table. As fresh water becomes scarcer, the chance of disease spreading increases, and the overall hopes of species survival diminishes.

As they are forced to co-habit less and less territory, the incidence of disease increases dramatically. Aside from the fear of water borne, waste generated, bacterial illnesses that can debilitate thousands, (and increase the waste disposal situation substantially) a sizeable increase in viral type infections and ailments has been noted.

Given the chance of continual incubation due to overcrowding, these viruses mutate too rapidly for immune systems to develop defences. Individuals may be able to resist an initial strain, but a second or even third generation mutation could easily overcome their defences.

Obviously, the situation is fast approaching a critical stage for the species. Unless some type of drastic action is taken in the near future, there is the very real possibility that they could face extinction. While on the one hand this may be seen as a desirable result by some, that takes a rather shortsighted view of the situation.

All species, even ones like this that seem to have no redeeming qualities in terms of what they give back to the planet, have a roll to play. They would not have developed and evolved otherwise. No matter how tempting it might be to let Humanity die out because of their own stupidity, we owe it to the world to attempt to keep them alive.

It's obvious that the normal means of keeping their population in check, mortality and susceptibility to death from injury and illness, have not been sufficient. It has become necessary for us to intervene before it becomes too late. The obvious solution is to begin a cull.

But this cannot be just a cull of the sick and the lame, because that won't solve any of the problems. No, we must have a systematic cull that eliminates individuals from all strata of what they call society. Only then will be there a chance of them finding a balance in the future.

Leaving just the avaricious and powerful alive would only allow similar conditions, that caused the problem in the first place, to be reproduced. We will also have to reduce their numbers significantly enough to allow their habitat to recover, and disease to die out.

Therefore it is this council's recommendation that seventy-five per cent of the existing human population be eliminated post haste. We see it as their best chance of survival.


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February 9, 2006

American Deserters In Canada: Refugees Or Criminals

According to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration a person seeking either asylum or refugee status in Canada qualifies under one of two provisions.

The first, A Convention refugee (refers to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.) is someone seeking to enter Canada: "who is outside of their country of nationality or habitual residence and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group"

The second, Person In Need Of Protection, is a person: "in Canada whose removal to their country of nationality or former habitual residence would subject them to the possibility of torture, risk to life, or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."

It is up to the applicant in both instances to offer sufficient proof to the refugee board that any of the above conditions would apply to them if they had to return to their country of origin. There are of course provisos to these clauses to prevent their abuse. Canada, much to the surprise of certain American talk show hosts, doesn't want to find itself a haven for terrorists fleeing "persecution", will not grant such status to those "determined to be inadmissible on grounds of security, human rights violations, serious criminality or organized criminality"

Unfortunately there are a lot of grey areas in this whole situation. Obviously some of the above definitions, especially security and criminality, will depend on the claimant's country of origin. If the country is one that denies its citizens basic liberties, and the person applying for shelter is in opposition, any records obtained from their home country would show them as a criminal and security threat.

Would Canada allow in someone who had actively participated in violent acts against that government? Or would we only allow those who through no fault of their own, or who through peaceful activity found themselves if peril. In most cases it would be no to the first instance and yes to the second.

Obviously there are mitigating circumstances in both instances. A person who can prove that their acts of violence were in self-defence would probably be admitted. On the other hand a person who hasn't committed a violent act, but is proven to have financially or otherwise provided substantial support to acts of terror may not be allowed in the country.

During the Viet Nam war Canada became a safe haven for American youth seeking to elude the draft. Quite a few of them ended up becoming permanent citizens. I'm not actually certain on how that whole process worked, but I think a great many of them simply immigrated and didn't apply for refugee status. In those days it was far easier to just immigrate if you had someone to sponsor your application. (If anyone knows otherwise I would be very interested in finding out, a quick search of the web didn't reveal much of use)

None of these individuals were actually members of the American armed forces at the time of their coming to Canada. They were fleeing the prospect of becoming soldiers so they could legitimately claim to be conscientious objectors, which may have been sufficient grounds to apply for refugee status.

This is one of the major differences in the case that is currently being heard by the Federal Court of Canada in the matter of Jeremy Hinzman's appeal of the Refugee Board's decision to refuse his application for refugee status. Mr. Hinzman had been enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division when he left the U.S. to come to Canada to avoid serving in the Iraq War.

He is not just a draft dodger, but a deserter from the American army. He has requested asylum in Canada because he fears he will face persecution in the United States for his refusal to take part in the Iraqi war. He claims that he would have considered himself to be committing a crime if he had killed anyone during the course of the war, because the war itself is illegal.

During his initial application the Refugee Board refused to allow arguments to be entered on the legality of the war. They claimed all that mattered was the circumstances Mr. Hinzman would face if he were returned to the United States. They also questioned the veracity of his claim to be a conscientious objector because he had enlisted in the armed forces.

But the biggest question of all is what constitutes persecution. According to the Refugee Board because the United States is a democracy with a justice system. That any prosecution brought against Mr. Hinzman could not be equated with persecution.

There have been two arguments raised in an effort to rebut that statement. Amnesty International claims that because Mr. Hinzman took reasonable steps to obtain exemption from combat duty on the grounds of conscientious objection, that the potential prison term he faces is unjust.

Mr. Hinzman's lawyer, who is also representing another man in the same circumstances, argued that placing his client in the hands of the American justice system would be like asking to be "thrown into the fire". In other words he is questioning the potential of his client(s) to obtain a fair trial.

While the argument presented by Amnesty International stumbles against the "why was he in the military in first place if he was a conscientious objector" question, and thus loses some validity, his lawyer's objection is worth considering. Although the mood in the United States is decidedly less pro-war then earlier, there is still sufficient sentiment in its favour that would make a fair trial a difficult proposition.

Although desertion during wartime is no longer a capital offence in the United States, the underlying emotions behind that sentence are still prevalent in the American psyche. It is taken as a betrayal of the worse kind; a rejection of your patriotic duty. Accusations of cowardliness and treachery are sure to be directed at Mr. Hinzman and any of the other young men who are now seeking asylum in Canada on these grounds.

While he can no longer be sentenced to death, the maximum sentence is five years for Mr. Hinzman, consider what his life would be like after he is released from prison. What kind of social stigma would be attached to him for the rest of his life? He will be forever known as a deserter, a traitor, and unpatriotic.

What kind of quality of life can he expect to live under those conditions? Persecution does not just come in the form of what a government can do to you directly; it can also come from the attitudes created by that government. The Bush administration has created an us or them mentality in the Untied States.

If you support the war in Iraq you are a good American, if you don't you are unpatriotic and working against the well being of your fellow citizens. What would that attitude make of a person who was in the army, but refused to go fight in this war? Especially if he says this war is illegal.

The government of the United States wouldn't need to persecute Mr. Hinzman or any of the other deserters hiding in Canada. The atmosphere they have created, aided and abetted by huge portions of the media, would accomplish it without them. They can sit back and pretend their hands are clean while Mr. Hinzman is ripped to pieces.

One of the grounds for applying for refugee status in Canada is a well-grounded fear of persecution for reasons of political opinion. Well I think it's safe to say that Mr. Hinzman will be heavily persecuted on many fronts for his political opinions. While he may not come to any physical harm, the psychological trauma to him and his family would undoubtedly be severe.

If for no other reason than that, Mr. Hinzman, and any other deserters should be given refugee status in Canada. They are not going to be welcomed back with open arms into their country of origin by any stretch of the imagination, so we should offer them a chance for a new life.

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February 6, 2006

That's it. I've fuckin' had

That's it. I've fuckin' had it; enough's enough. I suppose everybody has a saturation point and I think I've just about reached mine. What am I on about now you ask? Well just about everything if you really want to know.

It can be pretty much whittled down to what's been in the papers lately. War, war, and just for an alternative how about some talk about a new war. Of course if you want a change in diet from war there's always religion, which usually leads to war so you might as well just see above.

There are the daily reports from Iraq, or if you're really unlucky, about Iraq from the folk safely back home not getting shot at behind their podiums. We can win the war in Viet Nam; oh I'm sorry that would be Iraq. We will only bring the troops home when the job is done not a moment earlier.

How do you know when that happens? Anyone figured that out yet? Does the body count have to fall below a certain level first, or is it when the number of troops that you've got left on the ground has dropped too far. How many lives were budgeted to be lost in advance? " Well if we want to take on Iran afterwards we can only lose so many"?

Iran is the new war by the way. "Can't rule out the military option" is every one's favourite phrase this weekend. It will be easy; just change all those q's to n's and were set.

Nobody pays attention to the names, as long as they sound Arabic nobody will notice that it's the same speech you gave about Iraq two and half years ago. Nuclear weapons ? weapons of mass destruction; what's the difference? Not much really, or at least, not so anybody's going to notice.

Anyway think of how easy it will be. Right next door to Iraq, all we have to do is just cross over the border and we're there. The navy and the air force are getting bored; they haven't had the chance to blow anything up from the sky in a while. The sailor types are just itching to launch more of those tomahawk cruise missiles and I'm sure the air force is looking at having to spend some of its budget if it wants to buy more toys next year.

Give them some new targets for goodness sakes!

Oh and hey, remember Afghanistan? Yeah that was the place the war on terror started, our first victory. Except we still haven't won that one because people are still getting killed over there pretty frequently by those guys we defeated.

The Taliban are still out there in the mountains. They come out of their caves periodically to kill a bunch of people and remind them that if the NATO troops ever leave they'll be running the country again in less than two months. But we won that war didn't we? Didn't we?

If that's not bad enough reading about all of that every single day, there's the ongoing war on terror in North America to curl your toes. The President of the United States has no problem authorizing illegal wiretaps on anyone who might be a security threat. I want to know who makes the list and what constitutes a security threat?

Twenty years ago I was considered too much of a security risk to work at the G-8 conference in Toronto Ontario. There was a pretty picture taken of me in front of the American consulate in the early 1980's protesting the testing of cruise missiles in Canada. I guess that made me too dangerous to hand out press releases to journalists.

I'd guess you wouldn't want to phone Cindy Sheehan up right about now and make any jokes about where she wants the dynamite delivered. Is their list of "Dangerous Subversives" going to be along the lines of Nixon's "Enemy List"? (If so, there's going to be a lot of competition to get on it. What kind of leftist are you if you couldn't get on Bush's "Subversive List). You know the one that had people like Bill Cosby and Warren Beatty on it; threats to America each and everyone of them. (Well maybe they are, but for different reasons than Nixon's people thought)

Of course nobody's going to have to worry about an invasion from Canada now. The border is going to be patrolled by Blackhawk Helicopters and fighter jets. That's good, so now when they see a possible terrorist crossing the Peace Bridge they can just blow him and any fellow travelers away with a rocket attack.

That there's the whole anti-Muslim thing going on that's starting to stick in my craw. Okay some of them are damned scary, and nobody, and I mean nobody, has the right to randomly blow up innocent civilians no matter how justified they think they are. Just because it's being done by bombs from the sky doesn't legitimize it any more then if it's dynamite strapped to some yahoo's body.

The thing is though that the rest of the world has pissed on the Muslims since their inception. It started with the Crusaders and has been going on ever since. "Death To the Infidels" was something that was shouted from as many Christian mouths as Saracen.

They tried to be nice, they let Christians and Jews live under their rule and practice their beliefs. They used to be a damn site more tolerant of Jews than the Christians were, just check out Muslim Spain if you want verification of that little fact.

But you keep pushing people too far and you're going to create the situation we find ourselves in today. It's sort of been lost in the shuffle that the Scandinavian countries have been recently contemplating passing laws prohibiting parts of the Muslim dress code, or enacting legislation limiting Islamic immigration.

Muslim people have been treated like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe by our erstwhile allies in Europe since the end of World War Two. For some reason there was a serious shortage of able bodied man power at the end of that little set too, so most of Western Europe was more than willing to open their borders to "guest workers".

Some of these guests have been there for two generations but will never be allowed to become citizens or allowed to vote in the country where they born. If it hadn't been for these folk I'd like to see how well off the European Union would be now. In Germany they have an affectionate name for Turkish guests: cockroaches.

Like I said I'm not excusing the behaviour of any of the bomb-toting cowards who won't at least stand up and fight for what they believe in. I've more respect for a soldier who fights his enemy face to face, even if I don't believe in what they are fighting for, than any of these "martyrs". (Although martyrs have always pissed me off: "Oh it's okay I can do it myself, I'm used to it" becomes "Oh look at me I've just blown myself up to kill some women and kids, aren't I special?" real fast in my opinion. And vice versa.)

But, I hate to say it, what really has made me so tired of it all, to the point of having to write this post or cry for a week, is the predictability of it all. Something happens in the world and you know before anyone says anything what everybody is going to say.

Right, left, centre, whatever or whoever can always be counted on to say the same things over and over again. So very few people sound like they thing anymore. My opinion is decided by my politics not what I feel personally.

I can never agree with George Bush even if he's correct because he's a Republican and a Christian. Or I can never agree with Al Gore because he's a godless Democrat. I know those are pretty simplistic examples but you know what I mean.

Hell I'm supposed to be left of centre I suppose, but that's only because I believe if we're going to have governments the least they could do is look after the people who elected them. I don't mean their corporate sponsors either, I mean the people who live in their country and are just trying to make do the best they can.

I've never understood what's so wrong with making sure everybody has a decent education, a place to live, and enough food to eat. Governments don't seem to be good for anything else, so the least they could do are those few things. If that makes me a socialist or worse in some people's eyes, so be it.

But good lord the crap that comes out of people's mouths who I'm supposed to be politically allied with is just as much a conditioned reflex as the stuff that comes out of a conservative Christian's mouth. It's like everybody has a switch they flip which shuts off their brain and ears so they can talk without being interrupted.

Okay, I'm done. I think the pressure gauges have stopped red lining now, and I can go back to being sort of calm and rational for a while. This world is a pretty spectacular place and part of its charm is the diversity of thought, opinion, and belief. We all need to take more time to appreciate it, including me.


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April 2, 2005

First Week Of Blogging

Well this brings my first week of blogging to an end. Lots has happened in the world since I signed on, so I'd thought doing a recap of events local and international might be appropriate. The death watch has started for John Paul. After weeks of putting off the inevitable it looks like the Vatican is finally ready to admit that he old guy is dyeing. (I thing I'll wait to do an obit though, I'd like to read what others have to say and react.) It does leave questions on how they are going to proceed from here over in Vatican city. Will they continue down this path that's been started of small c conservatism, pushing against the winds of change and oppressing people with a highly outdated moral agenda? Or will they allow the election of someone slightly more flexible? My own feeling is that they are going to stay the course that this current pope has followed and elect someone who is completely out of touch with needs of the world.(I think that probably gives you an idea of my opinion of the current resident of the chair of St.Peter.) Speaking of the Catholic Church, here in Canada a Bishop is being investigated by a provincial human rights board for comments he made in an open letter to his parishioners. Canadian provincial courts have recently began ruling that denying homosexuals the right to marriage is unconstitutional and contravenes our charter of rights.(marriage is a provincial responsibility)The reaction of social conservatives has been predictable: family values, etc ad nauseum. But this one bishop went even further. In his letter he urged his parishioners to encourage the federal government to use it's coercive powers to outlaw homosexuality and deny them their rights as human beings. This turns out to have too much for even the conservative government of Alberta who have threatened to be the only province not to allow gay marriage no matter what the courts say(a clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows any province to invoke something called the Notwithstanding Clause which allows them to ignore individual rights and freedoms. This was mainly written into the charter on the insistence of Quebec to allow them to have unalingual French language rights at the expense of minority languages. Before 1980 Canada did not have a bill of rights or it's own constitution. We were under the British North American Act which was an act of British parliament. One of the last things Pierre Trudeau did for us was give us our own constitution.)

All the usual hot spots seem to simmering along again this week, more killings in Iraq, Israel and Palestine stumbling in and out of peace, George Bush trying to figure out who to blame next(Iran and Syria are both looking good) We don't here much about Afghanistan anymore, except that elections seem to keep being put off. Another former Soviet republic is teetering, one of the ones that starts with a K and is near Afghanistan, I think we can predict further unrest throughout most of those former satellites for a long time to come. Haiti is being prepared for another out break of violence, with U.N. troops threatening to isolate and attack the poor slums because surprisingly enough that's where the unrest comes from.(Damn those poor folk, can't they just ever know their place) In the what a surprise category Robert Mugambe was handily re-elected in Zimbabwe. The opposition seems to be rather frightened of making any formal complaints. Wow that was depressing wasn't it?

On a more cheerful note there's a new Robert Rodriguez film being released this week in North America. For those of you who don't know him he's the man who's given us Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and Desperado, two wonderfully tongue in cheek movies staring Antonio Bandarras as the mysterious El Marachi ("we call him El... That means the") Once Upon A Time In Mexico included a typical crazed performance by Johnny Depp as a C.I.A.agent. Rodriquez's latest is call Sin City and is an adaptation of a Graphic Novel(Hollywood's latest source of material: adult comics: sex and violence with artistic license.) I hope that Rodriguez can put his usual stamp on this effort and elevate it beyond the mundane.