The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: war

Winning Is Never Enough

We were still. We were mournful. We were respectful. We were undone.

Last evening we joined a community gathering to honour those who paid the ultimate price at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago. The pipes played, the respectful speeches given, and our hearts were moved. We can only glimpse this important Canadian event through a glass darkly. It was before our time and beyond our ability to really understand. Yet we stood in awe last night, although the tragedy and loss was beyond us, because we comprehended that we likely wouldn’t have been where we were at, individually and collectively, at that moment without those remarkable soldiers being where they were at during their exact moment when duty meant total sacrifice.

I was reminded of one of Robertson Davies characters in his Fifth Business. As he watched King George V pin the Victoria Cross on his uniform he experienced a great moment of remarkable clarity:

“Here am I … being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am a hero. But I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened. I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t seem to matter because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of that truth, it might as well be me as anyone else.”

And yet we as Canadians understand the sheer fate of it all – a few feet to the left, a dysfunctional gun, an artillery shell landing farther afield, a medic nearer at hand, and death wouldn’t have visited these particular soldiers. Canada has never been great at the “hero” thing, but we have proved excellent and deeply respectful of lionizing those who never made it. We know in our heart of hearts that we owe them – everything. We know that some 100,000 Canadians fought at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. We also know that 3600 soldiers died and more than 7000 were wounded in the successful attempt.

But we are moved by what we don’t know. The fear, the crying for family, the unbelievable heroism, the prayers, the patriotism, the insanity – these must have been monumental on a human scale. It is not just their death that moves us so; it’s all these things they endured just prior to their ultimate sacrifice. Life’s end should have been better for them.

They are the heroes we seek and we honour them year after year – the resurgence of interest in Remembrance Day is proof of it. But because we are Canadians we venerate them as pioneers of peace instead of merely soldiers of war. War is not glorious to us, but peace remains a preoccupation for the Canadian imagination and those that fought and died a Vimy paid the downpayment for us to stretch that imagination, that dream of a better world with Canada’s noble efforts in it.

Aristotle was right when he wrote that it is never enough to win a war; we must organize ourselves to win the peace. How profound! Perhaps Governor General David Johnston had this in mind when, profoundly moved at the Vimy Memorial in France a few years ago, he implored:

“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost here, and the reasons for which the lives were lost, and that is so our rule of law, our thin veneer of civilization can be strengthened and polished and, we hope, extended around the world.”

I was honoured to be asked to give the speech in Parliament in 2010, when John Babcock, the last Canadian World War One veteran passed away. They are now a generation gone. But we are not. We hate war, but will fight if required. Far better the truly Canadian dream of peace in a better world. We honour the Vimy dead because we still dream that what they were fighting for is now our task. Though dead, they live in us. Though gone, they empower us. Their end is our beginning.

Progress in War Outpacing Efforts for Peace

This post can also be read in the Huffington Post here.

 

In the modern era, the abiding belief has always been that war and conflict were vestiges of the past and that peace was the progressive option for moving humanity into a more secure future. That sentiment is now under assault.

It’s troubling to think that armed conflict is in a more progressive mode than peace initiatives at the moment. While the great wars have all but disappeared in the new Millennium, regional conflicts have emerged with a troubling vengeance. The death casualties in these conflicts have grown so high that many are talking about the potential for these regional conflicts to rival the sheer human cost of the great wars of the past century, especially among civilians. Consider the African continent alone, where millions have died in the Congo, both Sudans, Nigeria, and Algeria, among others. In 2014, Africa experienced more than half of worldwide conflicts despite having only 16% of the world’s population. The revelation that African conflicts are actually on a gradual decline does little to assuage the sense that the casualties of such conflicts are unacceptably high.

When one adds the sheer human cost in lives in Syria, Iraq, and other countries in those regions, there is the growing sense that war is overtaking peace as the default method for how countries interact with their neighbours. And the larger scale saber rattling of the larger players in recent months – Russia, North Korea, Iran, a more bellicose America – threatens to resuscitate the Cold War, which we thought had ended only three decades ago.

War is quickly becoming more “progressive” than peace due to rapid advances in technology. High-tech intelligence gathering techniques, drones, laser-guided missiles, advanced fighter jets and bombers flown almost exclusively by computers, night vision weapons for both the ground and the air, or even the lower-grade but steadily advancing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by homegrown terrorist – such weapons of conflict represent serious new threats to the new era of peace that billions had hoped for only two decades ago.

Against all this the question must be asked: is peace truly able to keep up with these renewed forms of warfare? Certainly, great efforts are made each day by NGOs and the United Nations to develop more sophisticated methods for pursuing peace. Perhaps the primary activity at the moment is the development of women’s programs around the world since statistics are increasingly making the case that the greater the involvement of women in leadership roles in troubled areas the less likely will armed conflict become the default response to any kind of disagreement.

Environmental efforts to sustain water supplies, the development of more durable crops, increased opportunities for education, and enhanced legal efforts to restrain the spread of used weaponry around the world, are all vital and must be pursued with greater vigor. Yet the sense remains, much of it insidious, that war, in all its facets, is making a resurgence.

Humanity is now facing the two great questions it has historically confronted for thousands of years: is peace worth it and will we pay the cost to sustain it? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the first is unsustainable without the second. We slide back into conflict the moment we fail to fight for peace. Shakespeare worried about it in his time, saying that peace was “naked, poor and mangled.” As long as we keep it in such a condition it can never prevail. By always making peace about security instead of the building of a strong civil society we have left ourselves without the tools and empowered citizens required to put peaceful impulses in the very sinews of society, not just its border regions.

Not all that long ago, peace was viewed as the occasional pause that occurred between long lists of conflicts. If we aren’t careful we will soon be in danger of replicating such a timeline. Peace becomes an investment in what we can accomplish; war morphs into everything that we can lose. As long as peace remains under the influence of generals, politicians, even bureaucrats, it will forever be traded off in favour of others pursuits.

The time has come for peace to be democratized – the place where citizens themselves infuse peace itself with humanity instead of statistics, weapons, and endless angling for advantage. “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding,” wrote Albert Einstein. We have yet to truly learn that lesson, and until we do, the temptation for conflict will always remain our steady companion.

Century Thoughts

MEMORIES OF HIM DROP FROM THE SKIES like snowflakes lightly touching the ground. On December 15th, 1916, a rather frail baby was born in a home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – an arrival that, in part at least, led to my own journey.

Lloyd Durward Pearson was my father, and that obscure birth 100 years ago today launched him into an era of seismic happenings. He was born in the middle of the First World War (1914–1918), and looking back on it now I realize that he never really got the chance to enjoy a comfortable youth. Like millions of his generation, he entered adolescence on the heels of a world conflict that cost 17 million lives and a further 20 million wounded only to face a Great Depression that drove millions of others into poverty, including his own parents and five sisters.

Then, just as he stood on the threshold of a career and perhaps a family, the next great global conflict – World War Two (1939-1945) erupted and his personal dream lay in ruins.

But not his ideals. His belief in a better world led him into the conflict where he met my mother at a dance in Edinburgh, Scotland, while on leave. They married shortly after, spending their wedding night in a green Scottish pasture because there literally was no room in any of the inns. After five years, he was severely wounded in action and shipped back home.

Following the war it took him years to fully recover from his wounds, but at last he succeeded, becoming part of the great middle-class boom in the post-war years. We never owned a home while I was with them and the tentacles of poverty were always hovering, threatening. But with both Dad and Mom working we became more comfortable.

It is difficult to skip over the millions of occurrences that transpired during those years, but I’ve come to see my father as part of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.” It wasn’t so much because of what that cohort achieved economically that made their contributions significant, but how what they experienced spiritually and morally shaped their lives – and those of their families. What else should we have expect from a generation that had to face two world wars and a crippling depression – all at the time they were endeavouring to achieve adulthood?

I have come to see myself as a product not of my parent’s economic potential but as the beneficiary of an ethical ethos that believed poverty represented a sin of humankind, and that waging the struggle of peace to divert war was a noble aspiration.

Dad never got over the two world wars and another decade of the Depression. He never could fully enjoy what wealth he was able to acquire because he was old beyond his years before he ever became economically comfortable. And so he could never remain isolated. The world had to be made better. Neighbours in need had to be helped. Kids needed an education. Communities had to have a heart not just houses. And, to him, Canada had to become the example of what the world could be if people just respected one another’s potential and right to share the same land and opportunity.

In the end, my Dad had seen too much, endured untold tragedy, to be happy in his material comforts. If he was alive today, on this his 100th birthday, his thoughts would naturally drift to Aleppo and Mosul, to the homeless and refugees, and to those who opted to live their lives for others. The rigors of life had fashioned a wise human with scars, physical and emotional, out of him and he would never be content just enjoying his birthday.

And, so, I will try to live this day in the same fashion. A man born a century ago and who departed this life some 40 years in the past, will continue to teach me lessons and humble me with his commitment to others. In another two years my mother will would have reached her century mark, if only she hadn’t passed decades ago, and I will learn from her anew as well.

This is just the thing about being human: those who have gone on before us still have much to teach us and memories to stir in our consciousness. And blessed are those children, like me, who get to experience the belief that we live our lives best when we live for things greater than ourselves. If that understanding came from those who are no longer with us, then the greatest things in life will never leave us, but hopefully fashion us to struggle to give this world a chance in a troubled time. Love you, Dad, for this, the greatest gift that can be offered – life with meaning.

Someone We Were Meant To Be

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IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERVIEW yesterday about public service over a number of decades, I was asked, “What was the main driving force when you were young that made you want to be a humanitarian?” I have thought of this many times over the years, but when I replied, “World War Two,” the interviewer looked back in mild surprise. I went on to explain that I had grown up in Scotland following that great conflict, that my Mom had been a Scottish war bride, and that my Dad had been twice wounded in battle before being sent back to Canada to convalesce.

Later, growing up in Calgary, I came to regard the Second World War as a kind of constant companion. It took years for my father to recover and my early thoughts are filled with memories of that struggle. During those post-war years there were ceremonies almost every month – special battle anniversaries, building of new monuments, Spitfire and Lancaster bombers flying overhead, the opening of museums, and reunions of old battle buddies and gatherings of women who had participated in the effort in numerous capacities. Dad played for years as a drummer in a military band, and with his attendance usually required, he always brought me along.

But always there was the unnamed Guest everywhere in those formative years. Despite a revitalized economy, a growing middle class, creature comforts, and family holidays, Death was never far away. So many had died that the many who had survived were most often ensconced in a tomb of silence. Dad virtually never talked about his experiences during those war years, but I could sense, throughout his entire life, that the silence represented pain, horror, guilt, grief, and a sense of mortality. But more than that it represented the loss of youth and innocence for an entire generation of men and women. They had gone from idealistic and trusting boys and girls to a burdened group of adults in only six years (1939-1945). The bloom was forever off the rose – not because they had plucked it but because the evil of humanity had stripped it too soon from their collective life.

One would think that growing up in such an atmosphere would be morbid, but it was nothing like that. It wasn’t joyous either, but what it ultimately entailed were respect and the sense of shared sacrifice. Death had taken away millions during those years and yet it had returned to the living time and again as an effective guide to what is the most noble in life.

During those years I came to discover that death didn’t signify the end of something, but the rebirth of something else – something transcendent. Those years taught me, as they had instructed my parents in far more devastating circumstances, that the glory of nobility and sacrifice goes on forever. Those things one assumed had ended were still enduring, inspiring the hearts and minds of average people and their leaders to build a better peace. The war wasn’t over but had simply morphed into another field of battle that involved neighbourliness, a rigorous sense of civic responsibility, a profound sense of social justice, and the belief that peace never came for free. Only this time the soldiers were being replaced by citizens of every kind who had come to see that the new tools of this civic battle involved decency, tolerance, a growing protection for minorities, and the profound belief that our blessings belonged to the world and not merely to ourselves. We had matured enough to know that we couldn’t save our world without changing it, and we couldn’t change it without changing ourselves.

Because this is a universal truth, frequently accentuated by a sense of trial and loss, the dead never leave us, the buried become a part of our consciousness. They are everywhere all at once and we are elevated by their memory. A death that follows great sacrifice makes you see everything in a different way – our eyes are wider and contain depth. We become changed people because, by honouring those that have passed before us in such a remarkable fashion, we ourselves can face death and refuse it our collective soul. Our time, our end, will come, but not now. And in the meantime we will embrace those it has taken from us in a way that leads to a better life. Those slain buried in military fields around the world are not decaying bodies, but seeds in the earth that will bring forth a new and noble life in each of us. Their death is not only our rebirth, but their own. And they will remain our constant companions.

Remembrance Day isn’t merely about remembering but actualizing what the dead have shown and given us. We wear poppies as a sign of our respect, but it is the millions of memories that we carry in us, unseen yet profound, that make us want to live as better people, more active citizens, more adept at love than hatred. Every Remembrance Day is our opportunity to say to that Guest that always shadows us, “Not dead. Not yet.” We have a world to build – a better environment than what we have at present, and we will construct it with peace.

Remembrance Day is not a memoriam alone, but a continuation of all that is truly the best and most respectful in life. It makes death bearable and makes our own lives liveable. We are the inheritors of a great trust and we will live for what they died for. David Kessler notes that, “Deep inside of us, each knows there is someone that we were meant to be.” Remembrance Day, filled with the love of those that went before, reminds us that that “someone” is still there, waiting and wanting to better the world with acts of great humanity and sacrifice.

Refugees: Are Solutions Possible?

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THE FACES OF GOVERNMENTAL LEADERS flashing across our screens from the United Nations in New York in these last few days caused many to think it was just another gathering where prime ministers and presidents, ministers and bureaucratic head honchos were merely networking at the opening of the new UN season. For those listening to the delegations on television, however, it became pretty clear that the world’s nations were coming together to confront perhaps the greatest challenge of the last decade: refugees.

We learned some fascinating new statistics. In 2015 alone, some 20 million documented cases of refugees moving across the planet were posing challenges everywhere. Add up the totals of refugees for the last few years and it comes to 65 million people. We knew the number was many and the solutions few. Escaping persecution and seeking asylum presents so many challenges to the receiving countries, the international response mechanisms, and ultimately to the refugee families themselves. And so the world opted to come together in New York this month for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The media spent a lot of time focusing on the former, but often overlooked was the sheer rise in mobility going on around the world for those migrating in search of opportunity.

The summit learned that by the end of 2015, some 244 million people were living in a country other than where they were born – a total up from 173 million in 2000, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

All of this is saying something, but I’m not sure we fully know what it is. Is the world increasingly on the move because of economic decline or greater economic growth – or both? Is it a sign that the world is coming together, or breaking apart? Could it be that we are becoming more of a world community as a result of all this movement, or is it more likely that there are now tears in the fabric of humanity that reveal millions of individuals and families lurching for security and prosperity in only a few prosperous nations?

All of this likely means that we aren’t prepared and that the UN conference was the first real attempt at assessing and shaping a tidal wave of humanity that might soon redefine how we function as a planet, as individual nations, and as citizens.

And it’s not all challenge and gloom. The conference was informed that in just one year – 2015 – migrants sent home $432 billion to developing countries to help their families with challenges like food security, education, new business ventures, and healthcare. That is a huge amount of money, triple the totals of foreign aid sent through Official Development Assistance.

I watched many of the speeches from the lectern this week and found myself thankful to see the world come together to face the challenge. But many present in the sessions got the impression that this is clearly a work in progress and that we’re only at the beginning of it. And complicating it all is the growing insecurity in places like the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the vast border regions around Russia. Should these get more out of hand, it will be inevitable that millions more will be cut loose from their cultural homelands and begin making plans to find peace and prosperity elsewhere.

While acknowledging the increasing scope of the refugee challenge, this week’s meetings decided to take some concrete action in at least attempting to build a coordinated response around the migration problem. Another summit is to be held at the United Nations in 2018 specifically on that issue.

Can there be breakthroughs? Are solutions possible? If we’re talking about assisting countries to accept more refugees and migrants, then perhaps more can be accomplished, but only to a point. If the real problem is the decline of nation states through economic turbulence and regional conflicts, how might the tap of human migration be stopped, or at least lessened? If many of these problems can’t be solved at the source, then just developing broader responses to the outflow of humanity from these regions can only go so far. Some of the problems, like an imploding Syria or an exploding Russia, remain unsolvable at present and keep real solutions from being easily discovered.

We aren’t talking about the fate of millions of people in search of hope, but, ultimately, about the condition and welfare of the planet itself. So many refugees is primarily a clue to all of humanity that something is seriously wrong in our world and unless we apply ourselves to the sources of such conflicts, the sea of desperate human souls will only become more desperate.

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