Friday, June 22, 2007

Support the Troop -- withdrawal

“Suspected Taliban militants attacked police posts in southern Afghanistan, triggering clashes and NATO air strikes that killed 25 civilians, a senior police officer said Friday (http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2007/06/22/afghanistan.html.”

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“‘It is not a combat mission; it is a reconstruction mission, but to make [reconstruction] possible, we have to fight. It is as simple as that. NATO has to fight.'—NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2007/06/22/scheffer-quebec-070622.html).”

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“Anti-war activists are planning to protest Friday during a Quebec City parade being held to honour the Royal 22nd Regiment before they ship off to Afghanistan (Sympatico msn News June 22, 2007).”

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The list of Canadian casualties of the war in Afghanistan complete with their photographs can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/afghanistan/casualties/total.html Be prepared to scroll down for quite a while.

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T

he Royal 22nd Regiment is leaving for Afghanistan and the military is hosting a parade of the regiment today to try to boost flagging Quebec support for the war. Quebecois apparently have more difficulty accepting Canada’s role in Afghanistan than do the residents of other provinces. Where have we seen this before? Think back to WWI, WWII, Korean War, for starters.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s Secretary General, said in an interview that now was not the time to debate the whys and why-nots of the war; that it was a time to wish the troops well, etc., etc. That’s a bit like saying that when kissing your family goodbye at the airport, questions of the safety of the airplane would be inappropriate and should be put on hold for another time.

In 1987, I was at a meeting of Quaker, Mennonite and NATO personnel in Brussels and, believe me, NATO people see the world like that. They know all about military strategy, deterrence, mutually-assured destruction, etc., but their eyes glaze over whenever the ethical questions surrounding military conflict are raised. A bit like trying to talk to a professional hockey player about responsible, alternative life styles; if it has nothing to do with pucks and sticks, he probably has no vocabulary to discuss it and furthermore, he just doesn’t give a damn.

I heard one pundit say the other day that our role in Afghanistan was simply an extension of the USA’s decision after 911 to fight terrorism by invading the country that houses them. Was that a good decision? In my view, the attacks of 911 should have been treated as criminal acts, not acts of war. The attack on Afghanistan legitimized al Qaeda; from that moment on, they were a “legitimate” warring party in a conflict with the USA and its allies.

According to de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s role in Afghanistan is not military—it’s reconstructive. If anyone believes that, I would urge that person to avoid used-car lots. NATO is a military, not a reconstruction, organization. We are sending military equipment with our soldiers, not cranes and Bobcats. Our troops are trained in weaponry, not masonry.

One of the protesters at the sendoff for the Royal 22nd Regiment defined the war as a continuing attempt by Western powers to consolidate their control over Middle East petroleum wealth. I think it’s a creditable viewpoint. If the purpose were noble to the degree that de Hoop Scheffer tries to portray it, namely to bring democracy and a better life to Afghanis, why aren’t our soldiers also in Haiti, Kenya, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan or one or more of the dozens of countries around the world where the economic and political realities are a mess, many of them much worse than Afghanistan?

I would urge readers to contact their MP to voice their disapproval of the conflict in Afghanistan. A lasting peace there will only be achieved by the Afghanis themselves, and the sooner we leave, the sooner they may actually realize this. Furthermore, the old adage about a citizenry deserving the government it gets is applicable here. The Taliban will succeed in Afghanistan if the people there allow it; conversely, they will fail if the citizenry rejects them.

It’s not going to be neat, but as in Israel/Palestine, no amount of interference or wishful thinking on our part is going to have the least effect until Israelis and Palestinians start to make nice. So it is in Afghanistan.

Call me na├»ve. There are reports that some really good reconstruction has been happening. I’m prepared to withhold judgment on whether or not we have a role to play in giving aid and assisting in rebuilding. So far, I haven’t seen any good reports on the actual pick and shovel work Canadian forces have done. As long as we are there with NATO and the allies, however, it’s certain that some of our troops will come home in body bags. There’s no defeating sabotage and improvised chaos militarily, and the Taliban are very, very good at it.

To write to your MP, go to http://webinfo.parl.gc.ca/MembersOfParliament/MainMPsCompleteList.aspx?TimePeriod=Current&Language=E

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cruising to Alaska

Dinner on the Norwegian Sun

My wife and I—along with her four siblings and their spouses—just returned from a Vancouver-to-Skagway, Alaska, 6-day cruise. We had a great time with family; the weather, meanwhile refused to cooperate and we spent approximately zero time on deck lounge chairs. The scenery was fantastic and the ride on the White Pass and Yukon Railway was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The food on the cruise was not as great as we remembered it from our previous experience on the Norwegian Sun two years ago, but it was more than adequate and the crew looked after us very well. They’re 900+ from all around the world, with people from the Philippines in the majority. The seas are never that rough on the inside passages, but there were days when a few of us were driven to our cabins for Gravol and an unscheduled lie-down.

I don’t think I’m your average cruise-ship type. I have no interest in the casino, don’t buy jewelery, don’t play bingo and am not that interested in mass dancing lessons. Today’s cruise ships are fantastically comfortable, very large, very well decorated places on which to spend a few days, however, compared for instance to the WWII-vintage Stefan Batory on which my wife and I crossed the Atlantic in 1986. The Vancouver-Skagway cruise attracts primarily retired people with few excesses and we noticed no alcohol abuse, no one was thrown overboard and the partying was all in good taste, as far as we could see.

We filled out an evaluation form before we left the ship, and I registered a few minor complaints. Ships photographers snap people at every opportunity: boarding, on excursions, at dinner, etc. I find that being photographed by a stranger and having my picture posted in the gallery on deck 6 makes me just a tad irritable at times. Some of us also complained that we would just as soon not have waiters offering us drinks every time we sat down. There is a sell, sell, sell mentality on board and on the streets of Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan that characterizes what cruise ships are, after all, about, namely the merchandising of goods to a captive audience at inflated prices. But then, nothing prevents anyone from saying “no,” except one’s own desire to have these things.

I was fascinated by the history of the Alaska Panhandle. The Gold Rush of 1896-8 is the focus of the excursions offered in Skagway, particularly. I bought a pictorial history of that event and read through it as we traveled. The horrendous hardships people were willing to endure to get at the placer gold in the Yukon River area is hard to fathom. It would probably be folly to judge this “lust for gold” by today’s standards, but for me it underlined the human weakness represented by the scrabbling after the apparently easy wealth gold offers—and the modern-day casino attempts to duplicate the gold rush urge. Stories of that era have a great deal to teach us, but when it comes to the temptation to seek easy money, we appear to be slow learners.

The greatest benefit of a cruise, from my limited experience, is that it takes you away from your on-land pursuits and activities quite completely. A change is as good as a rest. Living on the water represents a substantial change so that I’ve found sea voyages “mentally invigorating.” The Alaska cruises in which we’ve participated have also provided us an opportunity to get to know people from around the world—albeit not to any great depth—to hear their stories and to compare them with your own. I find these exchanges tremendously educational to a degree that reading alone can never provide.

There’s always entertainment on a cruise ship. The 800 seat theatre on the Norwegian Sun provides dancers, singers, magicians and comedians twice nightly, and live bands and singers perform in the bars at night. I don’t know what the Norwegian Sun offers on its Caribbean Cruises in the winter time, but on this cruise I found myself getting just a tad tired of the 50s and 60s tone set by the entertainment. I think it was geared to us retirees, but someone forgot that we haven’t been dead since we were young adults.

One question on the evaluation questionnaire asked if we would recommend the cruise to our friends. I think I said “yes” hesitantly. I’m torn between the benefits and the consciousness that cruising is a wasteful, polluting, labour exploitative activity (the Norwegian Sun at full speed burns 40 gallons (151 litres) of diesel fuel per minute; the crew members work at mind-numbing jobs for 10 hours daily with little time off; I don’t know the amounts, but leftover food is dumped at sea in large enough quantities so that whales and dolphins are attracted to the wake of cruise ships). Including the flight to Vancouver, the cost to us was about $220.00 CDN each per day. I’m inclined to imagine how many mosquito nets that could have bought for the fight against malaria in Africa.

It’s a beautiful ship, the Norwegian Sun, and the fjords, islands, mountains and glaciers of the west coast of Canada and Alaska are spectacular. As vacations go, it’s probably still a bargain, and there’s nothing to prevent me from buying a batch of mosquito nets at the same time. Except that I’m a bit short of cash right now.