Another Aviating Post

Here I go with another “I’m offline and frustrated” post. I’m starting this as I wait to board my flight from Detroit back to Halifax, annoyed that DTW still doesn’t have free wifi for customers like most decent airports. Of course I wouldn’t really care if I was in Canada because I would have 3G, but here, I don’t.

Instead, DTW has a Boingo hotspot. With a two hour layover I figured I would sign up and I could fritter away time twittering as I do. I filled the form out with my credit card info, hit go, and nothing. So I tried calling the customer service number only to sit on hold for ten minutes and get disconnected. Now we are close enough to boarding that it seems not to matter anymore.

DC turned out to be overall a great trip. I met some pretty interesting people, saw some great sights, and lamentably enjoyed some decent weather which wasn’t what they promised and thus I cancelled my original plans to rent a Harley-Davidson and roam around Virginia. In the end, it was actually a good thing because I would likely have missed a lot of neat stuff, including the Newseum, and meeting the legendary @DCDebbie who didn’t make the tweetup I was going to because she was sick.

It’s interesting to meet people you’ve only been acquainted with via Twitter. So far they’ve been basically exactly what I expected them to be like – not personas, not fake at all. That’s pretty awesome. I was disappointed that some people I expected to meet weren’t there, but that’s how things go

I got in some great conversations as well, about politics, about careers, about ambition, about all sorts of things. There is a networking aspect to social media that’s there for those who wish to avail themselves of it, and it’s fantastic. I cannot help but wonder what will come out of some of the discussions that took place this weekend.

It got me thinking about my own directions for the next little while too, actually. This week, hopefully, I’ll know what’s about to be my life when I find out whether my tour is happening. Given the need to make nice with my day job, I have to make a call soon. I don’t want to be in a position of having a bunch of new enemies on account of things coming apart last minute. I know exactly what that is like: it happened to me in 2009. It’s what actually spurred my move to Nova Scotia in the first place. I had to get away from some people I had basically pissed off.

I had a slight epiphany this weekend that I have a concrete, real life example in my life of exactly what my unit wants to prevent. A friend of mine took a Class B callout (basically, a full-time Reserve gig) he was unqualified for. He was promised all sorts of support to make it work, none of which materialized, and the resulting toll on his sanity was severe. Create a situation like that in a place like Afghanistan where there is a lot more pressure – and ready access to weapons – and potentially you have a recipe for real disaster. There have been suicides among people put in jobs they simply couldn’t handle – one in particular jumps out. It was a tragic example of the Army failing someone.

I remain not terribly worried – but I understand the apprehension.

The wonderful thing about the last few days is that I haven’t really had to worry about any of that stuff, I’ve just unwound mostly, admiring the sights of a city I’ve only really been to once before, when I was only 9. I did go to DC in 2006 as well, but really, it was a brief stop for a few hours, on someone else’s schedule. There is so much to appreciate there being older, and wiser, and all that. I particularly liked the FDR Memorial, given the state of affairs particularly stateside economically, and a common refrain that something as bold as The New Deal is what is really needed to spur a Renaissance of sorts.

The FDR Monument is particularly striking as it’s a staged process using fountains to illustrate watershed events in his Presidency (pardon the pun). The fountain in his third term section appears broken, chaotic, like the world at war. The second is a more elaborate, stepped fountain evoking the TVA, the massive infrastructure project that helped resuscitate the US economy, spurring massive development potential. One has to wonder what could be a contemporary effort with the same effect. It isn’t enough to just start spending money – filling potholes or building unneeded infrastructure isn’t what will lay groundwork for a solid future, there has to be more thought invested than that!

To me this all ties to arguments I’ve always made: the manufacturing economy in North America is mostly dead. Without some manner of trade policy intervention (i.e. protectionism), manufacturing will largely never return to what it was. Emerging economies can do it cheaper, and that’s really all that matters. Barring shipping costs for low margins soaring, there simply will be no cost incentive not to manufacture widgets in China, or India, or wherever. The costs cannot come down here without a subsequent impact on lifestyles. Given that it seems to me that the middle class even as I knew it growing up is fading into history, that simply won’t go over well. We – my generation – and the ones just behind me, the so-called millenials, have to determine that and push the powers that be toward them. I guess that’s what I wish I had more answers for.

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What better to do on a plane?

Might as well try to condense the last couple of weeks of thoughts into a blog post. I’m presently somewhere between Halifax and Detroit on a fog-delayed Delta flight on my way to the Fuck It Do It Live Tweetup in Arlington, VA tomorrow night. Why I’m going Halifax-Detroit-DC is a function of the fact that I booked this on SkyMiles I’ve accrued over the last ten or so years.

I’m actually looking forward to meeting so many people I interact with via twitter – I’ve only met one long distance twitter connection so this stands to be quite an experience.

It’s been a crazy month and a bit chez moi. I went into bit of a spin on learning a few weeks ago that I would be deploying to Afghanistan this winter. As soon as I got working on deployment preparations the whole thing came to a grinding halt. Or seemed to. Still not clear what’s happening. I hope to have some firm idea this week.

And there is so much going on in the world. Continued instability in markets and the fiscal mess that is Europe (Greece, specifically) is weighing heavily on economies. The problem, of course, is trying to get some manner of a grip on fiscal realities. No one likes the sound of austerity programs, but the reality is that’s what’s needed to a great extent. I often tell people that being Canadian I have some sense of what these are about. Canada endured the same measures in the 1990’s, slaying a pernicious deficit dragon. It was somewhat painful but we reaped the rewards for years afterward. We ran surpluses for over a decade until the 2008 financial crisis forced some deficit spending.

I’ll often point out that Canada was relatively unscathed by that mess. Note I say relatively, not completely. It wasn’t without impact, but we didn’t see a banking sector meltdown or housing market collapse – all thanks to reasonably prudent regulation that still allowed the business to thrive.

I guess that’s why I can be optimistic that things will, as they always do, work out alright.

I was most recently captivated as well by the effort to spare the life of Troy Davis. I won’t bore you with rehashing the story as I’m sure anyone who happens to read this blog knows it anyhow.

I don’t know if Davis was innocent or guilty. Truth is, there’s a good chance he may well have been guilty. But what matters is that I see no way any reasonable person can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was guilty, and for that reason I like most people was appalled that he was executed.

I don’t understand capital punishment. I don’t see what purpose it serves. I find it particularly troublesome that supposedly pro-life evangelical types are so enthusiastic about the idea of killing people, regardless of what justification they manufacture in their minds for it. Either killing is wrong, or it isn’t. Period.

I appreciate the irony of the fact that one of the two careers I have makes me a student of “kinetic effects” which is a fancy sciency sounding term for killing people. But I understand that the world is full of people who need killing, but only under the most careful and judiciously determined circumstances.

If a state is determined to retain the ability to put people to death, I submit that the standard for doing so must be so high as to be almost unattainable. There must be clear, irrefutable evidence – physical evidence, I’d say. Not subjective witness testimony. Something a CSI episode can turn on, I guess you might say. Every effort must be made to exonerate the accused before the sentence is carried out.

Of course, the smarter thing to do is simply abolish what ultimately is an act of revenge and barbarism as a relic of a past era. But I sense we aren’t really past whatever era that refers to – at least not in some jurisdictions.

My Thoughts On 9/11

I read enough posts of “where were you” and things like that, but I thought I’d put together something simple to explain what the World Trade Center and 9/11 have come to mean to me.

My first time laying eyes on the World Trade Center – the only time I saw them, actually, was on the morning of July 1, 2000. Canada Day. That summer, my friends and I were left wondering what to do to mark the birthday of our wonderful country. Our normal custom was to go to a friend’s cottage, but he was away in Australia that summer. Early in the week leading up to the day, my then girlfriend said “Hey, I heard that The Tragically Hip is playing in Central Park for Canada Day. We should go.” Now, for those of you who don’t know, The Hip is basically a Canadian institution, a rock band that by that point in my life, at age 20, I’d probably seen live at least ten times. We laughed off the idea, however, based on geography. New York City was some ten hours’ drive from our home in the suburbs of Toronto. To drive that far for a concert seemed ridiculous.

Until the Friday night, the 30th. We still had no plans, and so the idea came up again, and we piled, five of us, into my friend’s Hyundai Excel. We loaded up on Jolt Cola and started driving to NYC. Crossing the border in those days took no passports, no hassle. We just went.

My friend Shaun drove the whole way, and I slept a good chunk of the trip. When I woke up, we were in Newark, New Jersey. And horribly lost, because Shaun had jumped off the NJ Turnpike to dodge what we later learned was a $0.35 toll, and we were trying to figure out how the hell to get to the Holland Tunnel, and from there to Central Park. We did find it eventually.

Anyhow, I’m getting into the weeds. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was the Twin Towers. It was the awe-inspiring sight, the symbol of New York City, that told me we were almost there. I remember seeing it, before launching into my compatriots about why we were lost. We did make it, and managed to park on Fifth Avenue at 72nd, right near the stage for the show which also featured Great Big Sea and Jeff Healey. It was rather a serendipitous day, as we had no idea where in the park the stage was, nor how massive Central Park actually was.

I wouldn’t return to New York City until the summer of 2006.

And we all know what happened in between.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was dragged, literally, out of bed by one of my housemates, Carrie. She had been up first, I think because she had class. Making coffee, she had TV on and saw the news reports about the first plane crashing into the WTC. I don’t know how much time had elapsed by the time she got me out of bed, but it wasn’t long, and she just said “You have to see this!” I sat watching for a while and my jaw dropped when I saw the massive explosion of the second hit. I knew – as everyone watching knew – what was happening. And so we watched. All day.

That night, being a Tuesday, was an administration night for the Reserve Force Regiment to which I belonged, having joined a few months before in January. A conference was scheduled for that night about an hour away, and I was slated to attend with my supervisor and some other folks from Peterborough, the city I lived in at the time. We went, and tried to conduct the meeting but it was almost impossible to talk about anything other than what had just occurred – and to wonder about what would happen next. We had no idea, but we all wanted to do something. If we were told we were headed to NYC to help try to find survivors or whatever else, we would have packed up and left that night.

The night ended for me in the Junior Ranks Mess at the Peterborough Armouries, we sat around a large table watching the news, watching video of the attacks over and over again, and feeling different than we ever had – we knew nothing would ever be the same. I remember remarking that it was our Zapruder film, a comment that 10 years on I think remains correct.

Flash forward almost five years to 2006. My wife and I were headed to Georgia to visit her family, and we made two stops. The first was New York City. We went to the WTC site in the evening – late in the evening. Taking the subway down, we passed Cortlandt St. Station, which was under the site and destroyed in the attacks, the first eerie sight of the night. We then headed to the actual site – it was a fenced off site being cleaned up. Simple signs told the story of the buildings, their construction, and their collapse. I remember being struck by a sign, which said something to the effect of, “To preserve the sacred nature of this site, please do not buy anything here” or something like that, which was striking.

More chilling, however, was the sign explaining the ongoing demolition of the Deutsche Bank Tower, which was left unsound. It was being slowly taken down, and remains were being discovered constantly in the wreckage. It was a reminder of the cost of that day, and how it still had not been fully reckoned.

I visited New York City again this summer. I didn’t go to the WTC site. I didn’t feel any need to, I guess.

My Upcoming Adventure

I got the most interesting of phone calls on Thursday. I was at my local Vietnamese restaurant, engaged in a big bowl of pho with a colleague, when my cell phone rang. I saw the number on call display was a military number of some sort and not wanting to be rude I sent it to voicemail. When I checked the message a little while later, it was the standard generic “call me back” message from my Reserve unit’s Chief Clerk. When I got a moment, I did.

She informs me that she has my DAG (departure assistance group) checklist ready to go for me to pick up. “What DAG checklist?”, I ask. “For your tour”, she says.  I’m instantly very confused. While I had volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan next year with the new Canadian mission there, Op ATTENTION, I was informed a few weeks ago that there were very few positions available, and I didn’t get one. Turns out they came out with another batch, and I did. The Chief Clerk wasn’t aware that I hadn’t been told I had one coming.

So, I had to compose myself a little bit. Having resigned myself to not going, I was a little stunned by it – and when I got down to the Orderly Room and actually saw the CFTPO print out (which basically is the position information and my nomination to fill the position), I was pretty impressed. My last time I was supposed to go, I never got that far, I just got told it would come together eventually, and at the last minute it didn’t, leaving a very bitter taste in my mouth to say the least. This time it all looks good.

So, early November I’ll leave my day job and move to the mounting base – CFB Gagetown, near Fredericton, New Brunswick. (I think, anyhow). CFB Gagetown is about a four hour drive from my place in Halifax, meaning weekends when I don’t have to be there I’ll be able to come home – and there’s going to be some leave in there for sure. February, we head off to Afghanistan. I know where I’m going – or at least, where I’m slated to go for now, but I can’t say just yet. I plan to keep up on Twitter and expand this blog as much as is possible while I’m there, that’s kind of what I joined Twitter for when I thought it was happening last time.

In the mean time I have some running around to do, realizing that I have a lot of little stuff to take care of before quitting the country for long time, and I’m making a list. First thing, my wife’s demand, is getting a new car as the Jetta we drive right now is on its last legs and she doesn’t want to rely on it for the winter. Fair enough, we have narrowed down to two choices and I’ll have the decision made tomorrow. I also have to actually inform my day job boss of this development which should be fun too. But I’m tackling that tomorrow. Then it’s mostly the mundane pre-deployment checklist items to deal with. It’ll be easy enough.

Stay tuned… if you’re interested anyhow.

On Marriage Equality

It was fascinating to follow the saga of equal marriage legislation in New York, particularly after a series of Twitter exchanges with people, most of whom opposed the concept. One in particular was pure comedy gold for the way he tried to present his argument against allowing LGBT people to marry.

In Canada, gay marriage became legal several years ago – if I remember right, in 2004, following a fairly long battle. It wasn’t a legislated thing, really, it was actually the product of court challenges, and creative efforts to circumvent existing laws. Without doing a ton of research, it was actually a church serving Toronto’s Gay Village that started the push by realizing they could use an old concept called publication of the banns to get around the need for a marriage license which couldn’t be issued to gay couples in the Province of Ontario. Once Ontario had equal marriage, other provinces eventually followed suit. The history, though, isn’t the point. The debate is.

Before this all happened, I guess I fell into the “defend traditional marriage camp” to a certain extent. It wasn’t that I had any particular interest in denying anyone any rights, but I think the way I saw it was “give them all the legal rights, etc, but call it something else. That to me was a rational position at the time.

Then I started to wonder why that mattered – why does the same matter? It doesn’t really. It’s a term to which we as a society attach some value, even if it’s just a semantic value, but it’s in no way compromised by allowing LGBT people to marry. In fact, what I came to realize fairly quickly is that whatever it was called, whatever it was, it didn’t matter to me. At all. If a gay couple can get married, its impact on my life is absolutely zero. If they can’t, however, there is an impact because it means I live in a society that accepts some manner of discrimination based on an inalienable feature of a person. That isn’t good.

What I’ve come to now is the realization that there simply are no good arguments to discriminate against LGBT people. It’s pointless. It’s stupid. It’s wrong.

The fact that it’s stupid is what trumps everything. I simply can’t get over the depth of stupidity that comes with all of the arguments made by homophobes. It’s not like they have intelligent arguments that can be debated. They’re just idiotic.

They claim that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of marriage – the sanctity that leads to half of marriages failing, you say? Okay, whatever. They seem to suggest that it’s some kind of harbinger of societal downfall. Really? In Canada, it’s done nothing of the sort. In fact, more people couldn’t care less, it’s not a debate that anyone hears anymore. The deal is done, and everyone’s moved on.

Then it gets into other absurdities. Gays can’t reproduce so they shouldn’t be allowed to marry since marriage is for procreation. Okay, well, what about all the straight couples that can’t have children? Or choose not to? I’ve absolutely no interest in having children, and yet I’m married. Does my childfree marriage in any way impact someone else’s? No. Not at all. It’s pretty simple.

Then you get into more ridiculous arguments, like “slippery slopes”, suggesting that somehow there will be a broad push to expand the definition of marriage more. Why? Marriage is still between two consenting adults, no major, realistic effort exists to change that. It’s also not something most people will accept, whereas SSM isn’t really controversial, or shouldn’t be. I also found some other bizarre arguments – some moron on twitter named @WordGuru seemed (in a ridiculously long winded blog post) to believe that gay people getting married would subject him to some sort of outbreak of public gay sex (interestingly, he didn’t have an issue with lesbians), somehow stripping him of his right to be “free of perversion”. Well, I’m confident that won’t actually happen, because again, it hasn’t here.

See what I’m getting at? No one has made a single, decent argument against gay marriage that I can consider worthy of any intelligent debate. It’s really something that there’s no reason to find controversy over. Allowing equal marriage rights just makes sense.

Whither The Centre?

For some reason, I guess because I’m some kind of masochist, I tend to insert myself into all sorts of debates and discussions over politics.  Canadian politics, American politics, whatever – they all fascinate me, and if there’s one thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer over time, it’s that all politics is indeed local – everything matters, because we’re all really connected.

When I was a first year university student, I read Benjamin Barber’s article (since expanded into a book), Jihad Vs McWorld.  It was a very good explanation of the competing forces which we were just coming to be understood as “globalization”.  That article was six years old by then, but seemed to me very insightful.  I had started to understand those impacts during the brief travels I managed to do before and during school, which doesn’t seem to be a habit I’ve carried on with enough, though hopefully that will change.  Anyhow, if you’ve never read the article, do so – it’s worth a read.  It talks a fair bit about the ideas of confederalism and trying to define the role of a nation-state in this new world.  We’re seeing the same sort of thing now when we take a look at NATO trying to define a role for its future post-Cold War.  That, I suppose, is a whole other matter.

If I tell you that higher education softened my conservative views, I guess I’ll play into some sort of sick right wing stereotypes about liberal education.  Truth is, while I went to a very, very liberal school, I didn’t really start to really think like a centrist until a while after I was out of school in the real world and started to realize that all those monetarist, conservative “theoreticals” are just that, and they don’t really seem to work.  And I guess I realized that before a lot of people, because what I’m seeing unfolding in the world suggest it.

What happened to the idea of a rational, pragamatic centrist movement?  In the US, the only people I’ve seen claiming the label of centrists are really right wingers trying to sell themselves a little softer.  In Canada, the reasonably centrist Liberal Party of Canada just got totally wiped out in the recent election, and the “Progressive Conservative” Party no longer exists.  Although Prime Minister Harper doesn’t strike me as having some incredibly insidious right wing agenda, he also learns a fair way to the right, more than perhaps I’d consider acceptable, and even worse, some of the clowns in his party are far less ambiguous about it.

The problem is, as I see it, we have a whole lot of challenges to deal with.  Climate change, regardless of the degree to which you accept the anthropogenic nature thereof, is something that is going to impact the world somehow – it’ll change migration patterns, it’ll impact food supplies, it will impact everyone in some way.  The global economy is another problem – casino capitalism as it were has impacted us certainly.  The world’s largest economy sits in a country that faces massive budget deficits and complete unwillingness to overcome the polarization in politics in such a way as to actually make any progress.  There’s no rational voice in the centre trying to balance out the two highly polarized sides in any debate, and so there’s deadlock.

Why do we have to talk only about tax cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts and not look at other ideas?  More importantly, why is there no discussion of combining various approaches in the US for example to solve problems?  Obviously, taxes have to rise in some form in the USA, it’s just a matter of time.  Despite the claims of various pundits on the right, America does indeed have a revenue problem.  It does have a spending problem too, and that will take a lot of effort, it’ll take some pain I’m sure to fix it effectively, but it must be done in some form.  What astounds me is the denial of realities that healthcare reform as it’s been initiated by the Obama Administration will likely help while actually improving healthcare outcomes.  I’m also surprised (not really) that no one seems to grasp that massive, massive military spending cuts in the USA are going to be necessary to make any progress.   Those cuts will have to come from capital procurement primarily, and allowing the force to shrink via natural attrition.

What I don’t get is why people aren’t demanding better from politicians, demanding actual reasoned discussions.  I guess that advantage we had in Canada when we went through this in the 1990s is that our Parliamentary system allows the government of the day to just get on with things without having to constantly battle the opposition.  Score 1 for us.  Obviously there’s no way to make changes to that, but where are the voices starting up to the Professional Left and the Theocratic-Fascist-Corporatist right?

And Now, For Something Completely Different

So I’m going to break from blogging about politics since I want to capture this somehow and I’ve debated where to do it, since I have another blog that it would fit, but I decided since this one is linked to Twitter, and I tweet more than anything, I’d put it here.

This month I’m doing two very strange, but very interesting things.

First, I’m doing a “30 Day Challenge” through my yoga studio – a challenge to practice every day in some form for 30 days, which is kind of cool, but along with that, I got enticed to try something else – for this month as well, I’m doing a “cleanse”. What the hell does that mean? Well, for 21 days, I’m going to try my damnedest to eliminate caffeine, alcohol, gluten, and animal products of all sorts from my diet. That’s quite a jump for me, for the most part. I’ve had some “quasi-vegetarian” experience before, but that was more out of the necessity of the environment I was in at the time than any sort of conviction… and in truth, this is no more out of conviction other than it’s something of a pride thing, and frankly, I’m intrigued to see how it goes. I’m going to have to basically be directly involved in every meal I eat more than I’m used to, for a start, and there’s a lot of learning that’s going into that, to figure out how to cook without a lot of things I’m used to taking for granted.

I got through the first day, though, and that’s a decent start. And I’ll probably try to add at least some reflections on it as I go along.

Thoughts On Israel & Palestine – Early Thoughts.

Lots in the news lately about Israel and Palestine, given President Barack Obama’s recent speech where he referred to the need for negotiations based on a starting point of the pre-1967 borders, with what he called “mutually agreed upon swaps”, meaning that there would likely need to be some exchanges of territory to reflect where people have setter since that time.

President Obama’s speech brought a strong response from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He strongly dismissed the President’s statement saying that it would leave Israel “indefensible”. The statement isn’t totally off-base, in simple terms. The Golan Heights region seized from Syria offers some significant strategic advantages which Israel would be understandably loath to relinquish.

That said, the real controversy seems more to stem from President Obama’s explicit enunciation of what has long been a US policy regarding a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu seems to be some kind of darling among a set of the American right that seems to have an innate ability to suspend any form of rationality when it comes to Israel, and his bluster against Obama apparently made them very happy.

What I want to try to do is explore this obsession with Israel and its implications for any form of lasting peace. I’m not any sort of expert on the matter but I’m just going to sort of audibly ponder the situation.

While I think the world meant well in giving assistance to the Zionist movement in establishing the State of Israel, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, I have come to wonder if it was really a good idea.  Divorce, for a moment, the religious fantasies that played a role (not least of which is the dominionist Christian eschatology) in the location of the state, and consider this: carving a new state which immediately set about bringing settlers from all over the world into land that had been occupied by another group for many years, and surrounded by nations which stood little chance of abiding this new neighbour, and the nightmarish flood of refugees it created.  In any reasonable context of consideration, it makes absolutely no sense.

Being someone who follows this blog I will take some license in assuming that you have at least some background in the history of the State of Israel, including the Nakba, the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, and Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War.  If you aren’t up to speed, may I suggest Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut To Jerusalem as a primer?  Israel’s borders have expanded each time these conflicts have happened, including holding territory in the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank at various points.  They’ve made some pull backs, but still hold the Golan and effectively control the Gaza Strip and the West Bank even though they “withdrew” in 2000.

To get peace, I have to just consider two states bickering regardless of the other issues.  One is militarily mighty but considers itself to face a constant existential threat.  It also has a stronger economy, and some friends in high places.  The other is militarily weak, faces a stagnant economy, and lives under the boot of the other, finding the situation uncomfortable enough as it is, but made worse by the fact that vast swathes of its population have been forced into third countries, and that there’s no prospect for improvement as the other country continues to encroach on the land.  Oh, and adding to the misery, the former party, well, they just showed up.

So what can I presume the average Palestinian divorced from politics wants?  I’ll hazard a guess that it’s similar to what Israelis want – and more importantly, what any human likely wants – to live peacefully, to be able to make a decent living, to provide for their children, and to see them grow up wealthier and better off.  To do that, it strikes me, isn’t hard, but that’s why Israel needs to make the rather reasonable concessions that were essentially articulated by President Obama a few days ago, but are nothing new.  They don’t need to capitulate on everything, and they’ll still remain militarily quite strong.  They do, after all, have quite a nuclear arsenal among other things, but I’d hazard a guess that on the Arab Street a reasonably negotiated two-state solution will probably be enough to make most people accept the existence of the country.

There’s a lot more to it, but I just wanted to start somewhere.

My Early Musings on #elxn41

So, the 41st Canadian Federal Election is now passed into history, with some results that are simply described as historic. Conservative Stephen Harper finally won his long coveted majority government, winning 167 of the 308 seats in the Canadian House of Commons with 39.6% of the popular vote. The Bloc Quebecois was all but extirpated, wining just 4 seats as Quebec voters shifted their support to the New Democratic Party primarily. This was the shocker – the NDP for the first time becomes the Official Opposition, winning 102 seats and 30.6% of the popular vote. The Liberal Party of Michael Ignatieff was walloped as well, falling to just 34 seats with 18.9% of the popular vote. Another interesting twist, the Green Party’s leader, Elizabeth May, won her riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, giving them their first ever seat in Parliament.

Not shockingly, as is the custom in Canadian politics, both Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc resigned. Neither of them won their seats, either, so it is fairly safe to say their Canadian political careers are more or less over.

It seems the results shocked a lot of people – it certainly surprised me because I had figured most of the polls I was watching were fairly accurate, and they were suggesting a Conservative minority. That to me was probably the only palatable option.

This election seems to be an excellent demonstration of why the First-Past-The-Post system isn’t great, but it is worth reminding Canadians upset about the results that the last time a Canadian election was won by a leader who got more than 50% of the popular vote was in 1958 when John Diefenbaker was re-elected. Even Pierre Trudeau never got over that hurdle. The popular vote is essentially irrelevant, it’s where the votes are cast that mattered. In the 40th Parliament, for example, the NDP had double the Bloc’s share of popular vote count in the 2008 Federal Election, yet 11 fewer seats. While the Greens took almost 4% of the popular vote they got one seat of 308.

I used to think that FPTP was great because it allowed for majorities that could actually “get things done”, but I think they as parties become more polarized, the sort of “permanent minority government” status that some form of proportional representation would create is becoming more attractive to me. It is the fear of this that had Stephen Harper’s attack ad machine cranking out the fear of coalitions, because if Canadians came to believe they worked, then Harper’s Conservatives, who lie to the right of the ideas of most Canadians, would never, ever be able to get a majority.

With his majority, Harper will probably get to work right away on his priorities, passing the budget introduced before the election and a series of law and order bills which contain some ideas that, having been failures in the US already, are idiotic. Things like building new prisons when crime rates are falling don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t see a bright future for Canada under a Conservative majority sadly (or under any majority, for that matter), so hopefully I’ll be proven a pessimist. In the meantime, I’m going to start dusting off all the stuff I have about PR systems, and get involved in consigning FPTP to history.

On Afghanistan

I got into a brief Twitter chat with someone today about Afghanistan, and I think it prompted me to write a bit on my perceptions of how the Afghanistan experience has impacted Canada – impacted me personally, my family, my friends, and the sense I have of its impact on Canadians broadly based on my observations.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in third year university, living in a house with three friends. That Tuesday morning, I was awoken by one of my housemates just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and I managed to collect myself and get out of my room in time to see the second hit. I spent the rest of that day watching television, trying to figure out what happened and what was going to be done about it. That night, being an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces Reserve at the time, I headed off to my Armoury and down to a meeting previously scheduled which was overtaken by discussion about the topic. Later I sat in the Junior Ranks Mess of my home garrison with various other people, and I said, “We will all remember where we were this day.” As we watched replay after replay of planes hitting the Twin Towers, I then thought, “This is our Zapruder film.”

Canada eventually sent a battle group built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3VP BG) to Kandahar to help destroy Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and rout the Taliban regime which had mostly controlled that failed state and provided that haven. It didn’t make a lot of news until April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a 3VP group training at the Tarnak Farms Range Complex near Kandahar Airfield, killing four Canadians: Sgt Marc Leger, Cpl Ainsworth Dyer, Pte Richard Green, and Pte Nathan Smith and severely wounding eight more. The outcome of the inquiry into the event would be a massive post in itself, but suffice it to say that not only was it basically the end of the USAF pilots’ careers, but one received a stinging reprimand for his dishonourable conduct in trying to evade responsibility for a decision that was in no way justifiable. In short, he claimed that he acted in self-defence, but he actually turned back to drop the bomb after being well out of danger and was not cleared to attack.

The Patricia deployment wrapped up without any further casualties, and the follow on was a deployment built around the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (3 RCR BG). They went to Kabul, established a large camp (Camp Julian) and got to work on local security and some of the foundational work on establishing Afghan National Security forces – new Army, Air Force, and Police for the country. Things went fairly smoothly. There were no casualties reported until October 2, 2003, when what we would come to know as an “IED” or landmine blast struck a patrol traveling in an Iltis jeep in Kabul, killing Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. When a suicide bomber killed Cpl Jamie Murphy three months later, a national debate began about the adequacy of the equipment Canadian soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan with. The Iltis jeep, a small, unarmoured patrol vehicle long due for replacement became a focus in the media, but many, many other items were viewed as deficient and the Liberal government of Jean Chretien began spending a lot more money on improvements.

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan stayed relatively quiet until the summer of 2005, when it was decided to redeploy the force from the relatively stable capital of Kabul to the restive province of Kandahar, one of the strongholds of the Taliban, to which 3VP were initially deployed back in 2002. Settling into Kandahar Airfield, Canadian soldiers began to become involved in a lot more “outside the wire” work, doing battle with insurgents in Kandahar’s vineyards, orchards, and fields. The Panjwaii District, located along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar City, was one of the Canadian Areas of Responsibility. Panjwaii would become a name known to many Canadians starting in 2006 when the fighting became much more intense, and Canadian casualties began to mount starting in the spring of 2006.

The only other deaths before then were road traffic accidents, a sad hazard of any place, but losses grieved no differently.

The first casualty of fighting was Pte Robert Costall, a member of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1VP). Costall’s deal was later revealed to likely have been a friendly fire incident during a pitched gun battle with insurgents. On April 22, 2006 a roadside bomb blew up a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, one of the vehicles bought to replace the Iltis jeeps that had been so controversial, killing four Canadians. May 17th saw something new to Canadians – a female Forward Observation Officer from the 1st Regiment of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA), Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by a rocket propelled grenade which struck her LAV-3 while she was calling in artillery during an offensive operation. She was the first Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan, and the first female combat casualty in Canadian history.

It became clear to Canadians that we were in quite a fight and there was a real cost – I think, from my recollection, it was Capt Goddard’s death that hit home for many.

Through the summer and into the fall of 2006, fighting in Panjwaii was intense. August 3 saw a fierce fighting kill four members of 1VP, and fighting during September was similarly costly. September 2, 2006 saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1 RCR BG) launch Operation MEDUSA, a major effort to drive the Talian out of Zhari and Panjwaii districts. 1 RCR suffered the single worst day of the war to date for Canada, September 3, 2006. That day, four fell, including two Warrant Officers and an Engineer Sergeant very experienced NCOs, and many others were injured. The following day, a friendly fire airstrike hit members of 8 Platoon, Charles Company, 1 RCR, killing Pte Mark Graham and injuring several others, one of whom was a close friend of mine. The Crazy Eights, and indeed Charles Company itself, was rendered basically combat ineffective at that point. MEDUSA ultimately was a tactical victory for ISAF, but at a cost.

And so it went from there. I could recap the ensuring campaigns, but that’s not really the point. Following 2006, things became much more dangerous in Afghanistan, and many more would fall. April 2007 saw a massive bomb kill six Canadians, a feat the Taliban would repeat in July of that year. Most were due to pernicious improved explosive devices, planted by a cunning and crafty enemy that studied our tactics and learned how to defeat them. I did want to actually stick to my original concept for this, to try to make some observations on how the public responded to the events, and how it changed their view of the CF.

Many Canadians held a sort of romanticized view of the Canadian Peacekeeper – a UN Blue Beret-sporting friendly sort of armed Boy Scout off to try to save the world in various places, standing between disputing parties to keep them from fighting. Canada basically invented the concept in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the idea of a neutral party keeping to sides in a conflict who genuinely wanted peace apart while they learned to trust each other. Canadians patrolled the divided island of Cyprus for many years in this role, among other places. A TV commercial, a “Heritage Moment”, played up this cultural myth. When the world watched the horror of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, it was Canadians in blue helmets who raced off to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to stop the bloodshed there.

However, two black marks would come to influence that view dramatically, the failure of the world community to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and a series of incidents in Somalia in 1993 which overshadowed anything else the Canadian contingent deployed there did – a small number of soldiers from a unit riddled with leadership and discipline problems engaged in some atrocious crimes, then tried to conceal them, which failed. In what one writer (regrettably, I can’t remember his name) referred to as a “great act of self-effacement”, the unit involved, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was disbanded completely, even though most of its members from that era had since moved on. These events certainly cast a pall on the view that many Canadians took of soldiers – in cases they were harassed, even told not to commute to and from work in uniform lest they be recognized according to some stories I’ve heard.

Around the same time, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien came to power and set upon wrestling the great deficit dragon that threatened Canada. When I talk to Americans and Britons about the fiscal challenges their countries face, I am proud to tell them that we went through this before, and it eventually gets better. Chretien began a program of slashing spending, including cashing in the so-called “peace dividend”, downsizing the Canadian Forces and its budget. This came to be referred to by many as the “decade of darkness”, a phrase made most popular by the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who made it public. Through the 1990s, bases closed, including the mass movement of 1 RCR from London, Ontario to Petawawa, Ontario, and the closure of Canadian bases in Europe. Little was invested in training or equipment.

The sun began to come out through some unusual circumstances, according to many of the stories I’ve heard – the Red River Floods in Manitoba in 1997 and the Ice Storm in Ontario & Quebec in 1999 were emergencies where Canadian military personnel came out in droves to help communities, and suddenly people began to think more warmly about the military. It was again possible to wear the uniform with pride. It was shortly after this that I, a university student, presented myself at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in the spring of 2000 to apply to join the Reserve. I was sworn in January of 2001 as an infantry Officer Cadet, beginning a journey which would become a defining feature of my adult life.

Prior to 9/11, no one really noticed us much. We were just ordinary people it seemed. After that, particularly when Canada got involved in Afghanistan, people actually started to take a little more notice. We started to actually have people approach us in public to say “thanks” and acknowledge us, people started paying for our coffee at Tim Hortons, things like that – all wonderful gestures, if a little awkward.

If you’re reading this as an American, understand that the sort of “aggressive” flag-waving patriotism and love of the military that you’d consider normal does not generally exist in Canada. Canadians tend to be much more reserved, to the point that we often find the contrast frankly uncomfortable. The attention was a little weird for many people.

Something else happened, though. Something so incredible that no one would have anticipated it, and what made it so amazing is that it emerged from nothing, as just an idea of ordinary people that caught on.

When a Canadian soldier is killed overseas, there is a process followed. The remains are brought to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air force base about 80 miles east of Toronto, which is essentially the air hub for all Canadian Forces operations. From there, they travel to the Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto for the normal processing before the remains are released to the family.

The trip travels along Ontario Highway 401, a major expressway. At some point, when word got out that these funeral corteges were passing by, people started to gather on highway overpasses along the way. Eventually, paramedics and fire departments would park on the overpasses and pay tribute to the fallen as they passed. Every time it happened, the turnout got larger and larger.

My first time seeing this, I had just returned from a course at the Infantry School at CFB Gagetown, a sprawling army base near Fredericton, New Brunswick. My flight home into Toronto’s Pearson Airport was mainly made up of military personnel, most of whom were from the Gagetown based 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, returning to Afghanistan after their mid-tour leave. As I and another reservist were picking up our baggage several people approached us and offered the thank yous which we politely deferred to those headed back to Afghanistan. It was June 23, 2007, and Sgt Christos Karigiannis, Cpl Stephen Bouzane, and Pte Joel Wiebe, killed by a roadside bomb on the 20th, were being brought home. Driving east along Highway 401 home, I noticed the fire trucks on a couple of overpasses, and saw the flags, but I had no idea what I was seeing. Then the cortege passed us coming the other way from Trenton. I suddenly understood.

That night I moved into a new condo we had just bought in Oshawa, not far from the 401, and we made a point of making sure that whenever a family was making the journey down what had come first informally but now legally to be known as the Highway of Heroes, we would be there – to stand, to honour, to bear witness to the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. We would return many times, never in uniform, never drawing any attention to ourselves, just to join the crowds.

It became even more real to me on the morning of December 5, 2008. That morning I received a phone call informing me that a roadside IED had killed three Canadians, including Cpl Mark MacLaren, who at the time was serving with 1 RCR. Mark, or Chinaman as we knew him, previously served in the same Reserve unit as I did. He had also been one of the Crazy Eights wounded during Op MEDUSA on his first Afghan tour, while still a Reservist. He came home and immediately transferred to the Regular Force, returning to Afghanistan two years later.

I had chatted with him on MSN a couple of weeks before, a brief exchange where he told me about an ambush he’d gotten in. Long after his death, we learned that he was to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during that ambush, and subsequently, that along with Captain Goddard, he would be having a new Coast Guard ship named after him as well.

I attended Chinaman’s repatriation the following Monday in Trenton, and after his funeral, attended by some 800 people including many from the community who didn’t know him personally but wanted to pay tribute, we boarded buses for Ottawa and Canada’s National Military Cemetery. Ottawa’s firefighters and the public also lined the streets in the same way as the Highway of Heroes, and I then understood what the sight must be like to the families of the fallen – how much it must mean to them.

Around that time calls went out to for Reserve augmentees for 3 RCR BG’s next rotation. Fresh off the final qualification hurdle I had to jump, I put my name in and started the process to get ready to deploy. Around that time I joined twitter with some grand plan to eventually microblog the experience. Just before the work up training period was to start I learned I wouldn’t be going. Life works that way sometimes, and there were some silver linings to the cloud.

Throughout those times, when things started heating up and the faces of young Canadians lost in Afghanistan became sadly common on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, there was a shift in public opinion, a palpable change in how the military was viewed. At the same time there was much debate – how we got into this war, who put us there, to what end, when would we leave, what was the mission about, etc. Not long after the decision was made to move from Kabul to the relatively more dangerous Kandahar, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was replaced by the Conservative Stephen Harper, and many people came to suggest, completely erroneously, that somehow Harper had changed the nature of the mission or was somehow responsible for the casualties. That simply wasn’t true, and served to cloud any rational discussion for quite a while.

What was clear, though, is that regardless of people’s opinion of the mission, they asked questions and took interest – and they started to treat people in uniform very differently, in a way that made me uncomfortable. I now live in a “military” town so it’s not really a novelty to see someone in uniform, but before moving last winter, it was. I remember walking into a Dairy Queen of all places with a friend, both in uniform, to grab some quick dinner – someone in the drive-thru line paid for our dinner having seen us walk in.

There’s been a lot of war weariness, too, especially as casualties mounted and people didn’t see any sign of progress in the media. From people I know who’ve been and seen progress over multiple tours, I am confident that the picture is nowhere near as grim as some might glean merely from media reports – though it’s often noted that the prospects for really sorting things out there are still not great. Dealing with a tribal population with staggering rates of illiteracy and little in the way of a viable economy in most of the country makes the prospect of building a functioning, unifying state very difficult indeed. Add to that the influence of the drug trade and general corruption, and things look bleaker still. I would hypothesize that a generation of Afghans will need to grow up without war and with education before you’ll see any real progress there, but it is possible when you consider what Afghanistan was like before the Soviet invasion.

In the end, it seems our decision is made – combat operations in Kandahar province will wind up this summer, and we’ll pack up and move back to Kabul, shifting from a combat role to training and development of Afghanistan’s security forces. It will still be a mission fraught with risks, but it will be less taxing on the nation in many ways. However, we now need to look at the situation in the world and decide “what next?”, because there certainly are challenges to face abroad that we can make a difference in.