On life, on death, on empires, on collapses, and so on…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, even through Twitter I’ve been really rather quiet I think, trying to stick to a pledge to stop being a polemicist generally and that sort of thing, and more importantly, it seems that we’ve finally run out of rain in Nova Scotia, and I’m finding it easier to do things besides sit inside moping by the fire.  We’ve actually got summer at last!

I’m having a pretty cheap summer, I guess you could say – with the priority of improving my balance sheet and getting a place to live, I’m trying to live a little bit more modestly, though I don’t know how successful I’m being.  It seems I’ll have to focus more on making more money and paying things down than anything else, but we’re getting there, slowly but surely, things are going well.

Two things are really weighing on my mind as fodder for today’s post, and they aren’t really related.  The first is on mortality.  A friend – not even someone I could reasonably call a close friend, but a friend nevertheless, has just died.  Last Thursday, I as was musing over how best to prepare the two racks of ribs I was planning to cook up for Canada Day, four officer candidates left the Land Force Atlantic Area Training Centre Aldershot on a long weekend’s leave, headed to Halifax.  They didn’t make it.  About 20 minutes into the trip, an oncoming car slammed into them, leaving three critically injured, and one who slipped away at the scene.  That’s the one I knew.

I met her before I moved to Nova Scotia, as she lived in one of my old unit’s garrison towns.  She had been in the ranks in a different trade and unit and decided she wanted to make the jump to pursue an officer’s commission, and chose the infantry trade.  I sat on her officer selection board, a process where a prospect is seated in front of four or five officers and bombarded with questions for as long as it takes to get an assessment of their character.  We ask them about what they think the job is, why they think they deserve a shot, what they know of current affairs, about their experience with adversity, all those sorts of things.  I remember her board interview not because of what she said, but because she simply couldn’t be rattled.  She answered questions in a straightforward, thoughtful way, she showed herself to be an intelligent woman, and we voted unanimously to take her on strength.

Being out here, I took it upon myself to be a morale officer of sorts for my former Regiment’s candidates sent either to Aldershot or Gagetown, offering them a reasonably comfortable bed, a decent meal, some local exposure, all the things it takes to stay sane during the rigours of officer training in the Canadian Forces.  This summer has been less than successful for them, the best prospect to finish his infantry training was sent home 2/5ths of the way through his training as being unfit to continue, not ready for the rigours to which he was subjected.  This young woman, however, was doing well, and I got in touch with her to offer to have her over for a weekend.  The appointed weekend was the one before Canada Day, but she got busy and we didn’t end up connecting.  I remarked during the week that I had to get a hold of her, but before I got the chance, I got a phone call from my commanding officer with the news.

When he called, I could tell from the tone he had bad news, and I was worried it was someone I knew in Afghanistan, but the shock was greater when I realized otherwise.

Such a random tragedy.  What made it worse is that she was headed to Halifax to meet her boyfriend/fiance (not sure) who was waiting at the airport and she never arrived.  Here was he, in a strange city, totally lost for information until they finally reached him with the news however they did.  I went down to his hotel and left a message with my contact information to offer whatever help I could, but I think he’s now left town.

I’m now contemplating how to compose a suitable letter of condolences, hoping I can find words that help.

Oh, that’s not all, either.  So after I got the call I started to pass the news, calling another former member of the unit to inform her, they were fast friends.  She took it upon herself to post the now-compulsory Facebook tribute group, which led to her being the shoulder to cry on for many people she didn’t know.  Most astoundingly, she was doing this while coping with another tragedy.  I think she’s done an admirable job, though.  She was contacted by a police officer who was on scene and given some details in order to offer some solace – she didn’t die alone, in agony, etc – I suppose that’s good to know in some way – it’s being passed on to the family in an appropriate manner.

So, I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you better, Mo.  I’m sorry your life was cut short in such a random way, and I’m sorry for the anguish of all your friends, family, and loved ones…

I did realize one thing though, which is what I told my friend who’s become the quarterback for all the mourning activities, and I thought myself rather smart for saying it, so I’ll share it here.  I told her, “it is through things like this [watching the Regimental families, friends, everyone else pull together] that we discover that there is immortality, not in some afterlife, but in the impact we have on others”.  We keep those we lose alive in a way through the memories, the stories live on.  I think of my friend Mark who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 – in twenty years, new recruits to the Regiment on entering the Junior Ranks Mess for the first time will see the pictures of him and other references, and the stories will be told, repeated, and so on.  While he may be gone, the stories – the impact of his life, will outlast him.  It was this immortality we learn about in one of the oldest books ever written – the Epic of Gilgamesh – the life is ended, but only the physical body as the story endures.

So, that’s life and death.

So the empires consideration, that came from musing about the future of the United States of America, a country which is essentially a modern empire, though I think many Americans don’t really see it that way.  Empires never last, and I think the prognosis for the USA is not especially good, in part perhaps because of their blindness to this reality.  This is part of my ongoing effort to understand my neighbours that I start to consider these things.  I’m in the process, albeit slowly, of reading the fascinating book Freedom At Midnight by Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins, on the independence and division of British India into the modern states of India and Pakistan.  This marked in the eyes of many historians the final end of the British Empire, on which it was said the sun never set.

Couple this reading with my customary voracious interest in history and you have a great context to look at the USA.  The parallels I note with Britain at the end of World War 2, with the Ottoman Empire in decline, with the end of the Roman Empire, are clear and noteworthy.

The United States currently is broke.  It is broke in a way that I think few Americans really grasp, particularly the conservative ones.  They have been very successfully brainwashed to believe that they are “overtaxed” by a government far too large and unnecessary.  When you ask them what they’re going to accept giving up not in the hopes of paying less tax, but merely to balance the budget as is, though, then you don’t really get much in the way of helpful answers.  In particular I note their obsession with their military – which consumes a massive chunk of the US federal government’s budget… something like 44 cents of every dollar in taxes they take in – and remember, they are currently running astronomical deficits with no end in sight.

It wasn’t always this way.  When Bill Clinton left office after two terms as President in 2000, the US ran budget surplus, the economy was sound, the military was smaller and not engaged in major foreign campaigns.  Things were generally good.  Then for eight years, America was hobbled by the inept “leadership” of G.W. Bush, a man who should never have won even one election, never mind a second.  In eight years, the economy went through a recession, recovered somewhat, and went into a far worse one, the worst since the Great Depression, and the United States got embroiled in two wars.  One was somewhat justifiable, though I think it’s time to wind it down, the second, and vastly more expensive one, was patently unnecessary, built on lies, and so on.  But I don’t really need to convince you of that.  Most people realize now that the invasion of Iraq was not only pointless, it was a tremendous mistake, and one that may have disastrous consequences not yet realized.

In the case of Great Britain, at the end of the Second World War, faced with an economy in tatters and astronomical debts, the government of Clement Attlee made the decision to abandon the Empire in as orderly a fashion as possible, in order to save the country.  The colonies around the world were set on the road to independence, laying in many cases the groundwork for civil wars, for other conflicts, for disaster.  In the case of India, the division of the country led to a fight within 24 years.  In Africa many countries experienced years of strife.

One can make the argument that the USA is in the same position now – its empire is now ripe to collapse.  The Vandals abound – China, India, other emerging market countries…  The USA has gotten itself into what appears to be a similar position to the Romans and the British did – an inability to maintain its far-flung outposts, though they aren’t so much colonies like Britain had, or remote provinces like the Romans, but military outposts, economic interests, and so on.  There are other factors at play.  There were arguments made that technological stagnation in the Roman Empire allowed the eclipsing of it by its neighbours.  While the level and quality of education received by American children seems to be decreasing, and the accessibility of advanced education is as well, with families increasing unable to afford the burden of educating their children, China and India are producing engineers and scientists at an increasing rate.  They are becoming the innovators, and they are amassing great wealth by doing so.

Economically, I don’t see anything looking good for the USA – even trying to fix the spiralling cost of healthcare and getting out of Iraq now and Afghanistan soon will likely not be enough.  The kind of austerity that European nations are discussing might not even be enough, but the problem beyond that is that no one can even have a rational discussion about in the US it seems because they are so blind to the depth of problem.  Even if they weren’t, I don’t know where you begin to get the country back to where it was 10 years ago – the world was different there, the enemies were not so clearly at the gates.

Perhaps the only thing that could stop the decline is the problems faced by America’s competitors… Japan used to be one, for example, but now has huge problems with demographics and stagnation that have no ready solution.  China and India may face problems as their masses seek to get a piece of the prosperity pie – China is finding that now with having to liberalize its exchange rate regime for example, and raise wages that have been kept artificially low.  For now, employers in China can simply move more into the hinterlands in search of lower wages, but that cannot last forever, and doing so will require continuous improvements to infrastructure that will cost the Chinese treasury large amounts of capital, never mind resources, though that’s a problem they have a handle on by investing abroad.

It doesn’t look good, particularly, if you take the pessimistic view anyhow, and I’m only scratching the surface thus far…

1 comment so far

  1. Jeremy Hoover on

    Nice post. I enjoyed reading both your personal reflections and your thoughts on history. Sorry for your loss.

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