Category Archives: War

Seeking out Violence

 

Ever since October 7, 2023, the war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel has been in the news. It started with the brutal acts on civilians in Israel by Hamas. Israeli men, women, and children were raped, killed, and tortured beyond any semblance of morality or right. Hamas  claimed to be acting in defence but they broadcast the horrors they committed. They were proud of what they had done.

I recognize that the people of Gaza y have been victims of brutal subjugation by Israel for decades during which time they have made the life of Palestinians a version of hell on earth.  The actions of Israel at least since Netanyahu was elected have made it clear that Israel had no intent to negotiate in good faith an end to their occupation. That did not leave Palestinians with many good options. Yet, even such horrific treatment did not justify the actions taken by Hamas.  But it was always just a question of time before it exploded.

 

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza recently made it clear what he intends: He said, “each Palestinian will take a knife to stab Israelis.”  He made it clear that he wanted to elicit a massive military response from Israel that would turn the world against Israel.  It did not matter how brutal his killers were. He did all these things he said, because he wanted Israel to be destroyed. The goal of the destruction of Israel justified all pain and violence without end. With enemies like that, Israel will have a hard time making peace, or believing in any peace that appears to be achieved.

Frankly, it difficult to find someone to support in this battle. But Canada like the United States,  has chosen to back Israel in this fight. I am not sure that makes any sense.

 

Wisdom from an old philosopher John Rawls

 

What is morally justified in War? What is not justified? How does all of this apply to the conflict between Israel and Hamas?

American Senator Lindsey Graham said Israel is justified in doing whatever it wants to do in response to the surprise attack by Hamas. That is an extreme view. He is an extremist. Such views though are common in Israel and the United States. Most of us would say there are limits to what the defending state can do, even in war, and even in a justified war. What are those limits? Unlimited war may unleash unlimited consequences that just are not justified in the combat. War is nothing if it is not complex. War is never simple. And that is why war requires careful thinking, at least when one had time to do the thinking this requires. I acknowledge that there are moments in the heat of battle where this might not be possible.

John Rawls, one of the greatest of America’s political philosophers was given a very difficult task. Fifty years after the event, he was asked to evaluate whether or not the United States was morally justified in dropping an atomic bomb in World II against Japan after it had been attacked by Japan.  Such a bomb would cause massive civilian deaths. But it might prevent massive death on his side. And he had to be impartial. He could not be blinded by bias or hatred or a desire for revenge. What means did the ends justify?  That was the difficult question Rawls tried to answer. Just like it is a difficult question to say what is Israel justified in doing after a horrific surprise attack by Hamas. I just don’t think Lindsay Graham could be right.

Rawls had some interesting things to say on this complicated subject. To begin, he had the benefit of hind sight. He wrote about it 50 years after the fact in 1995.  This is what he said: “I believe that both the fire-bombing of Japanese cities beginning in the spring of 1945 and the later atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 were very great wrongs, and rightly seen as such.”

 

Why did he say that? He began by pointing out the obvious—namely, that democracies are different from totalitarian states such as Russia, or Nazi Germany. He did not get to experience Hamas or ISIS. The authoritarian countries don’t go by the rules of war. Anything goes. Like Lindsey Graham on steroids.

Rawls pointed out this:

 

“These peoples have different ends of war than nondemocratic, especially totalitarian, states, such as Germany and Japan, which sought the domination and exploitation of subjected peoples, and in Germany’s case, their enslavement if not extermination.”

 

And that is quite important. The democratic governments have entirely different goals. They don’t seek enslavement or extermination. So democracies can’t go where the totalitarian states go. They would ruin themselves in the process.

The goals of democratic states are different so their goals must be achieved by different methods. Here Rawls made another very important point: “The aim of a just war waged by a decent democratic society is a just and lasting peace between peoples, especially with its present enemy.” You can’t ruin your enemy, even if you think he deserves it because of what he did to you, because after the war is over, you want to have a lasting peace with him. In my view, both Hamas and Israel have forgotten this. Hamas probably does not care. It is not a democratic state, so it may not have this goal. Israel, if it is a democracy,  must have this goal. If it doesn’t Israel is not a democratic state either. That I think would be Rawls’ view.

Rawls was talking about Japan when he wrote this, but I would submit it would be just as relevant to Hamas which is much farther away from a democracy than Hamas is:

 

In the conduct of war, a democratic society must carefully distinguish three groups: the state’s leaders and officials, its soldiers, and its civilian population. The reason for these distinctions rests on the principle of responsibility: since the state fought against is not democratic, the civilian members of the society cannot be those who organized and brought on the war. This was done by its leaders and officials assisted by other elites who control and staff the state apparatus. They are responsible, they willed the war, and for doing that, they are criminals. But civilians, often kept in ignorance and swayed by state propaganda, are not. And this is so even if some civilians knew better and were enthusiastic for the war. In a nation’s conduct of war many such marginal cases may exist, but they are irrelevant. As for soldiers, they, just as civilians, and leaving aside the upper ranks of an officer class, are not responsible for the war, but are conscripted or in other ways forced into it, their patriotism often cruelly and cynically exploited. The grounds on which they may be attacked directly are not that they are responsible for the war but that a democratic people cannot defend itself in any other way, and defend itself it must do. About this there is no choice.”

 

Here, Israel has a tough job. Some would say it has an impossible task. It is fighting an enemy—Hamas—which uses civilians to protect itself. It builds tunnels underneath or next to hospitals to make it difficult or rather, impossible, for Israel to eliminate it without eliminating massive numbers of civilians and hence losing a lot of its support from other nations. But, as Rawls said, we must always recognize and then remember, that the leaders are not the same as the foot soldiers or civilians. That burden is then thrown on the victim of the aggression.

I will continue this analysis in the next post.

The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine

 

When the war between Hamas and Israel began I decided I must read a book about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  I read such a book quite a few years ago. I certainly needed a refresher. The read certainly was not refreshing however.

As a result, I read the book, The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine by Michael Scott-Baumann. From the blurbs on the cover it seemed to be an impartial view of that conflict. I think I made a good choice. Its a very good book.

What have I learned as a result of reading that book?  One main thing has become absolutely clear to me. That is that I have no idea who started the war or who started the current conflict either for that matter. So I had not learned who is right. But I am sure about one thing I am sure about Iwho is wrong.  Both sides are wrong! And they have been wrong over and over again.

 Mainly, they have been wrong because both sides have repeatedly acquiesced with what their extremists are doing in their name. And the result of that is clear. Turning over “your side” to your extremists is so ensure that peace has no chance. You can’t give peace a chance when you turn your case over to the extremists. And the same goes for the other side. No moderation; no peace. The extremists will make sure of that. Over and over again it seems that is exactly what they extremists want.

And if no side is right then the Buffalo Springfield are right when they sang:

 

“There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”

 

Lawyers in War

 

One day I was a law conference. I don’t remember anything about it anymore, but I do remember what happened at lunch.  I was having lunch with a round table of about 6 lawyers. A young woman was sitting next to me wearing a Canadian military uniform. This was interesting, I thought. I was right.

I asked her what type of law she practiced in the military. I didn’t have a clue. “Well,” she said, “My job is to advise soldiers in the field.”  “In the field?” I asked. “How do you do that?’

She was advising Canadian soldiers in the Iraq war. Then she explained that any time a group of soldiers went on a sortie it was her job to be available in case they phoned and needed legal advice. I was shocked. Shows you how naive I was.  She said for every mission soldiers had to be able to phone someone, like her , to give them legal advice about what they could and could not do on the ground in the heat of battle. She would have to be available to the phone for as long as the operation was active. For example, she told me, they might ask something like this: “We are in this town in Afghanistan with 6 soldiers.  We see at the end of the block a school.  Next to it are 3 heavily-armed Afghan soldiers.  They are looking our way. They see us. It looks like they might shoot at us at any time. “Can we shoot at them?”  “Do we have to wait for them to shoot first?”  What about the school, it is likely filled with students. Does that matter? Can we shoot at them? Help me!

Then it was her job to give them legal advice. On the spot in the heat of battle! She couldn’t wait for someone to research the law. She had to advise on the basis of minimal facts and then had to do this fast before they got shot. And these were all life and death decisions. Either for the Canadian soldiers or “the enemy.”

I know that every country has lawyers in war that are called upon to help the soldiers in their killing business.

Wow!  This sure beat my job of practicing law in a small city in Manitoba. I might send money out to pay a mortgage. Or prepare a will and power of attorney. Boring stuff. Not really. I never had a boring day at work in nearly 50 years of practicing law. But I never had anything as exciting as this young lawyer. That was really a life-or-death situation for them. Not for her, but for them and the laws of war are tricky.  I know very little about the laws of war.

I have been thinking of her now as there is so much controversy in Gaza about Israelis attacking. Are they following the rules of war?

I suppose Israel has lawyers like that. I can’t imagine giving legal advice under such circumstance.

Was is not how it used to be.

 

Is Civil War in the US possible?

One of the two respected jurists William S. Cohen who wrote about the disappointing actions of Republicans complaining about the Justice Department warrants at Donald Trump’s home, is a former secretary of defense and former Republican senator from Maine who was such a moderate Republican that he served as Secretary of Defence in the Democrat Clinton administration. The other, William H. Webster is a former director of the FBI and the CIA and a retired judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. He served under both Democrat and Republican administrations, including that of Donald Trump.  These are not partisans.

 

These men have pointed out that the Republican leaders, disrespect for maintaining law and order is serious, and can have very serious consequences.  They even suggested those actions might lead to Civil War! Remember these are not fringe leftists clamouring about the possibility of Civil War. These are respected lawyers who served both Democrat and Republican administrations in national security matters and they are not alarmists. They remind us that fears and warnings of Civil War are not outlandish, given the conduct of Republican leaders and the former president. They are real possibilities.

 

The opinion of Cohen and Webster was based on their personal experience and also their reading of respecting historian Barbara F. Walter who in her book “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,

 

“Walter raises valid concerns about the United States slipping into a place where civil war is possible. She writes about a netherworld of anocracy — between democracy and autocracy — a breeding ground for political violence, where the grievances and resentments of a large white underclass have greatly increased the potential for civil war.

 

These predictions once sounded like the fever dreams of far-right lunatics who would welcome such a bloody conflict; today, such predictions are coming from responsible voices such as Walter and others who have carefully studied this phenomenon around the world.”

 

 

Please note how Cohen and Webster refer to “these valid concerns” and that such opinions are not “the fever dreams of far-right lunatics.”  These concerns are brought forward by the upper echelons of American jurists and public servants. Again, this is serious stuff and should be taken seriously.

Some people have suggested Merrick and Wray should not have issued and executed the warrants at Mar-a-Lago, because the risk of causing civil unrest, which Trump in fact has been encouraging, again, but these two jurists rightly point out that, “our nation’s senior law enforcer, a man who has an impeccable record of fairness and impartiality as a distinguished jurist, cannot tailor his judgment to accommodate the rage of the lawless.

Genuine believers in the rule of law, like Merrick and Wray, must do their duty, rather than bowing to the reckless cries of lawless insurrectionists and their Republican enablers. There was a time when conservatives were dedicated to law and order. This is not one of those times. If there are no longer many conservatives, the radical left or the radical right will the vacuum.

It’s Dangerous to Believe your own Lies

 

The 2021 remake of the film Nightmare Alley was worth seeing for many reasons. I have blogged about it earlier  (Under the category of Movies), but did not comment on an important theme in the film. The movie is about the carnies in a carnival, and in particular about a conman who has impressive abilities to convince people of lies. He is what used to be called a magician but now we call an illusionist.  Bradley Cooper plays the part of Stanton Carlisle the illusionist.

 

One of the carnies, Molly, tells Stan about her father. She says, “he could charm his way out of anything.”  Stan replies, “A man after my own heart.” That is exactly what Stan is. Until he isn’t. Molly too deceives people into thinking she is being electrocuted. Naturally, they fall in love and Stan promises her, “I’ll give you the world and everything in it.” She should know better, but she falls for that illusion.  The most effective illusions of course are those which you want to be true.  Those illusions are almost impossible to resist. And illusionists take advantage of such desires. Like the illusion that after you die you will go to paradise in heaven. Let’s face it there is not much evidence to support it, but many people want it to be true, so they believe it.

 

In the film, the rich man Ezra badly wants Stan to materialize his dead wife.  He wants it so bad he will believe it. Stan asks Ezra if he thinks he can buy his wife back. Ezra’s answer was this: “Not to be crude. I know I can.” This is the deadly illusion of the rich man who believes he can buy anything.  When Stan says he wants Molly to help him to convince Ezra that his wife has materialized he says to Molly he is just helping Ezra to unburden his guilt: “Far as I can tell, that is what preachers do every Sunday.”

 

At one time Stan rescues the geek who was lying in a puddle dying in the rain. He knocks on a door hoping they will answer and save the geek. But Clem, who “owns” the geeks tells Stan to get out of the rain and join him, telling Stan to quit pretending that he cares about the geek. That is an illusion he suggests.

 

Pete who teaches Stan the art of becoming an effective illusionist warns him that the book he has prepared on those arts is dangerous. That’s why he quit. Pete says, “When a man starts believing his own lies—that he’s got the power—He’s got shut-eye. Because now he believes it’s all true.”

Despite this good advice, Stan eventually starts to believe his own lies.  That is hard to avoid when you are worshipped by adoring fans and your reasoning powers are numbed by the applause. When the illusionist believes he actually has the power to see the future  he is done. Eventually, Stan learns the truth that he has been deceived. Then he is in nightmare alley. He has become the pitiful “poor soul”—i.e. he is the geek.  Stan says, begging to be the geek, “I was born for it.”

Believing one’s own lies is particularly dangerous in times of war or pandemic.

That is exactly what may have happened to Vladimir Putin. Recently U.S. intelligence has reported that Putin has been misinformed by his military advisors about the poor performance of the military.  Would those advisors dare to lie to Putin? Or rather, would they dare not to lie to him? In any event, Putin seems to believe the lies of the Russian propaganda machine. He wants his own lies to be true.  He apparently, doesn’t even realize Russia is suffering grievous economic harms by his war. Does he also believe that Ukrainians are welcoming Russian soldiers as liberators? Does he believe his own lies?  Has he gone down Nightmare Alley? What a poor soul indeed.

 

Truth: The First Casualty of War

 

It is not clear who first said truth is the first casualty of war. What is clear is that whoever said it was a very smart person.  It might have been Samuel Johnson for he was a very wise man and he said, “’Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.‘ (from The Idler, 1758). The second part of that statement is also important—the insidious effect of credulity is very important. Many of us have been conditioned to believe without evidence or reasoning. Critical thinking matters and the abandonment of critical reasoning is vitally important. We learned it in the pandemic and we are learning it again in the war.

Apparently in Russia about 2/3rds of the country support the war against Ukraine. Of course, they do that based on false information. Most of them don’t know the truth. They believe what they are told.

Many people in Canada and the US ask how is it possible that so many Russians believe the propaganda?

Are we any better?  It is estimated that in the US about 1/3rd of the people believe that last presidential election was “stolen” by Joe Biden, despite the fact that there is almost no evidence to support this claim and it flies in the face of any critical thinking. As Ioffe said, “it turns out it is not that difficult to fool people.

I heard a fascinating interview with Russian born American journalist Julia Ioffe who is an acknowledged expert on Russia. She has spent a lot of time there and has friends she can trust and call to find out what is going on now. Her articles have appeared in many respected journals including some of my favourites.

In Russia people have learned that people who ask questions or protest the government actions are often severely punished. Added to that, Russians have suffered a lot of trauma. Over 50 million Russians including Ukrainians, lost their lives in wars, terror campaigns, and pogroms between 1914 and 1945. In the 4 years the Russians fought World War II they lost 15% of their population. This was after waves of political arrests. As a result Russians are among the most cynical and distrusting of all people. This includes Russians who have moved to Canada. I have talked to some of those Russians hers in Manitoba and I understand this.  They have good reason to distrust their governments. That distrust spills over to our governments too.

Ioffe pointed out that we should remember as Ioffe said, “Russians have been living under an ever tightening noose of censorship for 22 years. So, they have been conditioned not to question what they are told.” What excuse do Americans and their Canadian fellow travellers have?

Distrust is dangerous for democracies and standard fare for autocracies.

Near Enough to Catastrophe

 

I was stunned by the video of fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the Ukraine.  I believe this was near to the home of my mother when she was a very young girl emigrating to Canada. Now Russians and Ukrainians were madly fighting to control this site as it housed the largest nuclear reactor in Europe. It was under threat by Russian gunfire and missiles. The first report came from an employee at the plant, who posted on Telegram that Russian forces had fired on the facility and there was “a real threat of nuclear danger at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.”  We were told that the chances of explosion, nuclear meltdown or radioactive release are “low” by Tony Irwin, an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University. I don’t know about you, but when I think of nuclear meltdown, I would want the chances to be non-existent, not low.

 

 

 

International nuclear officials were biting their nails worrying about what would happen but assuring us that the fire was on the perimeter of the site.  The Ukrainian President Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the other hand said all of Europe was at risk. Was he amplifying the danger to put pressure on Europe political leaders to offer more help to Ukraine? Perhaps. Was the Russian attack a case of monstrous recklessness? Absolutely! Did it matter that the prevailing winds from the site are primarily to the east, putting Russians in the greatest danger? Not to Putin. Does Putin care about risks to Russian people? The answer seems obvious.

 

CBC commentator Andrew Coyne opined that the war would amount to a “slaughter” of the Ukrainians. Yet Ukrainians all say–at least those left behind–that Ukraine will never surrender. Meanwhile, Putin says the war is going according to plan. Is this what he planned? He said he wants a new government for Ukraine. This reminded me of statements by the American Vice-President Dick Cheney and his loyal henchman Donald Rumsfeld they wanted regime change in Iraq. Are Russians filled with as much hubris as Americans?

 

Fighting is always reckless. Around a nuclear plant it seems mad.

Everyday life in a War

 

I have learned many things about war since Russia invaded Ukraine. Some sad, some funny, some strange. One of the things that has amazed me is how life in war goes on. It gets twisted, some might say perverted, but life does go on. Not always happily, but people try to make the best of things until they can’t.

 

I saw a photograph of a young Ukrainian couple both wearing army style fatigues.  They made a lovely couple.  They were surrounded by soldiers. They were both members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense forces. They were getting married. In the middle of war! Can you imagine?

 

During television coverage of the Russian War on Ukraine I learned that disease does not stop for war. That certainly applies to infectious diseases, including Covid-19 and others. That can cause a lot of problems in a country in which only 1/3rd of the people are vaccinated. Ukrainians, like people of many countries, but particularly like people in the former Soviet states, don’t trust the state. They have good reason not to trust the those governments that were very economical with the truth. Would you trust such a government that tried to persuade you to inject a foreign substance into your body? That lack of trust has profound consequences for a country like Ukraine, just as it did on a lesser scale for Canada and the United States.

 

During the war hospitals were unsafe places to be found.  We had been assured by the Russians that their missiles and artillery would only target military structures, but soon we noticed they also destroyed hospitals or at least made them dangerous places.  As a result in one hospital in the Ukraine all the expectant mothers were moved to the basement where beds were established with mattresses on the floor. Many were lying in one big room with social distancing impossible. What kind of care do they get there?  Is this worse than Manitoba ICU patients being sent to Ontario? Where are Ukrainian ICU patients? I guess when your city is being bombed who worries about Covid-19, but what about those in hospital that need urgent care?

 

We were all touched by stories of people fleeing the country. They seemed scary. I remember an image of a young mother with her very young child with large bewildered eyes. The child seemed to want to know what was going on. The mother clutched a pet dog to her chest and a small cage for 2 budgies as her child hung on for dear life.  Could you abandon pets during a war?  The husband was left behind to fight. He had no choice. The group was in a massive line-up outside a railway car. They were hoping to get on I, but there were many more people than there were spaces available.

 

Then there were refugees in Poland.  Early on 1,000,000 Ukrainian refugees were struggling with their families in Poland to find places to stay. Thousands crammed in refugee centres with many more outside. The eyes of young women often glazed over with fear, and above all fatigue, from lining up for hours with young children who just don’t know what is happening.  Young men were left behind to fight.  There was a young man who had accompanied his wife and children to the train station helping them leave. You could infer that the family  was in grave doubt about whether or not they would ever see him again.

 

I saw images of an old Ukrainian woman being trained to use a rifle to fend off Russian attackers. How effective will that be?  Yet is it better to do nothing?

 

I saw an interview with a young Canadian man who decided to leave his wife behind in Canada with their 11-month old child so he could go to Ukraine to fight the invaders. Why did he feel compelled to leave his family to go so far to help others? Was he heroic? Or foolish? What makes sense?

 

In one of the already iconic images of this war, we saw an elderly Ukrainian Baba confronting a rifle-toting Russian soldier offering him sunflower seeds for his pockets, so that when he dies on the streets of Ukraine, sunflowers can grow and bloom out of his corpse.  Later in scenes from the Legislature in Winnipeg I saw a poster of a Ukrainian Canadian offering more sunflower seeds for Russia.

 

I saw images of Ukrainian teenagers preparing Molotov Cocktails and camouflage sheets for soldiers. Is that course now added to the school curriculum?

 

There are horrendous images of schools, hospitals, and apartment complexes blasted by Russian shelling. Are these military targets?

 

More than 1 million Ukrainians are now refugees outside the country.  More than 50% of these are children. None of those children asked for this.

 

I saw a video of a young Ukrainian man l playing a John Lennon tune on the piano at the border of Poland and Ukraine.  What a welcome for fleeing refugees.

 

We were told a story about Canadians, and others, booking rooms at Ukrainian B & B’s without hope of ever using them, just to support real life Ukrainians.

 

A Ukrainian man  was seen driving a truck on a highway stopping at a Russian tank that has run out of gasoline when the driver asked him the tank driver if he could tow him back to Russia.

 

But I also saw a photograph of two young Ukrainian children who died on the street, and were covered with a tarp that reminded of my tenting tarp.

 

There was a video of a Ukrainian financial securities expert taking training to operate a rifle. He said,  “It’s my duty.”

 

We were shown old World War I trenches are being resurrected. Who ever thought we would see the return of trench warfare to Europe?

 

One weeping woman in a car with her children cried that her hometown no longer exists. It is just “gone,” she says. The children look perplexed. No, they look dumbfounded.

 

We saw long lines of people on streets fleeing some undescribed danger. Some were carrying weary children. Others carrying pets. How can they do it?

 

Another young woman was trying to reduce the trauma of war for her young children by convincing them that the air raid sirens they heard were a part of a children’s game. There is nothing to fear, she assured them. She was lying of course.  She lied to her children for their own good.

 

 

Old Men should not fan the flames of War

 

First, we should all realize in the democratic west that Ukraine deserves to be supported as it suffers the onslaught of a villainous bully. If the Ukraine wants to fight for freedom, we should support that.

We should remember what Putin has done so far: The Russians under Putin in 2008 invaded Georgia and the Bush Administration did nothing but complain. He invaded Crimea in 2014 and the west under Obama’s leadership again did nothing. Then Putin started a war in the eastern Ukraine that killed 13,000 people again we did nothing. Now he has invaded all of the Ukraine. Is it time to do something? All of this reminds us, as many have already mentioned , of Hitler. Do we want to go there again?

I am not a warmonger. I think the history of warfare does not fill me with confidence that it ever makes sense, though I don’t rule it out absolutely either.  I think we have an awful capacity to screw up wars so that people die. Especially young people and poor people.  Old men, like me, in particular should not fan the flames of war. Yet we must do something effective to stand up to fascist bullies. Trying to appease the bullies  has never worked well.

 

I think we should be smart enough to marshal our allies and right thinking peoples together to effectively lock out the Russian leadership from their ill got gains. Countries are incredibly tied together in modern economies. We must do all that we can to cut the thugs off from their corruptly accumulated wealth and starve the leaders into submission.

We must also deal with the war on truth. In many ways it is as terrible as the  war on the ground. We need to collectively stem the tide of Russian lies.

I just think we are smart enough to do this. I am not so sure that we are smart enough to go to war without causing more harm than we prevent.