Archive for November, 2014

Yesterday’s Tomorrow

November 27, 2014


“Scarcely anyone in England now believes in the Treaty of Versailles or in the pre-war Gold Standard or in the Policy of Deflation. These battles have been won – mainly by the irresistible pressure of events….But most of us have, as yet, only a vague idea of what we are going to do next…” John Maynard Keynes, 1931.

“Events, my dear boy, events.” Harold Macmillan, 1950s

In 2013, I began thinking about what the world might look like for my grandchildren and what type of educational and other skills would be useful in their adult lives and even, heaven forbid, their sunset years, an euphemism for old age. I canvassed a number of former students whom I had taught at Carleton University asking for their views. Each has gone on to have a successful career in a variety of fields, and all had something useful and often unexpected to contribute to this topic.

I posted an initial summary of their views at on June 24th, 2014, with some of my own observations. Much of this content deals with the type of topics to consider studying at university and college and the future characteristics of the labour force. Elsewhere, I came across some excellent studies on these issues written by experts such as those for the Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generations Report available online.

As a next step, I try to examine the future in light of the recent past, recent in this context being from 1800. Over 200 years may seem like a long time to establish context, but tracing actual events since then provides some understanding of how we got from then to now, how quickly circumstances change, and how relatively unpredictable these changes were and still are. The difficulty of saying anything useful about the future is contained in the quote by Keynes namely that, at any time, supposedly informed people have “only a vague idea of what we are going to do next.” Harold Macmillan, when asked what might blow a government off course, is quoted to have said “Events, my dear boy, events.” Though some claim he never said it, it remains a useful reminder.

Historians record what did take place and do not claim to throw a bright light on the future.  The Long Shadow, The Great War and the Twentieth Century, (Simon and Schuster, 2013) by David Reynolds shines the spotlight on how events leading up to and subsequent to WW1 accounted for what has happened since 1900 up to the present. The previous century from 1800 also contains events which shape the world we live in. What is notable, perhaps remarkable, is how during those years (1800-1900) few supposedly informed observers saw what was coming in 1914, and when it did come what would happen next. Most saw this century as a reasonably peaceful world which would carry on with Queen Victoria’s relatives, the King of England, Tsar of Russia and German Kaiser living harmoniously together, although America did have a nasty civil war in the 1860s. How a family spat had such disastrous consequences is today’s history.

The same occurred after WW1, thus the Keynes quote. Many thought that the warring countries had learned their lessons and peace would prevail. Instead the twenty interwar years (1919-1939) turned out to be time-out, while the players rearmed to different degrees before play started again in earnest for WW2. There have not been two world wars since 1914, but one, a thirty year one with a longish half-time.

The exercise I am pursuing in will certainly lead to erroneous forecasts but may suggest ways to think about the future.  I do this by addressing three topics, religious terrorism, current day empires or spheres of influence, and the weakening of democratic institutions. The last two will be discussed in future postings.

Personal context

My frame of reference is conditioned by my own experiences, those of my father who served and survived as a junior infantry officer in WW1 including at the 1916 Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months and resulted in over 400,000 casualties, and my paternal grandfather (1824-1899) who was a vicar. The latter was born shortly after the Battle of Waterloo (1812) which ended a lengthy period of English-French hostilities. It was followed by two world wars, when this time the French and English fought on the same side. Italy switched sides. From a distance, my grandfather would have watched the American Civil War of 1861-65, and probably felt they deserved it after behaving as an ungrateful rebellious colony, which then adopted a modified form of Westminster-type governmental institutions.

While there were a few steam locomotives in the early 1800s, the first gasoline powered  automobile did not appear until 1886, the telephone in 1876 and airplanes in 1903. Ships were powered by wind, then wind and steam, then steam alone fired first by coal and then oil.  My childhood books had pictures of sailing ships with steam funnels. Wireless, telephones, television, computers and many medicinal drugs did not exist in 1824, but 100 years or so later were shaping daily lives. Opium was used liberally for medicinal and other reasons.

Political and economic change driven by technology comes fast and often in unpredictable ways. Looking forward, God knows what will happen, and maybe she does, but we do know that what will take place on planet earth is constrained by the existing area of land and sea and the people residing there. These are fairly fixed parameters at least for our grandchildren’s lifetime. Geography, demography and technology affecting economy are viewpoints to keep in mind. How does religion play into this scene?


Religious terrorism

How can the current turmoil in the North Africa and the Middle East be viewed today and for the future in the light of past experience? Religious conflict has a long and messy history and the world has never been free of it. I suspect people often turn to religion because they have no other way to account for the nature and workings of the universe, how it came about, how it operates, and what is happening to it. Most find it difficult to comprehend our position in what physicists tell us is an ever expanding universe with black holes. We are uncomfortable in recognising that earth is a planet with ourselves specks on it. The ten year Rosetta journey by satellite to a meteorite is a 2014 reminder of our place in the universe. In this context, we really don’t matter and that’s hard to accept. See our place in the universe at

Like a drug, religion becomes a handle to grasp for security, but unsettling when there is more than one religion. Each has organizations and followers offering competing explanations and forms of comfort, and in the process engage in conflicts to achieve supremacy. These occur not just between but within religions. Christians compete against Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, but Catholic and Protestant Christians have had murderous fights with each other. They litter battlefields and the pages of history and, for example, account for many of the sea and land battles between England and France.

Today, another such battle rages for Muslims  between Sunni and Shia brands of Islam as well as within each of these brands, with some being more violent than others. Terrorist acts are performed not just on non-Muslims but on other Muslims. Non-Muslims get involved because they reside in places where Muslims predominate such as in Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Up to 1918, these areas were part of the Muslim dominated Ottoman Empire, which became subject to British and French influence and rule at the end of WW1.

As minorities, Muslims live in other parts of the world such as Western Europe and the North America. Travel, migration and communications make it possible to involve these parts of the world in a way which was not possible in former times, or at least not to the same extent. Immigrants and those born in these countries travel to fight in the Middle East, in the same way British, Canadians and others fought in the 1930s Spanish Civil War. Persons have both volunteered to serve in foreign wars, and to avoid fighting in them. Thus some British left the UK to avoid national service after WW2, and some Americans left the US to avoid serving in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Back in time to the eleventh century, Muslims and Christians fought each other in the Crusades, seen by Muslims as Christians encroaching on Muslim territory, and by Christians as Muslims invading Christian lands. Over centuries the situation stabilized and up until WW1 (1914-1918), the Muslim religion prevailed in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe was predominantly Christian with its protestant and catholic brands, which, as noted, like the warring Muslims had their own internal conflicts.

At the end of WW1, the Middle East was carved up as a result of an agreement developed by a British and a French diplomat, Sykes and Picot, to allow the United Kingdom to administer Iraq and some other parts of the Middle East, and for France to be responsible for lands including Syria and Lebanon. The borders drawn in the region left different nationalities within each of the newly designated countries. Turkey became a separate country where before it had been part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the British interest in the region included the Suez Canal which provided a sea route to the Indian subcontinent, the prevention of Russia from having a southern outlet which could disrupt trade with India, and access to the petroleum resources of the region when the British navy had converted from coal to oil. All these factors play some role today, but to a lesser extent because the context has changed. Battles can be fought in the air with unmanned planes, rockets and drones. Naval vessels can be resupplied at sea and boots on the ground may have less of a role to play.

Today the news focuses on ISIS/ISIL and the attempt by certain Muslims to form a Caliphate in lands that are part of Syria and Iraq. Later, no doubt, they would want to extend their territory into Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and elsewhere.

“A caliphate is the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. The political authority of a Caliph as head of state of a Caliphate comes from the fact that he is seen as a successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. (Wikipedia).”

Agreement among Muslims ends there. Sunni and Shia have different ways of appointing a successor; unsurprisingly each tends to favour one of its own.

An ISIS claimant to the Caliphate is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, known by other names but referred to here as Caliph Ibrahim.

“…a spokesman for Islamic State, announced to Muslims worldwide in a commentary titled “The Promise of God” that other organizations would have to acknowledge the supremacy of Caliph Ibrahim or face the wrath of the IS. Caliph Ibrahim declared that the Islamic State would encompass in five years the lands from India to Southern Europe. That would include Mullah Omar’s caliphate in Afghanistan, which has links to Al-Qaeda.

Caliph Ibrahim offers believers a journey back eight centuries to the time of the Abbasids Caliphate when Islam was spreading far afield. It is that lost glory that he is trying to resurrect and impose upon the world. In keeping with the principles of that distant time, Christians and Jews are to be given the opportunity to convert, flee, or to pay a tax and live as second class citizens. All others are to be put to the sword, their property seized, and their wives and daughters violated and forced into slavery.” (Geopolitical Monitor Nov. 26, 2014).

At present this appears to be mainly an intra-religious conflict but one which spills out geographically from the Middle East because of a combination of the following:

  • Muslims born either in the Middle East or outside who sympathise with those living there and choose to support one side or the other.
  • The ability of these outsiders to travel to, supply weapons and money and communicate with those in the Middle East.
  • Backers of the Caliphate eager to engage in a crusade to foreign lands.
  • Acts by Russia and the West to use the Middle East in their rivalry for world influence. At present this looks from the west like Putin versus the rest. He has strong allies within Russia but fewer abroad.



The current Middle East conflict, including certain North African countries, is primarily a conflict between Muslims in these areas. In the past, it could be ignored by countries in other parts of the world. This is no longer the case. Like other issues, there are fewer problems which are local. They are increasingly international and are ignored by any country at its peril. Interdependence and globalization are omnibus terms used to describe the current and future state of the world. It requires several disciplines to understand the context of the near future. Four I suggest are geography, demography, politics and economics. All are influenced by evolving technologies.

In trying to understand how the recent past influences the present and may affect the future, I suggest a reading of David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow. While it does not predict the future, it shows how our previous understanding (the conventional wisdom) of the past 100 years has to be re-evaluated with the passage of time. A clearer appreciation of the recent past is a launching pad for looking forward to the world our grandchildren will live in. Two topics for discussion in future postings are 1. Empires and spheres of influence, and 2. The decline of democracy.


Nobel Prize for Evil, 2014

November 15, 2014

Among those nominated this year will be Saddam Jamal, a Muslim, who rounded up a Muslim family and made the parents watch while he ordered their sons to be beheaded. He then stuck the heads on a school door before killing the parents. (Reported by Ruth Sherlock for the Daily Telegraph who covers this conflict). In earlier years, a Nobel nominee had been the Yugoslav soldier who placed a live baby in an oven and cooked her.

These acts are so outrageous that in my view the perpetrators are uncivilized, and do not approach 21st  century standards of humanity. I am aware that other horrific killings have occurred on a single and mass scale and not just in ancient times. But some statement of abhorrence and decision not to let these actions go unnoticed is required. The public has to be constantly reminded of them, so that it is clear when these acts are performed, and that they are unacceptable.

There are two dimensions to the Middle Eastern conflict, a religious war between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and an intra-faith conflict within each of these religions, especially for Christians and Muslims. The first has been going on since the eleventh century starting with the crusades. It flares up from time to time and is one dimension of the present conflict, mainly with terrorist-type attacks in places like New York, London and Madrid, airline and liner high jackings, attacks on western military personnel and tourists. Social media combined with low transportation and communications costs aid these attacks.

But what is taking place in the witches cauldron of the Middle East is a conflict between different brands of the Muslim faith, the Sunni and Shia and divisions within each of these. Christians and Jews get drawn in because they live in the region, often as the unwanted neighbors of Muslims. At other times, Christians have had intra-faith disputes such as between Protestants and Catholics, which underlay centuries of fighting between England, France and Ireland. The British monarch is now head of the Church of England, as a result of a lengthy dispute with Rome which resulted in Thomas More being beheaded. In earlier times, those convicted for various deeds were hung, drawn and quartered in public.

Evil actions are seen relative to the standards which apply at the time they occur. This is not an excuse for the past, but there is need to support today’s standards of civilization and condemn certain actions as being unacceptable.

Valiant attempts are made with the UN Responsibility to Protect Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention concerning the conduct of war including the treatment of prisoners. It is as though rules were drawn up for a soccer game, but unlike soccer, the conflict game today has no enforceable rules and no referee to penalize the players. The strongest or best equipped wins with whatever means are available. Persons like Saddam Jamal are free to do as they please, and have to be treated by today’s civilized countries as common and despicable criminals.

Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002) who told it like it is

November 12, 2014

Those who read about, and some who write about today’s fighting in the Middle East probably have little idea what it is like. For those fighting, armed conflict consists of long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of intense activity, danger, noise, death and casualties. Nowhere is this better described than by Bombardier Spike Milligan in the account of his military service in WW2. Milligan later became a founding member of the Goon Show, a BBC radio program, and precursor to the Monty Python skits.

In fun, he once described Prince Charles as “a groveling little bastard,” and then said “I suppose a knighthood is out of the question.” A statue to Milligan was unveiled in Finchley North London in September 2014, and there are plaques to him in Australia and New Zealand.

In the periods of boredom, soldiers think up numerous ways to be entertained from eating, sleeping and whoring to arranging theatrical skits and concerts. Jokes and repartee stretch from the banal to the brilliant and Milligan’s books on wartime service illustrate what life for a soldier is like.

One example is 1940 when he was part of a crew of a large gun mounted on a railcar in southern England near the coast. Since they were mobile, one Friday night, when nothing much was happening, the crew decided to fire up the engine and drive the train plus gun into Brighton where the pubs were open and they could enjoy some liquid entertainment. Fortunately, Gerry did not invade that night and the crew managed to return the train to its depot before dawn.

For those who want military history from the soldier’s not the general’s or military historian’s view, I suggest the following by Spike Milligan:

Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall

Monty: His Part in my Victory

Mussolini: His Part in my Downfall

Where have All the Bullets Gone?

All are available in paperback and probably the public library.

For those interested in humour, my choices include:
George Carlin (see his Euphemisms on YouTube)
Bill Cosby (perhaps an unfortunate choice)
Eddie Izard
Joan Rivers
Jonathan Winters
Jessica Williams
Robin Williams
The Goon Show
Monty Python

“Everything Old Is New Again” The Tale of Sykes and Picot

November 2, 2014

Poor Sykes and Picot are getting bad press from all sides, with blame being assigned to them for the mess in the Middle East. Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were the officials charged by their governments, British and French with input from Tsarist Russia, to set the boundaries in the Middle East where conflict now flourishes. No one was, is, or probably could be satisfied when their decision was confirmed at the 1919  Paris Peace Treaty. At this time, Russia was having troubles at home and played a lesser role.


“Britain was allocated control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the sea and River JordanJordan, southern Iraq, and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France was allocated control of south-eastern Turkey, northern IraqSyria and LebanonRussia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the Ottoman Armenian vilayets. The controlling powers were left free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including the Sharif of Mecca.(Wikipedia)”


More is known about Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), the son of Sir Tatton Sykes and Christina who was thirty years his junior. The parents separated soon after Mark’s birth and his upbringing was split between both parents. He spent time travelling with his father in the Middle East and associated with the pro-Arab gang of T.E.Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and others interested in carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire. From this and other postings he developed expertise in the region which was the basis for his choice as the British negotiator.


The British were interested in protecting their trade route to India and in limiting access of Russia to the Mediterranean Sea. Once the British navy was converted from coal to oil, the Iranian oil fields were also of interest. The three Afghan wars which Britain engaged in disastrously from 1839 to 1919 were also undertaken to block any southerly moves by Russia which might imperil trade routes. Sykes may also have had a hand in drafting the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which stated:


“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”


Sykes died in 1919, a victim of the Spanish flu. In 2008, his lead coffin was opened and body exhumed to allow research into the nature of the flu strain which might prove useful in combating current flu epidemics for which today we are offered flu shots.


Less is known about François Georges-Picot (1870-1951). He was a French diplomat, son of a historian and great uncle to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. His interests were the Middle East.


Could anyone have sliced up the Ottoman Empire in 1919, especially the Middle East parts, to provide lasting peace? Probably not. Going back further in time, today appears to be a rematch of the Crusades starting in 1095 and lasting over two hundred years, and perhaps up to the present. Originally, it pitted Catholics backed by the Pope to push back Islamists, especially to restore Christian access to Jerusalem and places nearby after attack by Islam. Some historians see this as Rome defending Christianity, others the attempt by Christianity to expand its lands. Islamists choose the latter interpretation. Each side eagerly records the atrocities of the other to buttress their case.


Different religions seem to get in the way of peace. They fight each other and themselves such as warring Catholic and protestant brands of Christianity, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and different strains of Judaism. This is not a happy prospect for future generations, but there are some good news stories to recount such as lack of violence between religions in mixed communities in India (176 mil Muslims) and Indonesia (209 mil Muslims), and general religious tolerance in many other societies. The rise of right-wing parties in parts of Europe are a mix of racism and poor economic conditions.


It seems to me that nothing much has changed over the centuries except the way war is conducted as a result new technologies. Beheadings were a common practice in the past. Note the demise of Thomas More in 1535 at the Tower of London, when he defied various matrimonial and religious requests of Henry VIII. Today we are supposed to be more civilized, but this has different meanings in different parts of the world and at different times.

Prescribing for war and peace

November 1, 2014

Max Hastings has said it for the UK’s role in Afghanistan, and Richard Haas much the same for the U.S. in the Middle East. Both engagements were undertaken as treatment for an identifiable condition, but with scant attention given to what should happen after the operation ended.

Armed intervention is similar to medicine. Action is often taken when a problem is identified. But in order to lessen the likelihood of the need for further intervention, political and economic measures are required. Both Hastings and Haas stress that neither the UK, the US nor their allies paid enough attention to what happens after the fighting stops. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, withdrawal of troops has resulted in a return to economic and political instability.

The political problem is similar to the case of obesity. Treatment occurs after obesity has become a problem. What is needed is for people to pursue a diet which discourages the onset of obesity. When I ask my doctor what I should do to remain healthy, she says avoid becoming diabetic. Once diabetes takes hold there is little that can be done and the various health systems begin to close down. Game,set and match, its all over.

In political terms, there is the state or conditions which prevail at the time conflict arises, while actions taking place before and after intervention account for the process leading to a new set of circumsatances.The UK with some Canadian help intervened in Afghanistan and the U.S. in Iraq after certain conditions had evolved.The health of these two countries had deteriorated over previous years and there is not much outsiders could have done about it once it happened. After intervention occurred, as Hastings and Haas argue, little or no attention was given to how the countries would be managed to ensure future security. In both cases that is now absent. There is no adequate economic and political health plan and in the future the countries will experience the political and economic equivalent of obesity and/or diabetes.

There was a different time. At the end of WW2, the Marshall Plan of financial aid was offered by the US to the war torn countries of Europe in the form of grants and loans. The amount was $17bn ($160bn in today’s terms). It was also offered to and refused by the USSR and its allies. Marshall Aid, later combined with the evolution of various European institutional arrangements helped restore these countries to postwar economic and political health. So far it has been a good news story, although not without setbacks.This period of seventy years contrasts with twenty years between the two world wars.

Contrast Marshal Aid with WW1, when the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty imposed harsh reparations, especially supported by France, which could not be repaid without causing political instability in Germany and its allies. Keynes warned of this in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written after he resigned from the UK Treasury in 1919 and retired to Cambridge. Twenty years later WW2 broke out and fighting resumed. The moral of this sad tale is that if you don’t take care of your political and economic health when you are fit or recovering, the future is not promising. That is the advice of Hastings and Haas.

The present

With the withdrawal of British and other forces, Afghanistan has retreated to the tribal society it has always been, with a thriving opium backed economy. Thomas Dalrymple in Return of a King recounts the three times between 1839 and 1919 when the British invaded Afghanistan and were repulsed. In the late 1970s, the Russians tried and failed. A Russian general gleefully told Hastings that the British were making exactly the same mistakes which the Russians had made.In addition the US armed those Afghans opposing the Russians These Afghani are now causing problems for the west in the Middle East.

US withdrawal from Iraq today is being made with declarations that the Iraqi army is capable of keeping the peace between Sunni, Shia and Kurds and now the ISIL forces and those groups fighting in Syria. Matthew Fisher, a Canadian correspondent on the ground reporting on the troops in the Middle East describes the state of the Iraq forces and the Peshmurga. His is not the confidential assessment given by US and other politicians who watch the action from afar. The fire they face in Washington and Ottawa is not the same as that faced by those in Khobani.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that you cannot conduct war without planning for peace and working hard to maintain it. The past 100 years bears testament to this, probably the past 200 years and beyond. In Canada, it is not really helpful to argue over whether a killer is a terrorist or a criminal when you may be watching a replay of the Crusades, lasting over two hundred years from around 1100 AD which pitted Christians against Muslims.Planning for religious peace remains a challenge but needs discussion.