Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Remembrance Day: They who question also serve

Every year I try to write a Remembrance Day post (or Veteran’s Day, as it is called here, which I feel gives the whole thing a rather different flavour). They’re generally pompous, except when they’re about buying new baby-manglers , but I’m going to go with informative this time (well, informative and pompous).

I can’t claim to be an expert on the military, nor do I feel comfortable saying Remembrance Day is “about” one thing or another. But I have always felt the emphasis that is placed on honouring those who are “willing to die for their country” is misplaced: it is far more horrifying to me that we ask our soldiers to kill for their countries. Especially if, inevitably, they should end up killing the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.

I’ve only written a couple of articles for The Beaver Canada’s History that touch on military history, but in both I was struck by the essential seriousness of senior military men about what they do, as contrasted with the sometimes flippant way politicians treat their responsibility for the lives of their citizens and of other countries.

For instance, there once was what amounted to a civil war in a country very far away. Canada had no interest there at all, but we were told by allies, who we thought were in a position to know, that our help was needed to combat an internationally coordinated threat that stood in opposition to every freedom we in the West held dear.

Our allies had bad intelligence. We sent our soldiers to a hostile environment, unprepared, under equipped, and essentially asked them to take sides in a conflict in which we did not understand either of the combatants. As a result, we ended up propping up an illegitimate and oppressive government, and contributed to the deaths of untold civilians. The threat, in the end, was less part of an international, anti-Western movement as it was an indigenous uprising.

The threat I am talking about was not terrorism, the country was not Afghanistan. Our troops were not called on to call in airstrikes on weddings. But in 1932, because of a panicky British ambassador in El Salvador who saw Communists behind every lamp-post, the Canadian navy was ended up providing support to a military dictator who took Mussolini as an inspiration, had come to power in a coup only three months before, and was recognized as legitimate nowhere (except, oddly, Norway).

The two Canadian ships had been sent by Canadian politicians who weren’t entirely sure where El Salvador was, and didn’t care to find out. They had been told the country was being overrun by Communists, and they believed it. They were told good English speaking plantation owners – Brits, Americans – were being murdered in their beds, and they believed it. They were told lies.

Victor Brodeur, the Captain with a conscience
Image from: http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo9/no4/23-book5-livre5-eng.asp

The Captain of those ships – a French Canadian called Victor Brodeur – was able to tell them the truth after the fact. He told them the vicious dictator of El Salvador was able, because Canadian vessels were securing his western port, to free up his own troops. Those soldiers were able to massacre 40,000 Pipil natives, essentially wiping out a group that formed the labour force of the British and American owned plantations and that were treated worse than dirt in the country. Venturing out into the countryside (something British ambassador that had demanded military intervention had never done) Brodeur saw that the uprising had consisted of burning some farm buildings – no plantation owners were killed, no infrastructure damaged. Shown the massacre site by some proud and preening Salvadoran generals a few days later, it was revealed that exactly one Communist party membership card was found among the corpses – many of whom were wearing white sheets, now splattered in blood, in the vain hope they would be spared death as non-combatants.

Brodeur, conscious of what his country’s actions had wrought, wrote all of this in his report to Ottawa on his return. There was no follow-up from the politicians that had sent him there, no complaints to Britain, no international censure for El Salvador. However, in an example of the high seriousness of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy that has sadly only been matched since, one far-sighted and noble MP did bravely rise in the House of Commons to complain about the cost of the fuel the ships consumed to get there.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Kool Aid? Don't mind if I do.

I’m not very familiar with Feng Shui, nor do I believe the little I know, but Amynah and I have noticed that certain apartments seem to have effects on how we live and socialize entirely independent of their size, location, and layout.

We’d noticed it in Montreal: in one apartment in the Outremont neighbourhood, Amynah would socialize constantly, and we would frequently go out for evening walks. In another larger apartment one block further away, she never invited anyone over at all.

Of course, we don’t realize the effect our apartment is having on until we leave. Our first apartment in Los Angeles was wonderful: one block from the local park, awesome neighbours in the building, two large bedrooms, hardwood floors, lots of light, close to all sorts of amenities.

While still a lovely place, our new apartment has almost none of those advantages. As an added disincentive to socializing, it comes with free cable.

Yet for some reason, we’ve already had more people over for dinner here in a month than we managed in a year in our previous place, and we’ve resumed our evening walks that had been a part of our routine everywhere else we lived. My theory is that we're trying to maintain a connection with the outside world.

Overall the new place is… nice. It’s run by UCLA for the benefit of those students and post-docs with families, meaning everyone here has the same employer, is in the same life circumstances, and have children roughly the same age. It’s called the University Village but, as it is a controlled access facility surrounded by iron gates and cement walls, I call it the compound. In essence, here we're fish in a heated aquarium, trying not to forget the taste of the ocean.

Behind the metal bars, we all live in a series identical adjoining apartment buildings, distinguished only by the differences in their communal playgrounds. There, children frolic happily throughout the day while parents chat and use the shared barbecues. The numerous flower beds are watered every morning, and everyone smiles and nods at one another as we negotiate our strollers past each other on the well swept walkways.

Many of the residents are internationals, and most of these are Indian or Chinese, most of whom appear to have their grandparents tending the children. In the playground closest to us, there appears to be an informal deal in which the Indian families occupy the facilities for one hour, then the Chinese grannies will arrive and sit and gossip while their descendants play. I’ve not quite figured out where Sana fits into all of this, but all camps seem fairly friendly to us both.

It’s also extremely well organized – there are occasional parties for the kids, there are English lessons for international students, there’s a hard-to-get-into daycare. They look after the details too: for Hallowe’en the residents' committee even circulated signs to every apartment that you could hang by your door to indicate whether you were participating or not.

All of this is so perfectly idyllic that it pushes into creepy territory, leaving us no other conclusion other than that there must be something darker going on under the surface. Amynah is convinced it's a façade masking a pulsating mosrass of sexual tension as in Melrose Place, although the most likely candidates for such hijinks are the various visiting grandparents. For my part, I keep looking around for piles of stones with which the residents express their darker urges a la "The Lottery." As such, I have been very careful not to buy the residents' committee’s raffle tickets.