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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Mitt Romney's Faulty Memory

I find this fascinating. 

A guy who could potentially be leader of the most powerful nation in the world relates a fabricated memory to a rapt audience – and yet the story barely registers?

This man’s mental faculties could very well decide whether the US (and its allies) go to war, how the US (and global) economy shakes out, social services, etc, yet this mental slip is not seen as worthy of consideration?

Friday 24 February 2012

Canada's Conservative Government On Ethics: Why So Serious?

Mental Illness Tragedy in Toronto

Today, at around 1:30 pm on the Queen's Park TTC subway platform, I was part of a tragedy.

Sadly, it’s a tragedy that plays itself out every single day.  An older gentleman, gaunt, bald and with a full grey beard was being kicked off the train by its operator.  The why is no surprise - the man was swearing, claiming he was a US Marshall, pointing and being belligerent to the operator.  The operator was not happy; the other passengers were decidedly uncomfortable. 

I'm hardly an expert, but the behaviour this man displayed was indicative of a mental illness.  The operator was in reactive mode; the man was a threat which he wanted to remove.  The other passengers were equally reactive, trying to bundle into themselves as much as possible, not wanting anything to do with what was playing out in front of them.

Me?  I ran through the underlying context in my head – which illness the old man was likely inflicted with (schizophrenia was my guess), the limbic reactions of the passengers and operator, the broader public services that apply to mental health and justice, plus the sad regularity of the scene.  Yet still, I did nothing but watch. 

Since then, I've asked myself why I sat by, passively, when I knew what was going on and could probably have done something to help.  The answer troubles me; despite what I know about behaviour, about TTC operations and about available mental health services in Toronto, I felt helpless, unempowered, to make a difference.  If I stepped up, how would I explain the facts to the operator?  What techniques could I use to reach the old man?  How much time would it take and would, ultimately, I be able to connect the man with the help he needed?  I didn't act; the tragedy unfolded unabated, as it does time and time again.

It's not my fault that the man was sick.  It wasn't my fault that the operator was tired and frustrated.  It wasn't my duty to act - but then, whose duty was it?  Nobody was to blame, but we were all guilty of not trying to help.

We live in a society and, like it or not, we live in it together.  What happens to each individual one of us has an aggregated impact on all of us.  That man might end up sleeping in a police office, or in a hospital, costing the public money and reducing the availability of service to the rest of us.  There’s an unlikely chance he might hurt someone else, reacting to his environment much as the operator did.  Most likely, the man might do something to hurt himself. 

When we let tragedies like this happen, we are all lessened in every way – morally, financially, service-wise.  We are all responsible; abdicating our duty to each other is not enough.  When we look beyond what we see, when we reach past our feelings of discomfort, we empower ourselves to be part of the solution.

The road to empowerment lies through education.  The people we generically label as “crazy” aren’t monsters – they are real people with real families.  They’re just suffering from illnesses, illnesses for which treatment and supports exist.  The person who is sick just needs the chance to be connected with those services. 

Here are some websites you can visit to learn more:

I am advocating for a web system that makes it easy for the average person on the street to take a photo or send a text into an online portal, connecting a situation as it happens with the local service providers who can do something about it.  We already have suicide lines in subway stations; Google Maps lets us find restaurants or theatres and rates them.  A digital mental health service system wouldn’t be much different, wouldn’t cost much to build and it would make it easy for everyone to make a difference without getting directly involved.  Such a system would help police, justice services and mental health service providers connect people with mental illness and their families with the assitance they need.  If you think this is a good idea, drop me a line here on the blog or via Twitter @__cce.  You can help.

There is lots of good work being done right now, partially by the organizations listed above but also by businesses like Great West Life and Bell Canada.  There are many, many politicians who are taking mental health and its impacts seriously – find out who your local representatives are and ask them what you can do to help.

The most important thing we can do is learn – learn about mental health and how it effects not just those with mental illness but each of us in how we live our lives, every day.  This is vital, because it does impact us;
We all pay the costs when we do nothing; by doing something, we can all benefit.

When you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.  Be part of the solution.

A Lesson In Leadership For Tim Hudak

Adam Radwanski, Globe & Mail
Leadership is the ability to unite people behind a common vision and inspire them to work proactively and collaboratively to achieve that vision.  To make this happen, the temptation to react, to jump for the small victories that detract from the actualization of the vision must be suppressed.  A good leader provides his team with hope, empowering them to forgo the seed and wait for the fruit. 
This is a lesson Tim Hudak and the Ontario PC Party need to take to heart.  So far, Tim Hudak’s performance as leader has been nothing but reactive; reactive to foreign workers and foreign students, reacting to sex education, pushing the fear and anger buttons over crime, jumping with vigour on whatever rakes the governing Liberals put in his path.  This reactionary behaviour doesn’t get you anywhere; it just gives you a headache and eventually, becomes painful for an audience to watch.
What vision does Tim Hudak have for a strong Ontario?  Advocating for cuts alone isn’t a plan – again, it’s a reaction.  How would cuts fit into a broader plan?  What are the other pieces of that plan?  To date, he has not articulated a plan for where he wants to take our province.  While reactiveness and attacks might be enough to sustain a frustrated, scared and angry base, it’s not enough to win the province on.
Dalton McGuinty (who does have the advantage of time and experience on his side) has a clear vision for where he wants to take Ontario, whether it is universally agreed with or not.  McGuinty sees tomorrow’s Ontario as embracing the Knowledge Economy and pursuing innovation into emerging sectors, like clean/green tech.  He sees diversity as the foundation of knowledge, so is supportive of ethnic communities and art industries like film.  To embrace this opportunity, people need to get along – which means a high quality-of-life (healthcare, anti-bullying, strong social services) but also a responsible, affordable, sustainable one.
McGuinty has the vision – it’s what he unites his people behind.  It’s those people who provide the ideas and wherewithal to make that vision a reality.
Tactics in the absence of a strategy is no plan at all.  It’s time for Tim Hudak to articulate his vision for our province; his real test of leadership won’t be how successfully he can attack the Liberals, but rather, how efficiently he can unite his own team behind that vision.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Strategy, Creativity and Discipline

      - Sun-tzu

They say all is fair in love, war and politics, yet in each field there are certain rules that apply, almost like social gravity.  The history of military (or political) strategy is the attempt to determine and understand these rules.  Students of strategy study the lessons of successful predecessors; they also seek to learn from the failures of others. 

A good recent example of this is Rob Ford’s winning mayoralty campaign; it has been reverse-engineered by governments across the country, looking to capitalize on Ford Nation’s best practices and avoid his pitfalls.  This isn’t a stand-alone process; Ford’s success at the polls has not translated into broader political success with council.  Why is that?  The answer to this question is relevant to strategists, too. 

A standard weakness in strategic development, particularly in light of success, is a singular focus on control.  You want to duplicate what worked previously, which means managing all the variables as closely as possible to ensure repeatable outcomes.  In politics in particular, message control is key; campaign communications are worked out far in advance, with one message-of-the-day building on the next, all timed to inflict maximum damage on one’s opponent and draw maximum focus to your own platform, vision, leader, etc.

The problem is, realities change; what worked previously isn’t guaranteed to work the next time around.  Tight control leaves little room for innovation or seizing-the-moment; look at Tim Hudak’s messaging-fatigue during the recent Ontario election as evidence of this.

On another previous Ontario campaign – the by-election that saw Rick Johnson defeat John Tory in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock – a great campaign slogan (vote local) was the product of an innovative staffer who, seeing a “buy local” sign at a grocery store, put two-and-two together and created a winner.  It wasn’t part of the plan, but that bit of proactive creativity made a difference.

For campaign strategists, then, a rewording of Sun-tzu’s famous advice might read like this:

What’s worse:

-          To have members of your team who are unpredictable

-          To be unable to predict the actions of your opponents

-          To be predictable to your opponents

Conversely, what’s better:

-          To have members of your team be entirely scripted

-          To understand the actions and motivations of your opponents

-          To be unpredictable to your opponents

The best deployment provides troops (be they soldiers or campaign teams and candidates) with defined parameters, a definition of success and as many resources as possible.  The best resource in any campaign is creativity; how to do more with less, out-of-the-box solutions, etc. 

Every campaign I have ever been involved with, someone somewhere has said “be creative” when faced with some dilemma or opportunity.  Good campaign managers will seek out creative individuals for their teams; generally these are known or referenced commodities, though, people you can count on to be quick to respond and capable of independent idea generation, but not to the point of risking the general trajectory of the campaign.

If creativity is desired, how do you nurture it?  If self-discipline is beneficial (allowing for creativity to happen within comfortable parameters), how do you foster it?

The answer isn’t as complicated as we might think.

The Secret Meaning of the Drummond Report

    - The Drummond Report

The vast majority of media attention the Drummond Report has received relies heavily on superlatives like “profoundly gloomy” and well-worn phraseology like "tighten your belts" and “calls for cutbacks.”  The pundits tell us we must be ready for a “battle over the report” at Queen’s Park.  It seems to me that there is an underlying theme here that most folk are missing, which I’ll get into shortly.  First, some background.

Along with the gloom and doom and austerity, there was a sidebar story about how much Drummond himself got paid to do the report, with NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo tweeting messages like Drummond paid 1500 tax $ a day says "Don't spend tax $" This passes as economic expertise.” and “Amazing! Drummond (paid 1500 tax $ a day) says cut services not tax gifts to the rich Who knew?

Yet, it turns out that Don Drummond, the man behind the report, only charged the government for 51 days of work, although he did much more.  In essence, Drummond’s take-home was about half what it would have been if he’d charged commiserate with the work he did.

Why?  Why did Drummond cut back his own benefits?  It could have been a fear of public reaction, but quite frankly, the average bear on the street has no idea what he looks like – even now, Drummond can walk the streets of Ontario with anonymity intact.  It might have been out of altruism, setting the example he lays out in his own report; this would be real leadership on his part.

I think there’s something more going on here, something that sparks my optimism. 

When talking about the report itself, Don Drummond called it the “culmination of everything I’ve done in my professional career.

With this statement, combined with everything else he has said publicly and even the content of the report itself, one is left with an impression not just of a fulfillment of contractual obligations, but of legacy.  Drummond believed that his report represents a turning point in Ontario’s history, therefore setting precedents that will be followed by other provinces and jurisdictions around the world.  That’s a heck of a mark to leave behind.

You can interpret this as blind ego and might not be off the mark, but take that thought a bit further down.  What is ego?  Ego is about meaning, establishing personal value in a social context.  We all want the work we do to mean something; we want to know we’ve raised our kids well, that our bosses appreciate our projects, that our friends value our contribution to their lives.  Altruism, by its very nature, is about creating meaning through personal sacrifice.

I believe that Don Drummond – wealthy man, powerful man, economist, opportunist – turned down extra cash from the people of Ontario because his work, in and of itself, had meaning for him.  It creates value for his society, etching his name into history.  Making it about the money would have detracted from the purity of his social legacy.

You can dismiss this as idealistic – (here’s a piece I wrote to give more credence to the theory); feel free to look up work and meaning” on Google.  You’ll see that there is an increasing focus on what people want their job to mean even over how much they get paid for it.

Which brings us back to the report itself.  Yes, there are calls for cuts and a great deal of focus is given to Ontario’s red ink, which is as it should be.  The single greatest theme of the report, though, is about integrative collaboration – of breaking down Ministry and Service silos, of reducing the competition between players that provide similar resources, of creating aggregate service portals and above all, about specialized collaboration between players.

Competition is about what you get back.  Under the existing social model, services competing for resource dollars will dedicate percentages of that funding to fighting the other guy. This results in duplication, gaps and overlaps in services that leave some Ontarians out of the loop and ultimately, cost us more through inefficiencies.  So focused on their own piece of the pie, it’s a challenge for any player to proactively seek out partners doing similar or related things and find ways to work together.  This competition extends itself to government – there can be only one governing party, so the resources of all Parties go into hyper-competition, often at the expense of potential collaboration.

Meaning, however, is about what you leave behind; leaving your mark on the world, healing a patient, teaching a student, helping an employee find new work, helping a neighbour shovel their driveway.  It’s why the best politicians get into their business in the first place.  The money, fine, it’s good to make a decent living, but you can make a lot more in the private sector.  What you can’t get from the private sector as much as you can from public office is public legacy.  To leave a legacy, you have to do things.  To dedicate yourself to an ideal so entirely, it has to have meaning for you.

Politicians are ideologues.  They all have at least a glint of legacy in their eye.  Ultimately, though, their whole reason for being is the meaning of what their work accomplishes.  When work has meaning for you, it becomes bigger than self-actualization.  You might want to work with others to achieve it – in an association, for instance, or in a Political Party, or perhaps, as a society.  This, then, is the message I have taken from the Drummond Report, a reflection of the vision of the man who authored it.

Ontario is internally competitive, rewarding some disproportionately more than others.  Services exist in silos, which are inefficient; it’s not a question of less being more, but of redundant duplication being more.  To realize Ontario’s maximum potential, we need each Ontarian at their best – which means better access to training in accessible formats and working conditions and environments that are tailored to eliciting the best from Ontario’s workforce.  A proper focus on the front-end – making Ontarians stronger – will keep them out of hospitals; we can help that further by realigning systems like health care, social service and justice to work in a coordinated, integrated, specialized way.  Collaborative specialization will be more efficient and certainly reduce the gaps, but more than that – the integration of services will allow for greater cross-pollination of ideas, which is the essence of innovation.  Making this happen won’t be easy, but it will be impossible if politicians, unions, associations, profits and not-for-profits and the average person on the street dig in their heels and look to their individual interests first.

That, then, is the deeper meaning of the Drummond Report.  Ontarians can achieve great things – but only if we work with each other.  The future lies not to the left, nor to the right, but forward, together.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Into the Light: The Evolution of the Conscious Society

This is not an insignificant thing.  Time was, women were thought to be too emotional to make important decisions, like casting votes.  Ethnic minorities were seen to be lesser-thans undeserving of equal social status.  Property ownership was an essential requirement for social participation.  Lefties were stigmatized.  These barriers have largely been broken down, allowing for greater, inclusive diversity and as a result, more innovation, more opportunity and a stronger society that provides a higher quality of life for everyone.
Our grey matter is still largely a taboo subject - we don't want to talk about it, though it shapes our every thought, our every action.  The increased focus of government and civil society on mental health (including mental illness, but more broadly the impact of brain function on every facet of our society) is breaking down this wall, too.  Like most major social changes, we will pay attention to the structural transformations ahead, but won't be fully conscious of the shift in societal perception as it happens.

I guarantee we'll be more conscious once it's taken root.

We Are All Mortal

"So, let us not be blind to our differences -- but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

   - John F. Kennedy
     Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The Gringo In The Ring

One of my first short stories...

The sun shone fiercely, reflecting the harsh reality of the land below. This was Latin America - what mattered here was real, could not be ignored. In the acrid smoke from the cooked pork, the sweat-smelling dry heat and the sickly sweet scent of stale liquor was an undeniable edge, a truth of life that jeers and intimidates the ignorant. The masses of mestizos and indigenas swarmed past the food stalls and shouting merchants, sweated exhilaration out of every pore. Chickens squawked and dogs dashed under foot, children chasing them with sticks. Into this tumult of raw existence walked Jack Mackenzie.

Sweat streamed from his skin at the base of his spine, around his temples, neck and chest. The taste of hot salt sat heavy on his tongue. Pulling the cotton of his shirt and wiping the sting from his eyes he took in the arena, a massive structure of shoddy beams and aged twine older than most people there. Ragged and mountain-old, a Quichua woman approached, hands cupped and lowered in penitence, looking for alms. Jack had none to give. The sea of humanity pushed and pulled at him. He pushed back, fighting to claim space where he did not belong. Beyond the makeshift arena, the "bull fight" - the corrida - awaited.

The lower tier of the stadium sat on the dry earth; fire heat and rich odour dwelled in the darkness of its stalls. Behind the smoke, wizened faces watched the world with detached suspicion. Jack escaped the crowd up a ladder to a booth on the second tier. It had been rented by Soledad's grandparents, and they and some cousins were there. They welcomed him and motioned for him to sit. His eyes darted towards the crowd surrounding the barren field, searching her out. Despite her assurances, he would not find Soledad today. Tonight, perhaps, as the stories of bravery and loss were told in Sangolquí.

Jack sat on the wobbling pole that served as a seat next to the cousins. One, young Esperanza, held a single rose tightly in her small hand; so, she had a man in the field. Her father, perhaps - fathers did such things there. Shouts grabbed and shook the gringo Jack and forced the energy and fear upon him - the fear of the bull. Between aged abuela and young Esperanza he sat, and looked out to the field.

Life and Death clashed there. Watching the black blaze across the earth, waiting for their brush with feral nature or too drunk to know better were the men. They waved hats, pink and red capes called muletas or held nothing - maybe a bottle of warm drink. Those who wanted to live kept their eyes on the animal. It charged, spun, charged anew. A young man stepped brazenly forward, his muleta held at an angle. The cape did not flutter, the man stood calm. Its hooves catapulting it forward, the bull lunged; snorts from its massive face washed hot breath over the chest of the torero, ruffling his shirt.

The muleta rose between hand and horn, soft, at peace, and fell again. "Olé!" roared through the crowd.
And through Jack as well.

Again the bull turned, rage and heat straining its muscles beyond taught. A horned head arced, searching, tore again towards a red flapping across the field. Bodies ran, daring hands slapped at massive flanks as the beast thundered on. The bull had been in the arena long, had grown wise. It charged not the muleta but the man. Jack's wide eyes mirrored the horror of the would-be bull fighter as the beast's horn tore through his chest about the belly and the body was in the air, the animal running. Limbs flailing, girlish screams piercing everywhere, it was a full ten seconds before the body came down. With a snap of the neck the form went flying, shook the earth. Even as the blood collected on the horn's tip the boy was up and running. By the time the red drip touched barren soil, returning home to the Pacha Mama, he realized his mortality and dropped heavily to the ground, was still. Hands clutched the boy, pulled at him as the bull turned his head, hunting for more.

Esperanza leaned forward, hand to breast as the beast tore across the earth once more. Jack barely registered the charge; what he saw now he'd never seen before. Coils of pink and red hung from the body of the boy as it was pulled to safety. Only a red stain was left, and that was quickly soaked up by the dry earth. Jack shook his head, trying to clear the image which had branded itself on the back of his eyes. He saw the younger boy holding the red school sweater in trembling hands. Somewhere, a woman cried out. How light the little body looked as the child sailed into the air, like a doll, as the little head deflated under the bull's hoof. To Jack's left a scream pierced high and far, a single rose fell to arid soil on a gentle breeze.

Jack was not frightened by the horror of a young life gone so savagely, nor by the brutal violence of the corrida. What scared him was the fervid thrill he felt within. All eyes had been on the boy. His shirt stuck to his body, his pulse beat its way through clenched hands into the railing they were fastened too. Galloping, hooves - caballeros with lassos came into the arena to catch the bull. It had learned too much - grown too dangerous. It was time for fresh blood. In the midst of a run a lasso landed on the bull's horn, its great head snapping around as the cord pulled taut. Horse and rider vied for position as the second lasso whirled through the air. Too late - turn, charge, bull horn sank into horse flank, then again. Red reached to touch the dry earth. It took two more caballeros and lassos to reign the bull in.

Pulled to the paddock, the vicious air of the beast evaporated like the stinking sweat that permeated the air. Tame, as a scolded child, it bowed from sight. Leaving all told three dead and seven wounded, and one horse that would have to be put down.

With a word to no one, with no real conscious thought Jack was over the railing and down, falling hard through the ankles to the knees onto the field below. As real as the sound, the violence, the whole ritual that was the corrida had been from above, Jack learned that there was no match to being in the ring. He learned that to watch was distant, a cheap thrill. The real thing was unequivocal, full, and deadly.

Sound amplified. The smell of distant perfumes wafted to his nostrils in perfect clarity. Every hair and inch of his skin developed additional awareness and he knew what was the state of alive. It takes the face of death to know it. No gringo had learned this before, and none was likely to later, either.

Dust kicked up about him, every shout and rant rung in his ear as clear as a single voice in an empty room. The blood in his veins rushed a force of nature, his heart the heavy storm driving it. Jack ignored the astonished looks from the latinos around him. He ignored thoughts of Esperanza's flower crushed on the dead grass below. The entry gate loomed closer with each step, shook from some impact within.

There was nothing else. Somewhere in the crowd, Soledad must have caught sight of him. There is no word for the fear, and pride, she felt at that moment. At least, not in English.

A few kids - teens - hung about the gate, high off of adrenaline and hard drink. Latin machismo prodded them on. Then the gate bucked. Fearing the bull, Jack found himself five metres back, where the other boys had rushed as well. The gate did not open. Shame swelled inside him, ate at his sensibility and forced him to move closer. Closer. The gate bucked again. Jack twitched, took a step back. Nothing. Again the gate rattled. Another shudder, but he held his ground. Silence. Still. His veins swelled and recoiled as the sound about him coalesced into one pleading shriek...

The gate opened. The crowd roared - Jack thought for him. He was a novelty, after all, in an ancient spectacle. The new bull, fresh and haughty, burst forth with ungainly speed. The toreros were everywhere, organized in their confusion as they raced to get away. Stones, sticks, taunts attacked the bull, chided him, mocked him, stirred him to hatred. Jack joined the baiters - he would not be out done.

The bull was briefly confused, head spinning this way and that. An arena of thousands of human bodies and a field of far less were hurling fury and pain its way. Too much confusion leads to anger; more, to rage. With a deep bellow the bull thundered onward. The sound was buried beneath the waves of roared ecstasy from the crowd. In the middle of it all, Jack smiled.

Charging blindly, the bull found a cape. With practised steps the torero entered the bull's terrain, passed it with a classic verónica to cries of "olé." All Jack saw was a rapid movement, a flutter of cloth. All Jack knew was that the bull was fear, danger in solid form. He was in a land not his own, knew none of the rules. Anyone could see that to challenge the bull said something about one's mettle. That something would be said of him. Whether he became local legend or tragic tale - he was white, just hadn't understood - Jack would not be denied. From the ground he found an abandoned muleta; from somewhere visceral the force in a man that goes beyond courage, beyond testosterone-driven lunacy gave him what else he needed. He walked on.

The bull was across the field; Jack tired quickly of the scatter-approach-scatter-approach of other toreros, cut straight to the animal. It turned, charged off to the left, and Jack turned with it. Horns materialized from beneath a sweater. Jack walked on. Thirty, twenty, fifteen feet away where the most daring of the toreros manned their ground. The bull charged - right past him. There was no time to even feel afraid. Many things could have happened. A charge, a near-miss, many things, but he had not expected to be ignored. He, the lone gringo, the only one who needed the confrontation. Alone, standing, rage flushed from deep within and Jack saw the bull with hate.

He charged. Not the bull - Jack. He charged shouting vehemently every Spanish and English indignity he could think of. The bull turned in his direction, caught sight of movement elsewhere and rushed off.

From the swarm around the bull, machos dived in like fisher birds for a quick jab before taking flight. That was the way it was done. Jack moved in - ten feet, six. The machos were remote at the corners of sight, the crowd a distant whisper somewhere at the edge of perception. He was alone in the bull's space. With furious anger and a roar to shake the heavens Jack raised his muleta high, brought it down with vengeance upon the animal's hide. The bull turned again, this time acknowledging no distraction.

Eternity took root in that moment. Jack looked at the bull, and his hatred vanished. Sweat glistened, dripped down it's back, collected beneath its eyes. Deep breaths inflated, deflated the mammoth lungs that sustained life as did Jack's own. The bull stood tall, proud, dignified. There was nobility in its countenance. It was as it should be, in every way - the focus, the soul of the corrida. Only he did not belong. Jack felt shame; he dropped his muleta. The bull's eyes focused, and as Jack saw his own reflection in their depths time returned, fell upon him like an avalanche.

Stories were told of him that night.

Thoughts On War

Written back in 2008:

Over the weekend, I watched Passchendaele, the Great War epic by Paul Gross that brings a Canadian perspective to WWI. The movie has its strengths and weaknesses, but got me thinking about war in general, and its consequences.

When we hear about war in the words of politicians, it is in terms of the big picture; freedom, regime change, democracy, protection of ourselves and our allies from those who would do us harm.

When we hear about war from military spokespersons, it is often in terms of the nature of the combat situations and operations.

When it's the media, we hear numbers - numbers of dead soldiers, costs in terms of dollars, numbers of days spent in conflict.

When I think of war, I think of two things:

First, a memory I have of travelling in Sarajevo in 2001. I had visited that city because, as a boy growing up in small-town Ontario, I'd never felt the impact of war directly; I thought it was important to get at least a sense of what that experience was, what it meant to those who lived through it.

In Sarajevo, I saw a lot of sights familiar from news coverage - the bombed-out hotel, scenes of the main drag shelled and devastated and of course, people looking nervously at the tanks in their streets. Having experienced riots and such in South America, I was somewhat adapted to being surrounded by armed soldiers and army vehicles but the sheer, overwhelming military presence on the streets of Sarajevo (and throughout Bosnia) was unerving. 

There were full convoys of tanks rolling throughout the city. In the downtown core, I ran into some UN soldiers - a Canadian and an Irishman - who, in casual conversation, told me not to step on sewer grates, as they weren't all clear of mines yet.    One evening, after dinner and while walking through the Turkish Quarter, a friend I'd made on the street told me we should get indoors as there were still gunfights happening on the periphery.  We wouldn't want to catch a stray shot.  Though my untrained ear did hear what could have been gunfire, it could very well have been construction work. In any event, I saw people going about their lives, shopping, taking out money at a bank, as I did, under the veil of unstability and continual uncertainty about their very safety.

All that left an impression, but the image that really sticks out for me from my time in Sarajevo is of a group of boys playing basketball against the backdrop of a collapsed building. The ball missed their improvised net, went over a "danger, do not cross, landmines present" marker, and was lost. The kids were bummed because they had lost their ball to a minefield. That was their reality.

War changes borders, topples governments, and can even restore freedom. Whenever there is war, though, no matter the cause, life is disrupted. People die, both soldiers and civilians.  The fabric of their lives is unwoven.

Later, in Zagreb, I met a couple of English teachers who wanted to share their experience of the war.  They told me how, as students during the conflict, they denied the reality as an "over there" problem for as long as possible; they didn't want their lives to change.  They told themselves the war was in another city, then in another neighbourhood, then on another street, right up until their living room window was shattered while they were doing homework. "We were just ordinary kids, like kids anywhere," they told me. "The war does not define us; it did, however, change everything."

Sun-tzu refers to war as a tool in the belt of nations to use as they conduct their affairs, and never a desirable one. War leads to death and damage to infrastructure, and this inescapeably. Whether conquorer or the conquored, liberator or the oppressed, in war, everyone loses; war is always messy.

The second memory that comes to me when I think of war is of a Dutchman, Leo, a friend of my grandfather's, another survivor of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.   Leo just emailed me recently, giving me an update on his health.  At the age of 80-something, he'd just gotten a scooter.  During World War II, Leo had found himself during WWII among those deemed undesirable by the Nazis, and was locked away from the world in a hell of man's making.

A couple years ago, at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of Buchenwald's liberation, I toured the camp, the "Little Camp" where my grandfather and other Allied Airmen had been placed, as well as the quarry where countless individuals were worked litterally to death. I toured with my grandfather and two other Canadians who'd been in Buchenwald, and went to a couple sites with Leo's granddaughter. Leo himself wouldn't visit the quarry, because even after more than sixty years, the pain of the memories of what he had endured there, the guilt at still being alive when so many had perished, was just too much for him.

I have visited war cemeteries with countless markers in rows that stretch beyond the horizon; I have stood on Juno Beach; I've crawled through preserved World War I trenches; I've sat in cafes in towns like Ypres, once obliterated by war. Even in Buchenwald, I have stood in front of the hooks on which hundreds were hung with piano wire and looked through the holes of the shooting booths where communists were shot in the back of the neck as they stood to be measured; I have seen the ovens where bodies were burned, and the pits where the ashes of lost souls were dumped, without ceremony. For some reason, it's Leo's personal experience, and the scars both internal and external that he still carries, that struck me the most.  (Leo has passed away since I wrote this piece)

War is the worst occupation of man; however, so long as we continue to behave inhumanly to each other, there will be cause for just wars. Sometimes, the disease is so bad, surgery is needed to cut it out entirely.

We must never delude ourselves that all wars are just; even in just wars, attrocities happen on both sides. War will, however, always be with us. As Paul Gross' character says in Passchendaele (and I'm paraphrasing here) "war's something we're good at, and we've gotten good at it because we do it so often, and we do it so often because it's something we do well." It is unlikely that we, as a species, will ever mature enough to move beyond the compulsion to bring violence upon our own kind.  We're far too selfish for that. 

My message?

For those who hold the heavy burden of determining whether our nation (or any nation) goes to war, weigh the options with utmost gravitas. Going to war as a way to build up your nation's international reputation as tough is a terrible justification. Going to war because you believe it will satisfy a segment of voters is equally horrible.    War is an evil, ugly undertaking. Don't even consider conflict an option until there are no options left, and then, be strategic, and weigh each decision with an understanding of the impact on lives those choices will have. In war, there are no winners; there are only differing degrees of loss.

For those who stand against war in all its forms, ask yourselves: what are you opposing? If it is senseless death, if it is destruction of property and culture, consider: sometimes in the real world, situations fester like a cavity, and the only solution is to go in and cleave out the infection entirely.

As Canadians, we are blessed to have had no conflict on our home soil within the lifetime of any of us living today. By the same token, we really have no real and thorough understanding of the impacts of war.

We must ask ourselves, every day, what we can do do help alleviate the burdens of war faced by untold millions of our own kind - human beings, whatever their ethnicity, religion or lifestyle. Sometimes, force will be the answer, but we must never assume force is THE answer until all other options have been excercised.

We must also thank our men and women in uniform for the sacrifices they make every day - but we must also try harder to understand just what those sacrifices are. To be a soldier is more than to put your life on the line for duty, crown or country; it is to remove yourself from what's familiar, to make choices that none but soldiers can ever even fathom, and to know that an impassable gulf of knowledge and experience will always exist between you and those who have never been through war.  In truth, we don't just send soldiers to war, but their families as well.  Husbands and wives, children and parents all carry the weight of conflict on their shoulders.