Category Archives: War

Zone of Interest.



The greatest films and novels are those that change your life. That is the purpose of art.If seeing this film does not change your life, you should quickly make an appointment to see a psychiatrist before it’s too late.

This is the story of blind human indifference to the suffering of others. Not just by Nazis either! It is a story about all of us! It tells the story of an ordinary German family of a Commandant in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.  The family lived on the very edge of Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland.

According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, unlike some of the other German Concentration camps during the Second World War,

“the Auschwitz camp was above all a place of extermination. In other camps, the death rate was lowered from 1943 in an effort to conserve the labor force. In Auschwitz, however, where new transports, mostly of Jews, arrived continuously and kept the camp supplied with labourers, human life never had any great significance.”

As a result, historians estimate that around 1.1 million people perished in Auschwitz during the less than 5 years of its existence. Of course, around 90% of these were Jews and it is estimated that the majority, around 1 million people, were Jews. Coming in a distant second were Poles. 70,000 to 75,000 of those killed were Poles and coming in third were approximately 20,000 Roma.

That are a lot of people who were slaughtered here, but this fact is ignored by nearly everyone in the film. The film is an examination of the way this carnage was ignored while people went about the minutia of their daily lives. The victims did not count.  They were outside the zone of interest. The Germans who lived their lives and tried to establish a civilized life next to the crematoriums were the ones who counted. How is that possible?

The German family of Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) presided over their family home immediately adjacent to the Concentration Camp, from which sounds are emitted from time to time but pleasantly ignored. The Commandant is in charge of a facility in which thousands of people are murdered each week, but he is more engaged by the fact that the locals have insufficient respect for his prized lilacs while Hedwig, his wife, has time mainly for her children and her lovely garden of which she is justifiably proud. Rudolf and Hedwig were like the Lord and Lady of the castle. Hedwig loved it when Rudolf called her “the Queen of Auschwitz.”

The family has no time to give attention to the people being murdered. They don’t see them or hear them. It is as if they are not there. The victims don’t count. Only the Höss family counts. That is as far as their zone of interest stretches.

The Höss family appreciates their privileges but assumes they are natural and fully earned. The film shows how easy it is to take for granted one’s privilege. Privilege slips on as easily and as comfortably as a glove.  The discomfort—and much worse—on the other side of the wall is not allowed to disturb the peace of the Höss family. There is a complete moral vacuum in the family.

Even if you see the smoke from the Crematoriums, as we do from time to time, and even if people are being incinerated, and even if you hear gunshots or snarling guard dogs, you can ignore them and make a comfortable life for yourself and your family. As a result, Hedwig is able to curate carefully the clothes that are available as a result of Jews dying. She takes a fur coat for herself and gives dresses to her staff. She was disappointed that she was outbid by others when she tried to purchase clothes that had belonged to her Jewish neighbour before she was carted off to be transferred to a Concentration Camp—perhaps even Auschwitz itself. Hedwig just tried to create the best life for her and her family. No one else mattered. She was not interested in any one else.

Someone called this a “cerebral” movie. In some ways that is accurate. It makes you think.  But in other ways, it is completely wrong. This is a movie about how people don’t think. They don’t think about those outside their zone of interest.

I was particularly struck by the German officers—including Rudolf Höss—who dispassionately discuss how to improve the efficiency of the killing machine of the camps. They are each eager to make their own camp more efficient thus improving their chances of promotion. The more people are killed the better for the officers. The effect on the camp residents is entirely irrelevant. After all, they are outside the zone of interest.

It is important to remember that the Höss family was just an ordinary German family. Really, they were like families around the world during the war and at other times.  Ordinary people—people like you and I—are often indifferent to the suffering of others. Those victims are outside our zone of interest. How many of us consider how indigenous people on Canadian Indian Reserves live? How many of us worry about how poor African Americans live in American cities? How many ordinary citizens were interested in how slaves lived on American slave plantations? They were all outside the zone of interest.

We can appreciate how the Nazis in the concentration camp were not monsters. They were ordinary people. They were people like us! And this makes the film even more disturbing. Ordinary people could turn themselves with enthusiasm to the task of making the murder of people more efficient. The spouse of the Commandant could cheerfully ignore that a fur coat she coveted was owned by a neighbour. She could feel the injustice of a minor privilege being taken away from her, but could not feel the injustice of an innocent person being murdered right beside her. And the really scary thing is that we would probably be exactly the same in such circumstances. Do any of us have the right to think for one minute that we would have acted differently?  What gives us the right to think that?

I watched an interview with Jonathan Glazer the director of the film on Amanpour and Company.  He pointed out how the significance of the German family beside Auschwitz was that “they were so grotesquely familiar.”  They, like us, were able to compartmentalize the suffering. Those people on the other side of the wall were “them” not “us.” Here on this side of the wall, the family (us), played in the pool, enjoyed the lovely garden while other people (them) were burning on the other side. This raises the question of how this is possible. How can there be such a grotesque disparity between the treatment of us, our family, and the others on the other side of the wall? Why are some lives more important than others?

The victims of the holocaust are never seen in the film. We hear some vague and disturbing sounds but they are invisible. Glazer said enough films had been made showing the victims and how we should empathize with them. He wanted to make a film where, “rather than empathizing with the victims, we have the discomfort of feeling like the perpetrators.”  Our perspective is from the garden side of the wall. As Glazer said, “It is a film not about ‘look at what they did;’ it’s a film about ‘look at what we do.

The only element of hope in the film comes from a 9-year-old girl who lives nearby and fills small packages of food for the prisoners. Glazer actually met that girl, now an old woman, and talked to her. She still lives nearby. She demonstrated the best of humanity.

The deep horror is that the Germans living next to the concentration camp were people just like us. Not monsters at all. Ordinary people. They are us. We are them.

 The film establishes what Hannah Arendt said. Evil is not monstrous. Evil is banal. Evil is every day. Evil is ordinary. Evil is us and we are its cheerful and enthusiastic instruments. And that should scare the hell out of all every one of us. Sadly, our zone of interest is incredibly small. It is so small that we are moral pygmies.

Sometimes there is nothing more scary than us!




I once attended a wedding in which a friend of the groom was making the toast to the bride. He started off his toast by saying he did not really know the bride. That seemed shocking. And mystifying. Why would he deliver the toast? Well, I feel a little like that. I saw the film Oppenheimer a number of months ago before coming to the US. I sheepishly admit that I don’t remember very much about it. So why would I review it? That’s a good question for which I don’t have a good answer.

I do remember a few important things about this film which is favoured to win the Oscar for best Picture this year. This is a fascinating movie made by an acknowledged film genius Christopher Nolan.  The film revolves around American efforts to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans and Russians. This happened before and during World II and before the start of the Cold War with Soviet Russia. The stakes of that competition were as high as they possibly could be. To think the Nazis in Germany might be the first to develop the bomb fills many of us with dread. Both Russia and Germany were totalitarian countries who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. Of course, the same could be said about the United States, the only country to have ever deployed an atomic bomb in war. And they did it twice in Japan. That competition is the background to this fine film. The events are very dramatically presented. As I said, Nolan is a genius too.

Oppenheimer was once asked why he agreed to develop the bomb for the Americans. His answer was interesting: “I don’t know if Americans can be trusted with the atomic bomb, but I do know the Germans can’t.”

Robert Oppenheimer was given the task of directing American efforts to produce an atomic bomb by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). This was not without controversy because he had personal connections with Communists.

In the film there is a fantastic scene in which Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Albert Einstein, (Tom Conti)  the two geniuses, are engaged in an earnest discussion. We don’t know what they are saying to each other. We are too far away and can only wonder. And wonder we do, particularly with one important piece of information we are given.

Oppenheimer met Albert Einstein after getting appointed to head this vital project to develop the bomb as quickly as possible before the Germans or Russians beat them to the punch.  And what a punch! There is some disagreement on what happened, as some have said Einstein later told Oppenheimer about his doubts. Some said they discussed scientific doubts about the project in letters. Some scientists had calculated that there was a big problem with developing such a bomb. Oppenheimer said he had been given a a mathematical formula from one of the scientists which he had not yet fully absorbed. According to the formula which might be true or not, the nuclear reaction that would be triggered by setting the explosion off would not end before the world was destroyed. In other words, even a test might destroy all life on the planet! He wanted to know if Einstein agreed with that conclusion. Einstein said he should check with other scientists.  Oppenheimer actually thought the possibility that this would happen was slight. But think about it, he and his team were willing to press the button that might mean the end of all life on the planet! That was hubris of the highest possible order.

Later, in a flashback, Oppenheimer said that he believed he and his team actually did set off a never-ending chain-reaction. They started a nuclear arms race that is with us today and which today seems much more likely to destroy the world than at any other time in history! Putin has made veiled threats that he would use the atomic bomb if things don’t as planned in the war in Ukraine.

The scenes where the scientists in the plains of New Mexico were getting ready to press the button to possibly end the world, were incredibly exciting. What could be more exciting than that? How could they do it? They might destroy all life. Christiane and I have driven through the desert in New Mexico where those tests were made.  It is a beautiful but desolate area. I will never again be able to go by it without thinking how life on earth might have ended right there. Or might still end as a result of what happened there.

The film also delves into the personal  life of Oppenheimer and his family and associates. He marries Katherine “Kitty” Puening, (Emily Blunt) a biologist and ex-communist and then had an affair with another troubled communist, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). I was struck by Oppenheimer’s coldness to both women. He didn’t seem to really care about either one of them. I thought his attitude to the two women he “loved” mirrored his attitude to other people in general, especially other people in the world who would be, or might be, affected by the decisions he made. In other words, the two women like all of the people in the world might die as a result of his work, but none of these people mattered. He was largely indifferent even though later in life felt keen guilt for what he had done. It seemed to me, that they just did not count, compared to the great man, the great scientist. Like so many geniuses, he counts and his work counts. Nothing else matters.

Later Oppenheimer, though publicly praised for his work, expressed his personal guilt to the American President Harry Truman, who in response told him not to be a cry-baby! What a cold and unthinking reply. Of course, what else should we expect from an American president? The film also goes into some interesting later history where Oppenheimer ran into trouble in the US because of his communist associations. Particularly at that time, but also now, Americans are quick to look under every bed to see if any Communists are hiding there.

The film goes into Oppenheimer’s personal history after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 100,000 and perhaps as many as 200,000 people.  It is understandable to us, even if not to the wooden-headed and wooden-hearted American President Truman, that one might feel a twinge of guilt for playing an important role in the death of so many people. After all, he was “the father of the atomic bomb.” And he had given birth to a monster.

The great French film director, François Truffaut, once said “war films, even pacifist, even the best, willingly or not, glorify war and render it in some way attractive.”  I admit I got a bit of that feeling when we saw the incredible light of the test explosion. It was described in the film as a “terrible beauty.”  We never see the one dropped on the Japanese cities. The film refers to them at most obliquely. But Oppenheimer knew what he had done, even if Truman did not understand. Oppenheimer said, after the first dramatic test, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” I guess he was a cry baby. 

Nolan also understood, that after 1945 too many people came to love the atom bomb. People quickly forget, if they even caught on at all, what they had done. There are many Trumans. Too dull to catch on. Too few Oppenheimers  who think about what they have done.

Is it not true that we—you and I and everyone—have become death. We are not insulated from what is done by our leaders in our name. We too are destroyers of the earth. We are not off the hook. And, even worse, we too are getting ready to kill. Again.


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.