White poppies. Sometimes something rings a little bell amid the gloom, like a bird singing after a catastrophe, or a light in a raging storm. It’s a symbol of peace, first introduced in Britain by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1936. The notion that hope for peace might live, however, is apparently so outlandish that the symbol is little known and only makes rare appearances, as it did in P.E.I. this Remembrance Day, and always seems to upset someone.
To even think about the remote chance of peace worldwide, and a world order that encourages it, is also to reflect on how relentlessly militarized our entire reality is becoming, in the continuation of the nuclear arsenals (128,000 nuclear bombs built since the Second World War), the militarization of space, the destructive arms trade in the Third World.
And yet, in Canada, polls show the public wants Canada to put peacekeeping above war-making. One such poll a few weeks ago led the Globe and Mail to worry about how war is going to be “sold” to a public with such troubling attitudes in future.
These wars, obviously, will be absolutely necessary. Gussied up with its new look and a new, harder attitude, the Globe had a front-page editorial entitled “Using our military muscle” warning against reverting to a “romantic Pearsonian ideal” and concluding: “Canada’s interests are global. Let us take full advantage of our military strength — and quite literally choose our battles.”
Which might sound like: Let’s follow the U.S. into any fetid swamp as soon as the Republicans get back in office.
As we agonize over our role in Afghanistan, it’s important to remember how this mess was created to begin with.
When the Bush/Cheney Republicans came to office, they had a plan from right-wing think tanks entitled the Project for the New American Century to impose American military power on the world and let constitutional niceties go hang, but which its authors admitted could not be “sold” to the U.S. public except during a time of deep crisis.
September 11 was that opportunity. The attack was directed out of Afghanistan, which was invaded, and the Taliban easily overthrown. OK so far.
But this wasn’t enough for the war plan. Iraq was invaded under a false pretext. Afghanistan became the “forgotten war” for a half-dozen years in the shadow of the Iraqi debacle, and was assumed to be under control despite warnings from various quarters. Meanwhile, roadside bombs and other insurgent techniques developed in Iraq were being exported to Afghanistan, and Islamic radicalism was invigorated by the invasion of Iraq, as even the Pentagon admitted with alarm in several reports.
By the time the forgotten war reached the front pages again some three years ago, it was too late — the Taliban had risen from the dead, and here we are. It’s painful to recall the opportunity that was squandered.
After 9-11, the entire world was deeply shocked — even Iran condemned the attacks — and was prepared to join in squelching this plague. The moral abomination that was the invasion of Iraq without just cause killed the sympathy and started a new plague. Since then, virtually every victory against terrorism has been as the result of internationally co-ordinated police action. Military action has just riled it up more.
I’m re-reading my histories of civilizations. I’m on a chapter entitled “The Suicidalness of Militarism” in Arnold Toynbee’s great work, A Study of History. It’s a litany of the destructiveness of war-mongering through the ages — human, moral, economic, societal — in which even total victory eventually leads to the “intoxication of victory,” which brings the winner to think himself invincible and he starts picking the fights that will eventually bring him down.
For our friend and leader next door, where trillion-dollar military budgets are already ruinous, that’s two wars without just cause since the total victory of the Second World War — Vietnam and Iraq — and the reinvigorated militarists want to start a new one in Iran, not to mention block ratification of a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty in the Congress.
Meanwhile in Canada, where our military budget has risen by some 40 per cent in 10 years, we propose to buy new jets at unprecedented cost without being able to explain what they’re for, among other expenses that sometimes seem designed for the convenience of the military-industrial complex rather than in any national or international interest.
As for our role in Afghanistan, I for one never believed for a minute that we’d be leaving cold in 2011 unless the Americans did too. With a military policy in lockstep with the U.S., the pressure along diplomatic channels is no doubt ferocious, with future military contracts in play, and the U.S. now desperate not to be standing alone in a no-win situation. The fact that they — and we — are in a no-win situation is the result of the bungling militarism of the Bush/Cheney regime.
Our role now is to help the Americans get their foot — and ours as well — out of a trap of their own making while keeping up the hope that all is not lost, having sacrificed so much in blood and treasure. And how many times has that very psychology played itself out in history, with the lesson still remaining unlearned?
White poppies, indeed.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.