August remains a deadly month in the war and plunder business

Appeared in Business in Vancouver – August 26, 2014

Let us now praise heroic soldiers. When better? Poet T.S. Eliot, best known for inspiring the musical Cats, called April the cruellest month. Wrong; that’s August.

Currently: Gaza. Ukraine. Syria. Iraq. Pakistan. And more.

It was in August that the war that didn’t end all wars began 100 years ago. It missed by a few days being the start of the second chapter of that war, 75 years ago, but its inevitability lay in the German-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 24.

It was the month of atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago, which hard-eyed realists know was better than the alternative: when Japan’s surrender August 15 spared the Allies and Japanese civilians from the meat grinder of invasion, 20-year-old infantryman Paul Fussell, already badly injured in France and an outstanding future scholar, wrote that “for all the practised phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy.” Later he scorned both the armchair pietists calling the bombings a war crime, and war’s romanticizers – “the sentimental, the loony patriot, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”

Would he have praised a supposed coward whose personal day of infamy occurred in an August two centuries earlier?

Wait, business angle! But for that general’s surrender, today we might live under the 59 or more stars of Old Glory. Our business big fish would be a 10th of their size in a bigger pond. Our economy, a 10th of the American, might have become far richer. No trade disputes, no loonie at a premium or a discount – helping or hurting some interests either way. No Quebec separatists? Maybe.

But the battlefield heroes of what has been called “the last just war” shouldn’t be ignored. Are they, a bit?

There’s been recent breast-swelling about Canada’s coming of age in the 1914 war, and breast-beating about internment of ethnic Japanese in the 1939 one.

Do I detect leftist unease about Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, New Westminster-born Victoria Cross winner, for his reckless pluck in the Italian campaign?

He was the sort who wins wars, or else. Today Pte. Smith of the Seaforth Highlanders would be flagrantly politically incorrect, so-called.

“You were a wild man, right?” Ken MacQueen asked in a great 2005 Maclean’s interview.

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t take orders. I didn’t believe in them,” Smith replied. No phony regrets. “I was never afraid to shoot. I’d kill the bastards. That’s what you’re paid for.”

Vancouver-born C.C.I. Merritt was cut from different cloth. He won his Victoria Cross audaciously commanding the South Saskatchewan Regiment in the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid (August again!). A lawyer and later Progressive Conservative MP.

Now that third soldier, Gen. William Hull. Hardly a conventional hero. Yet – fascinated since boyhood by the War of 1812, when the U.S. invaded Canada expecting quick victory – in maturity I unconventionally admire him. The oft-told story is excellently related in my late editor Bruce Hutchison’s 1955 book The Struggle for the Border, re-released by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Hull was the American commander at Fort Detroit. He had fought commendably in the American Revolution. But now he was 57. His responsibility for the fort’s soldiers and civilians weighed heavily. Especially he feared the Indians.

British Gen. Isaac Brock shrewdly informed him that “the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.”

Hull pictured his daughter and granddaughter scalped. Yes, the word and the fact have been banished from today’s ideology-laundered lexicon.

Hull surrendered without a fight. He was convicted of cowardice, and only presidential pardon saved him from being shot. And those whose lives he saved reviled him.

But if only every military commander – every one – copied Hull, the compassionate coward.

The date of Hull’s surrender? August 16, 1812.

© Trevor Lautens, 2014

Wars change maps, not the human being

Appeared in North Shore News – November 12, 2010

Each of us is parented, nurtured, pounded, coddled, bullied, taught, shaped, beaten, rewarded, encouraged, stretched, punished, fantasized and immersed by and into the times we live through when young.

The Second World War — the “last ‘good’ war” — will never quit me (b. 1934). As perhaps the Great War never deserted my Winnipeg-born father (b. 1905), who not once mentioned what prejudice he might have experienced as a boy, or that the family clipped the name “Lautenslager” some time early in the last century (his father had left Vienna in the 1890s) and my mother invented a fictional ethnicity for her children, revealed only when we were well into adulthood.

We know less — nothing — about how war influenced the childhood of her own father, George George (b. 1856). His mother died in a later childbirth. His father handed his children over to another family and vanished to serve and die in the American Civil War (1861-65). Or not. American war records are silent. Myth is the gossip of the past. But the shadow of war beyond his years must have shaped George George, this child of a century and a half ago.

His name — more fiction. Our Alberta cousins, Charles and Ann Bird, found the family name was Georg and they were Germans. My maternal grandmother injected English into our blood. No, none of us ever had to suppress a compulsion to win India or invade Poland.

The alert reader will realize that the above, fattened by one family’s unreliable story, is about the present, not the past. Wise persons have said in various ways that the past is never behind us — always beside us. The war I absorbed, as only a child can, stands over my shoulder as I write. And breathe.

Living in this safe country of ours, for me the war was grippingly romantic, and our soldiers, every one, heroes. Good and evil indivisible. This led to a life both narrowly judgmental (some would say) and deeply disappointing (I would say).

For when the heroes returned triumphantly bearing the sword that slew the dragon, surely mankind would dwell forever in peace, prosperity and progress. Of course there’d be toil, bills payable, toothache, garbage still to be taken out on Tuesday mornings, and let’s not forget childbirth. But for two generations cruelly squashed by two wars and a depression, these would be trifles — adequate food on the table and a safe bed luxuries enough.

The wars hugely reshaped the map but not the human being. He was still there, clever, ambitious, a builder, a destroyer, tribe-loyal, sincere when necessary, unscrupulous when necessary, a hero in domesticity’s trenches, a thief if he gambled on not being caught out.

I’m shamed of my naivety. For years I actually thought that peace would provide plenty, and plenty would satisfy mankind. Material progress would make life easier and all would be grateful for the inventiveness of the great creators. Wealth would, could, never be equally distributed, but fairly enough. And time off for innocent pleasures. Or why else did our youth shed blood in six years of war against undoubted — no question at all — monstrous tyrannies?

Wrong. Materialism demands feeding by more materialism. Last year’s adult toys must be scrapped for this year’s gotta-have-it. Democracy bets that a free, or freer, people will choose good conduct over bad. Half the time it wins — but the house never losses. The democracies are far less democratic than their self-advertisement, as the various scandals of politicians, police and business show, but a crude best experiment.

All stereotypes fail. It’s surprising that so many of the wealthy, though some are scoundrels of highest degree, are generous benefactors; less surprising that many of the poor — rich by historical standards — are so grubbily selfish, not to be romanticized or condescended to. Idealists determined to destroy this society for something better are easily manipulated by the cynical, as the Cold War amply proved.

The dullness and passivity of the 1950s have reached legendary status. Wrong. For better or worse (be careful of what you wish for?), Canadians in the 1950s pressed for change in entrenched institutions, nourishing the progressive liberalization familiar today.

Did we want more sexual freedom? More liberal divorce? Relief from oppressive liquor laws that puritanically made drinking in public a sin best hidden behind shaded windows, with different entrances and sections for “ladies and escorts”? We did. (Oh, and once inside the pub, a six-ounce draft of beer cost 10 cents.)

But what about the post-war battering of ancient prejudices — racism and sexism above all? Progress, surely.

Agreed, broadly. But much racism and sexism is flipped — new racism, new sexism for old. Despising white male Europeans is on the rise. Most Volcanovian activists are solely interested in getting a leg-up for Volcanovians. The vicious sexism and man-hatred of some feminists, acquiesced in by many more, were obvious, but silenced by so-called political correctness, the pseudonym for causes seized by the media and driven at bottom by money, more consumers, not idealism.

As for security — there’s a growth industry. The wise among our forebears understood human nature far better than our present cultural icons. Dr. Johnson would grasp instantly the threat to freedom posed by anonymous Internet hate-dispensers and graffiti morons, who played an evil role in harassing Premier Gordon Campbell and vandalizing the home of Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin. Democracy is too good for them.

The individual life remains private, existential, too busy for much reflection on the great questions. Millions can live with the mystery of death more hard-headedly than the mystery of arthritis.

Sparky Anderson, who died recently — and who could have predicted his outstanding future when Unca Billy and I saw him play second base for the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs in the old Fleet Street stadium in 1962? — once observed: “Babe Ruth is in the cemetery, and the game goes on.” What philosopher put it better? What more is there to say?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010

Five days that saved the world

Seventy years ago, civilization hung in the balance — and Churchill tipped it

Appeared in Winnipeg Free Press – May 29, 2010

You would not be reading this, nor I writing it, if it were not for the five most important days of the 20th century — 70 years ago this week.

Those who lived through it, those living today, would have had very different lives in a very different world.

In May 1940, Germany’s Wehrmacht, the Second World War’s best army as most historians agree, had surged over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and northern France, and just 10 days after starting its offensive had reached the English Channel — a goal Germany couldn’t attain in the four years of the First World War.

Many people in Britain, including or especially those in government and the elites who had information about how desperate the situation was, despaired. Many others, living their ordinary daily lives, didn’t know the graveyard was quite as scary as it was until they had successfully whistled past it.

There, around the Channel, total victory in its grasp, the Wehrmacht slowed, hesitated, for reasons still disputed, one of the great puzzles of military history. It’s theorized that Hitler paused because he himself couldn’t believe his lightning triumph, because he thought Britain would surely be forced to plead for peace and the war to end, even that he had a soft spot for the British.

The certain thing is that the French and British armies had been defeated, as was the so-called “appeasement” policy of the bitterly disillusioned Neville Chamberlain.

On May 10, Chamberlain was replaced as prime minister by a man whom many Britons scorned as unscrupulous, crudely ambitious, a dangerous warmonger, an irritating gadfly, a widely distrusted yesterday’s man with a record of failure — Winston Churchill. The king, George VI, preferred the chilly aristocrat in manner as well as title, Lord Halifax, for the job.

Days later, on May 13, Churchill uttered in the Commons his now-famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Words now treasured were not uncritically hailed at the time (like Abraham Lincoln’s few words at Gettysburg in 1863, buried under the hours-long speech of a forgotten rhetorician). Many of Churchill’s own Conservatives were unimpressed.

Defeatism hung in the air and was more frankly expressed in diaries made public only decades later. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t ready to be drawn in to a European war, Robert McCormick’s powerful Chicago Tribune was militantly isolationist, and the Nazis weren’t without American sympathizers of varying degree, including flying hero Charles Lindbergh and Canadian-born broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin.

This set up the drama of May 24-28 that historian John Lukacs brilliantly detailed in Five Days in London: May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999).

In those few days Churchill won over a demoralized war cabinet and a distrustful Commons. Almost overnight he rallied Britons under the gravest threat in their modern history. Above all, in those days, too, a feat was pulled off that beggars the language — the word “miracle” got more exercise than any to describe it — the rescue of the routed British and French troops from Dunkirk.

Churchill himself had expected about 50,000 soldiers to make it back. In fact about 340,000 scrambled aboard ships and private boats of every description. In some quarters it was even eagerly described as a victory (does anyone still remember the propagandistic boys’ book Dave Dawson at Dunkirk?). It was not that.

Exactly 70 years and one day ago the British foreign office circulated a top-secret plan for the flight of the royal family, the government and valuables to some part of the empire. Churchill rejected this out of hand: “I believe we shall make them rue the day they try to invade our island. No such discussion can be permitted.”

Historian Lukacs is impressively minimalist in assessing what Churchill accomplished: He didn’t — as so many people everywhere expected — lose the war. Churchill and Britain could not have won the war — that was accomplished by the U.S. and the Soviet Union — but Churchill could have lost it. And in those five days Hitler was never again so close to winning it. There is a strong case that those five days constitute the turning point of the war.

Long years have passed. Like all ambitious people in our dynamic society, young historians don’t make their mark by following in well-worn footsteps. So, no surprise, some — like John Charmley (born 1955, comfortably after the events) — are Chamberlain men. Charmley made the Chamberlain case in Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).

He and other anti-Churchillians argue that Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was correct. Chamberlain was motivated by his certainty that war would strip Britain of its power and empire, and the Soviet Union would dominate Europe. Right on both counts.

But the alternative in May 1940? Graham Greene’s remark, that life is a choice between black and grey, was never more applicable.

You’d have to be a Charley, as the English say, to have trusted any peace with Hitler. No seer could be sufficiently clear-eyed to predict in detail what would have followed. But Nazi sympathizers everywhere, like British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, surely would have been exalted. Leadership would have passed, likely without decorous parliamentary transition, to those willing or reluctantly forced to make deals with Hitler. The extremes that are so alike, fascism and communism, might still be slugging it out, the democratic middle crushed, personal freedom vanished.

Perhaps — or surely? — the human spirit would not have been crushed. But it would have been a terrible struggle to regain the rule of law, freedom from arbitrary power, and decent lives for the majority under democracy, which Churchill famously described as the worst system of government, except for all the others.

Permit a personal memoir, often recalled. I suppose I’m a rare practising journalist who remembers, with a child’s accurate reading of adult emotion when the facts are beyond grasping, those indescribably tense days. Perhaps I picked it up from table talk, my father being a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic (who, as I proudly responded to a Grade 1 teacher’s question, was “the first man in the city to know the news” — close to the mark in terms of news from beyond town, read off the clattering teletype).

So somewhere about that time my five-year-old self asked my mother: “Will the Germans win the war?”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “God would never allow that.” Moms being as all-knowing as they are all-powerful, I was content. But, looking back, I wonder if I detected her unease.

Do many people today know or care about those five days? Is such history taught to the young, or has history been shrunk to fashionable soft “social studies,” issues concerning minority and women’s rights, and racist and imperialist wrongs?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010