Our Guns of August

In The Middle East, the Natural World, The Old World, The U.S.A. on September 1, 2014 at 12:20

An army recruiting site in Toronto, August 1914

An army recruiting site in Toronto, August 1914


One hundred years ago last month, Europe began its lurch into the bloody, muddy siege which, after tearing up the landscape and devouring a generation of young men, came to be known as “The Great War.”  That was when “great” meant big, not terrific, mind you. A popular chronicle of that disastrous month came in the early 1960s from American historian Barbara Tuchman, whose “The Guns of August” paints a picture of the step by step progress of 19th Century European nation states into the mire they all met in the 20th Century.

A century full of wonders and horrors followed.  We have seen the fastest evolution of human technology – lightning communications, air travel, assembly lines, short-stalked wheat, inventions capable of feeding, moving and lighting-up a world of billions.  The state of human relations has arguably greatly improved, with a widening aversion to sexism, racism, discrimination against the disabled and the gay. Everyone is richer, although the planet is definitely poorer.  Concurrent to this we have witnessed depravity on a mass scale: from the factory murder of the Holocaust to the machete-wielding madness of Rwanda to the latest depredations of ISIS, and all its fundamentalist Islamic kin.  It was a busy century.

If August 1914 was the real beginning of a weird and new century, the century begun in August 2014 seems worse. Russia has renewed its furtive invasion of the Ukraine, while the West dithers and blithers.  ISIS, having committed the memorable and well-advertised mass murder of little girls and journalists, men and women, boys and old folks, is now beginning to feel the tang of American missile fire but only just.  Unemployment eats the lives of a generation of young Europeans. The awkward and imperfect democracy of Thailand has given way to a stuffy, distinctly anti-democratic military junta – again.  Middle America, overheated and over televised, has accidentally displayed the modern evolution of its suburban police into Army units.  Drought consumes the southwest, while cloud buries the east.  And any observer of the American scene must admit that the country is more brutally divided today than at any moment before or since the Civil War – a cultural schism being aggravated and milked by the dominant strains of political thinking.

Halfway around the world, Israel has just settled its “truce” in Gaza, which consists of sending IDF units back home for a while to eat their mothers’ cooking while Hamas begins to smuggle in new crates of rockets and iPhones.  It is hard to tell if the Hamas strategy (“let’s see how much sympathy we can win by getting our own people killed”) was better than the Israeli strategy (let’s see how many of their buildings we can level before they get tired of shooting rockets at us”). One thing for sure, the anti-Semites aren’t hiding anymore. Meanwhile, Nigerian Islamic terrorists appear free to kidnap girls into slavery. Nearby and worst of all, Ebola speckles West Africa with corpses. The World Health Organization has just fled the scene and the public health strategy appears to be simple: contain it and wait. Whole villages will simply die of it, before – hopefully – the plague runs out of people to kill.

The news of August 2014 was uniquely bad, and unfortunately does not seem to hold the seed of any better news in September. The political classes of almost every country appear trapped in their own brain-cauterizing ideologies: whether it’s fascistic pan-Russian expansionism, murkily pacifistic Obamaism or turgid Euro-timidity, who do you trust?  When the Arab nations buddying-up to Israel seem like the most astute among us, how bad have things become?  Who do you look to with any confidence that he or she “gets” anything right at all, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel (unless you’re Southern European)?  Even the people who run Apple don’t seem infallible anymore.

It has been my belief for a long time that the progress of human civilization has met, and will continue to meet, a countervailing force of resistance and backwardness. We build our houses on the beach and hold back the sea. Without comparing them in terms of moral offensiveness, there is a fundamental (pun intended) similarity among certain belief systems surging forward: Islamicism, exemplified by the Hamas and ISIS death worshippers; the widespread stupidity of people who desperately deny the obvious (climate change, the public health menace of guns in America, etc) and the widespread belief in the ridiculous (GMO food conspiracy theories, immunization = autism, etc). It may be that the world is so bad that people naturally reach out to their God, the supernatural or their native prejudices to cope, but more likely the world is so bad because they’re doing that.

We have all enjoyed peace at the price of someone else’s life: a soldier, a cop, a diplomat, a good neighbour – each has put his or her life on a line for us at some point, so that we can sleep soundly behind that line.  Many people like to believe that violence and force in human affairs is somehow evil or wrong.  They may be right about that, but violence and force are also inevitable: there have always been and always will be people out there ready to imprison or enslave you, your daughter or your wife, to saw your head off and to dance on your grave.  Your home, however pretty and serene, is surrounded by an invisible fence of people you pay to keep it quiet.  The only question is whether you are protected by the people who have the most force and the greatest capacity and willingness to commit violence to preserve your way of life.  In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st, the West has amassed an array of weaponry and economic clout so titanic that the enemies of this civilization have been held at bay.  That clout seems to be ebbing and with it, our peace. Again, this is not to advocate violence but rather, as with the weather, not to pretend it is not a reality in our lives.

But it is precisely at such a moment that Barbara Tuchman (she of the “Guns of August) offers a little wisdom to cling to. The author found that the more we talk about bad things, the more we  believe in their ubiquity despite the actual evidence.  Being famous enough to coin her own aphorisms, she came up with the modestly named “Tuchman’s Law” which, she said, could be summed up as follows:

“The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”

Tuchman said that over half a century ago, when the reporting of news was confined to print, radio and television – media which were all “mediated” by professional or semi-professional castes of communicators, filtering events through perspectives wrought by knowledge, prejudice, self-interest and expertise.  We aren’t living on that planet anymore.  Today, there is no filter but one’s own capacity to stop listening and/or to think.  In a world where everything is reported a thousand times, by a million sources, all day and all night long all the way around the world and back, the din of “deplorable developments” seems like the sea itself, washing away all our sand castles in a deafening roar.

So I take slender comfort from the notion that it is the sheer volume of bad news, repeated in a bottomless echo chamber and reflected in a house of mirrors, that has me feeling like things are really, really bad.  Maybe they aren’t so bad.  Maybe this is just another September 1st.  Under a sky of cloud and blue, the safe and contented citizens of my city – like those in your city – wander down the sidewalks, crowd in cafes, mow their lawns, scratch their cats’ chins and stare at their phones.  Half have ear buds in and the other half look a little lost.  There is laughter, there is mourning, there is someone listening to the new Taylor Swift song. Old couples carry their bags home through the park. The shadows are short in the mid-day sun, the girls’ shorts are shorter, Labrador retrievers plod with their heads down in the heat and blind daters keep the chatter going as long as they can.  Just another Labour Day.

Here where I live, we are still at peace.  What is uncertain is whether it is the peace we have long believed we were living in, or whether it is something else that we don’t recognize yet.


Nelson Mandela and Pieces of the True Cross Redux

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2014 at 10:15
Nelson Mandella and Pieces of the True Cross

Nelson Mandella and Pieces of the True Cross

(first published April 6, 2014)

Years ago someone came back from Germany and gave me a chunk of concrete: a piece of the Berlin Wall, they said.  I held it in my hand and wanted to believe that this was more than just a grey lump of cement; that it was part of the terrible iron curtain that split the world in half.  The wall that had been torn down, giving birth to a new age.

This has gone on for centuries as churches and hucksters have displayed – or sold – splinters of wood they said were “pieces of the True Cross.”  The gullible believed it and, by sinking their fortunes and their faith in shards of lumber, they made these artifacts into what they were imagined to be.

So too with words.  Abraham Lincoln was a voluble man, but it is hard to believe that he uttered every great quotation ascribed to him.  Lincoln’s former law partner and later biographer, Herndon, likely embellished the record a little while burnishing Abe’s claim to sainthood.  It worked.  When you see that thing on Facebook, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet – Abraham Lincoln” it’s not only funny in what it says about the internet, but about how we magnify our heroes’ glory.  Lincoln’s words are splinters of the True Cross.

Nelson Mandela is now undergoing this treatment.  I don’t doubt that he was wise and well-spoken. Mandela was, in fact, an almost super-human example of restraint and humanity. But the world’s natural love and regard for him inevitably imbues the man’s memory with a certain glow.  He was heroic, one of the true moral titans of the 20th Century.  If you tell me he said something, I will want to believe it.

There circulates a list of quotations ascribed to Mr. Mandela.  Did he say them all, as they are written?   I don’t know.  But being uncertain of their origin does not denude them of their power, nor of their authenticity.  Authenticity is not just based on origins, but also on significance.

A long-lost friend once sent me the list, saying that this was most meaningful to her:

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”

I wrote back to say that I too, took those words most to heart.  Because, like my piece of the Berlin Wall, I want those words to be true.

What is also true – perhaps more true – is that we do “settle for a lesser life.”  We do “play small.”  Maybe because we don’t trust ourselves with passion.  Maybe because we don’t feel worthy of a greater life.  Maybe because we don’t really know, just how much more we are capable of.

That is the great and terrible gulf, the Grand Canyon inside us: not knowing who we truly are or what we might accomplish.  The  gap that love can bridge.  I wrote in “The Big Equal Sign:”

quote wide Big Equal Sign

Yes, I do think that.  I think one of the largest parts of love, is knowing in our bones, the beauty and potential inside someone, even if they can’t feel it themselves.  Especially when they can’t feel it.  And the worst loneliness comes, when no one is there to show us what we cannot see in ourselves.

Nelson Mandela was the most consequential of men, in part because he was willing to become who he was capable of being.  

In the crucible of long captivity, he was forged into something strong yet flexible, resolute yet forgiving. Trapped in a jail cell the most a man can be, perhaps, is full of love and patience.  Once released into the  world, such love and patience are powerful indeed.

If love has any use at all in this world, it may be to show another the greatness in herself, the whole of who he really can be.

Mandela did that, by expecting us to be decent. No more and no less.  Each of us may be little more than a chunk of concrete or a splinter of wood. But look what we might become.

Playing Tennis in Gaza

In The Middle East on July 26, 2014 at 15:09


The Gaza strip is one tenth the size of Long Island, New York.  It is a tiny strip of sandy, rolling country bounded on the west by the Mediterranean, to the east by Israel, to the south by Egypt.  It is densely packed and the local population has one of the world’s highest birth rates.  On a normal day things are not so easy for most Gazans.  And these are not normal days.

It would take a lifetime to disentangle the roots of Gaza’s historical dilemma.  One of the keys to arguing about Gaza, and the West Bank, is where you choose to begin the conversation.  I reflexively begin with the Shoah, the Holocaust of European Jewry in the 1940s and the subsequent United Nations partition of “Palestine” into separate Arab and Jewish states.  That is my starting point because I recognize Israel as part of humanity’s answer and penance for the worse crime of murder ever committed.

That may not be your starting point.  You may go back long enough in time to a moment when Palestine was overwhelmingly Arab in population, the Jews a small minority, in order to illustrate how partition shoved the local populace aside – a classic example of European colonialism, carving up the world for its own purposes and with little regard for the indigenous people.  To this Jews would likely roll their eyes, reminding you that if you want to talk about “local origins” Jewry traces back on this turf for thousands of years – certainly no shorter a time than non-Jews.

We are talking about this again, of course, because some weeks ago Israel initiated a course of bombing and ground invasion in Gaza, with the purpose of stomping out Hamas’ capacity to shoot rockets at Israeli towns.  The results have been crushing for Gazans, perhaps less so for their Hamas masters who are cozied up at luxury hotels in Qatar.  The Israelis undertook the action to defend their people from daily random attempted murder; Hamas continues to pursue that rocket assault, of course, because they are trying to break Israel’s iron grip on travel and shipping into Gaza.  Israel justifies that grip by pointing out that Hamas is blood-curdlingly committed to the slaughter of as many Jews as possible.  Hamas explains that agenda by pointing back to partition, the theft of land and the “ethnic cleansing” committed against Arabs upon the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Which illustrates the problem.  Talking about Gaza and the West Bank, is nothing more or less than a tennis match – the volleying of the ball back as strenuously as possible, over the net.  The purpose of all this is to score points, landing the ball where the opponent cannot touch it, or muffs it.  As in tennis, the harder the shot in my direction, the more likely my return will be harder still – applying the force of my swing against the force of the oncoming argument, I am stronger still.  Unless of course, I blow the shot.

But there is a special magic which distinguishes this debate from tennis: you always win!  This amazing feat is accomplished through an unusual scoring procedure, where only your own points count.  If the pro-Palestinian player fires a blazing rocket across the net (pun intended) it will always score a point (for her), just as my pinpoint accurate bomb will drop precisely where I intend it, knocking out yet another opposing position.  Pun intended again.   I never feel my opponent’s points because I am blind and deaf to them – go ahead, keep firing, they can’t touch me where I’m playing.  Only my points count, because those are the rules I play by.  And that you play by.

And so we see two players on the tennis court, each fiercely batting the ball at a phantom across the net, always scoring, never stopping, never losing, never winning.  If there is a hell, it must be like this tennis game.

Why do we do it?  Because we believe what we think to be true, that’s why.  I believe that Israel is a great and noble thing – a pinnacle of human civilization, actually, wrenching life from dead sand, turning a poor haven into a sparking liberal democratic oasis in the desert.  Israelis have accomplished this in the teeth of relentless hatred from their neighbours, countries distinguished by their brutal, racist, mysoginistic tyrannical governments and lunatic Muslim extreme religious tendencies.  I admire Judaism and I love more Jews than I’ve met Arabs, so my intellectual measure of it is fueled by a deeply personal sentiment.  I believe in Israel.

And although I say that I am open-minded and in fact myself critical of some Israeli policy, as soon as I hear that certain voice, that sneering contempt and sizzling leftist anger percolating up from Palestinian sympathizers, my ears start to seal shut.  And as the rage whips up about Gaza again, and as we see really ugly oozings of anti-Semitic hate bursting like black puss, well, there ends the discussion.  Most pro-Palestinian sympathy may not be race hatred towards Jews, but the fact people can relentlessly assail the only Jewish state, while the women-hating theocratic loons of the Arab world literally get away with murder, well… I start to smell an anti-Semite.

Even before that foul stench reaches my nostrils, the debate is over.  Don’t moan about Palestinian schoolkids dying in UN schools (Hamas put the rockets there, hell Hamas probably blew the place up) or water quality in Gaza or a hundred more dead in the rubble today.  Don’t tell me Israel should let up on the squeeze or the pounding while Hamas plots the massacre of more Jewish kids.  Oh and yes, the death toll is worse in Gaza, but that’s only because Hamas is so lousy at its genocidal mission; if they had the talent or weapons, what do you think Hamas would have done to Tel Aviv by now?

Irritated yet?  If you’re sympathetic to Palestine and angry at Israel for its brutal assault on a densely-packed strip of land, you will not be pleased by what sounds like my cavalier and glib discounting of the lives and hopes and dreams trapped in Gaza.  I am not pleased by it either.  War is hell and this is war.  I am not unhappy that Israel is winning the fight – I very much want them to win the fight, finally and forever if such a thing were possible.  Which it isn’t, of course. But I too am irritated at my own deliberate deafness, my own pounding of the tennis ball, my scoring of points, my ignoring of your points.  It is boring. It is, indeed, a kind of hell (not as hellish as Gaza, or as hellish as missiles raining down on Israeli villages, of course).

I have no answer for Gaza that a million other Israeli and Palestinian people don’t already know: they have to find a way to live with each other.  Two states or one, the formula and mechanics of governance are in fact far less important than the will to live itself.   We have witnessed these religious and ethnic conflicts over and over – they are about real estate, but the only reason they are about real estate is that it’s easy to see what you want when it involves a piece of land.  Land is the excuse and the fuel, but not the purpose.  The purpose of the fight is to perpetuate the fight, to remain enraged, to remain alert.

Israel was born out of the near-extinction of the Jews.  Anyone who expects Israelis to surrender or to grow fat and lazy and complacent, well, they haven’t been paying attention.  Israelis are drinking too much coffee to ever get rolled like that.  Being threatened, waiting for the next insult or assault, is the only rational stance a Jew in this world can take.  The awful irony is that Israel, which was supposed to be a safe haven for Jews (and it is) has become the haters’ excuse to gin-up race hatred against the Jews all over again.  That’s not Israel’s fault, it’s just true.

Meanwhile in Gaza, the Palestinians go through another cycle of being and becoming what they are: wounded, crushed, humiliated, enraged and victimized.  They’re hostages of their own leadership and imprisoned by their wary (often hostile) neighbours.  They are a living mass of grievance and grudge, a spore that is fed and re-fed by the cycles of pointless violence initiated by Palestinians and initiated against Palestinians.  A recent opinion poll of Palestinians reports that a large majority just want peace – to recognize Israel, to stop firing rockets, to establish open borders and a real economy, to get past the mental illness personified by Hamas and the four year olds strapped into suicide bomb vests.  Of course that poll was in June, before the bombing started.  One suspects opinions may have shifted as apartment buildings have crashed down on teenaged girls. Who could be surprised if they line up behind the very idiots who got them here? It’s not Palestine’s fault, it’s just true.

I can upset you about the Middle East.  You can upset me.  That’s because I’m right and you’re wrong (see how much fun this is!  I’m right and you’re wrong! Or is it the other way around?)  Make a good point and what will I do?  Hit it back at you, harder.  And then crouch like a tiger, waiting for your shot back.

How many people really hate the Jews?  How many really think Israel is a monstrous place?  (Too many, yes).  Given that it’s the only country in the Middle East you would likely ever choose to live in, or want your daughter to grow up in, no matter how brutal and disfiguring the attack on Gaza, Israel is still more like your own home and more friendly to your values than anywhere else in that part of the world.

How many really hate the Arabs?  Too many, but how many?  I know I don’t, although I hate what the Arab states have done to (and with) the Palestinians.  And I also hate what this whole thing is doing to Israel, how it is making peace impossible within the state or on its edges.  And I hate the gruesome suffering of the people of Gaza, where a young woman becomes a doctor and has to use her skills mending the wounds of war, where a young man works in a cafe and can only watch his days and weeks and years drain away in hopeless poverty, pockmarked with angry outbursts. Where kids grow up with an enemy instead of hope.

Why are we talking about Gaza?  In part, because some people do natively distrust or hate the Jews, or just hate Israel because they see it as a client state of the U.S.A.  In part, because Israel is actually more like home – it is a western country embedded in unfriendly territory – and witnessing a country like ours demolish its neighbour, again, is weird and discomfiting.  Some of us talk about Gaza because we believe Israel is the point of the spear of western civilization, and that if it is allowed to go, that will mark another step down in the descent of man towards a new barbarism.  Some of us talk about Gaza because we are appalled at a captive people being imprisoned and pummeled.

I am more likely to blame Hamas than Israel (of course, that’s the result of my analysis of the situation).  But whether I am right or someone with a polar opposite point of view is right, is in fact, totally useless as the basis for solving the problem.  The problem is the back and forth, the slinging of missiles and bombs and invective and hostility.  We can see why it is happening, we can forgive our own soldiers and blame the other side’s terrorists, as we see them, but that’s not going to get the taps running in Gaza or teach a kid it is wrong to blow himself up in a pizza parlour to slay some Jews.

What has happened in Gaza – the ascent of Hamas, its rockets, its tunnels, its corruption, the despair of its people, its economic isolation and imprisonment behind Israeli walls and weapons, is a colossal and epic failure of the civilized world.  The fact that some of it is self-inflicted is no longer really relevant, except to the extent that instinct restrains Palestinians from taking a new path.  But what path is that exactly, in their hostage state?

If we want to find blame, all we have to do is choose where to start the argument, and start talking. If we want to find a way out, we have to forget about where it all started, and look at where we are.  The Jews are never leaving. The Palestinians are never leaving,  They two will slaughter each other, if necessary, to protect themselves.  They are proxies for opposing ideologies – democratic liberalism on the one side, theocratic fundamental Islam on the other. Or for European colonialism and indigenous rights, if that’s your take.  But while that allows us to identify with one or the other, it does not save Israelis from the misery of living with warrior neighbours or the Palestinians from living in a permanent half-twilight of poverty and capture.

Again, it does not matter when it started.  It only matters if enough people want it to stop.  The tennis game of argument, like the tennis game of rockets and bombs, is the easiest game to play.  You never win, but you don’t have to win.  You just have to keep scoring points.  You don’t think you’re losing, but that’s all you do in this game. But I’m tired of it, aren’t you?  You and I, settled safely in front of our laptops with a coffee in hand, are not in danger from the rockets.  We are in danger from each other,and from ourselves – we are in danger of making ourselves stupider and more estranged, less sensitive and less human, by virtue of our reactions to each other.  We cannot end the war or the intractable problem.  We can only end our part in the endless dead-end argument about it and, in so doing, nudge the conversation in some kind of other direction.  Not a “win” for either side, but a whole new game.

What we have to do – what you have to do and what I have to do – is try to find the courage not to keep making those really good points.





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