Harper and the taste for war

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In this skill-testing exercise, see if you can spot the one who doesn't belong:

-  Patrick Brazeau

-  Mike Duffy

-  Douglas Roche

-  Pamela Wallin

Long-time Ottawa observers will have figured out that Douglas Roche is the one least likely to appear in an RCMP line-up. Certainly he has few of the behavioural traits we've come to associate with Conservative senators (even though he was one from 1998 to 2004).

A Progressive Conservative MP from Alberta and Canada's Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN before being appointed to the Senate, Roche has spent decades championing nuclear disarmament, peace and social justice -- causes that have fallen by the wayside in our current rush to celebrate greed and cheer on military intervention.

Launching his 21st book this week, Roche is a striking reminder of the gulf between the old Progressive Conservative Party that, at its best, found room for truly public-spirited individuals, and Stephen Harper's soulless new version.

Roche is also a reminder of how far the Harperites have gone in replacing the always-hesitant embrace of peace with a full-throttle keenness for war. In his current saber-rattling over Ukraine, Harper has joined American neo-cons in comparing Vladimir Putin to Hitler, even as the West props up a government in Kyiv tainted by neo-Nazis.

In the lonely world of the peace activist -- a person about as warmly received these days as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman -- Roche has done yeoman's service. His latest book, Peacemakers: How People Around the World are Building a World Free of War, raises a question that deserves to be moved to the front burner: why couldn't war become an outmoded method of conflict resolution?

This intriguing question has spawned something of a grassroots international movement -- with offshoots in Canada -- that seeks to undermine the notion that war is inevitable.

In 2011, NDP MP Alex Atamanenko introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons, seconded by Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, calling for the creation of a federal Department of Peace, with a seat at the Cabinet table.

Of course, it's hard to imagine a Minister of Peace at the Harper Cabinet table doing more than fetching coffee.

A Department of Peace may sound squishy and sentimental, but it's actually a deeply subversive idea aimed at challenging the dominance of the military-industrial-academic complex.

It's not based on any romantic notion about the possibilities of human improvement -- but rather on the notion that human behaviour is highly influenced by what society considers legitimate (and therefore legal) at any given time.

Gentlemen no longer duel, for instance. But for centuries they did. As Alexander Hamilton prepared for his famous 1804 duel with U.S. vice-president Aaron Burr, he wrote in his diary how much he disapproved of duelling, but felt obliged to participate because people would look down on him otherwise.

The lack of duelling today doesn't mean that men have evolved into more sensitive beings, just that society regards duelling as unacceptable and outdated. Aggression is now channelled into contemporary practices like corporate takeovers or derivatives trading.

Slavery is another custom -- widely practiced for centuries -- that is now considered illegitimate. People aren't any nicer than they were in the pre-Civil War South, but they'd be embarrassed to be caught keeping slaves.

Like slavery, war is an institution with a large infrastructure that requires social approval and support.

Western Europe shows what happens when that social approval is withdrawn. After centuries of constantly warring with each other, the people of western Europe, profoundly shaken by the bloodbath of World War II, withdrew their tolerance for war as a means of solving their differences.

Today, a German politician advocating war against France (or vice versa) would be regarded as unsophisticated, unbalanced, even loopy.

Under Harper, Ottawa has shown an enthusiasm for the institution of war, making something of a fetish out of celebrating Canada's war history, pumping up our military spending and no longer even feigning an appreciation of peace. Our troop contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, already on the decline under the Liberals, have plummeted to 53rd in the world, in between Paraguay and Slovakia.

And although the Harper government appears reluctant to proceed with the controversial F-35 fighter jet purchase before the next election, its taste for all-out war is evident in its assertion that Canada will need a plane capable of leading "a major international operation for an extended period" where "state on state war fighting will require the conduct of the full spectrum of operational capabilities in a joint coalition."

Such enthusiasm for war may someday look as outdated as two derivatives traders duelling on the floor of the stock exchange -- or a bunch of unelected senators sitting around a plush red chamber passing laws. 

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star and author of seven bestsellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics

Photo: Ottawa Peacekeepers Memorial. Credit: Bob Linsdell/flickr

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