Monday, September 28, 2015

Whither Canada's Military, and Who Will Pay For It?

Last week I offered some thoughts here about the burdensome costs that first world countries must contemplate to put soldiers in the field.

On the CBC website today, Brian Stewart offers some thoughtful comments on relationship between the cost of a standing military and the need to have a rationale for that cause.  Stewart notes some startling numbers as to what it will take to bring the Canadian Armed Forces to reequip the Canadian Armed Forces with ships, aircraft and ground equipment such as tricks.

"We're going to need to add on much more — between $33 billion and $42 billion across the coming decade — just to adequately modernize and maintain our military, warns Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette. 

 And even that wouldn't satisfy our allies. Leaders of the NATO alliance, especially the U.S. and U.K., nag that we should be spending twice what we're now doing, up from one per cent of GDP to the two per cent that NATO members have set as the common goal.

 The last time Canada hit that two per cent mark was (surprise) under Pierre Trudeau over 40 years ago, and we're not about to get even remotely close in the foreseeable future.

So we remain slumped near the bottom of NATO, 22 out of 28 in the percentage of GDP that we spend on a common defence."

The essential problem is that since the Cold War, no party has been able to articulate a coherent rationale for why Canada needs a military or what sort of military it should be. Even during the height of the Cold War, there were disagreements within the military and civilian leadership as to whether Canada needed more than a trip-wire force in Europe when World War Three was likely to end in nuclear suicide.  Peter Kasurak’s book A National Force: The Evolution of Canada`s Army, 1950-2000 (UBC 2013) tells this story in detail, noting that Canadian Army planners were allowed to fantasize about building a standing army of corps strength, along the lines of the army of 1940-1945, while their political masters had no intention of ever authorizing such expenditures when the uses of such an army were unclear and difficult to justify.

History shows that we build up our military only once the shooting starts, which is why Canadians went to Afghanistan riding in obsolete Iltis jeeps and ended up in Chinook helicopters. That was ad hoc, not planned, spending. The reality is that other than Search and Rescue capabilities, and some vague conception of peacekeeping, the Canadian public can not agree on what sort of military it wants.  If you read the comments on the CBC website in response to the Stewart article, you will see that readers are all over the map, from build the army to cut the army to bring the troops home.   Taxpayers almost certainly won't pay for a large standing military until we get into a major war, in which case, taxpayers won't have a choice. 

Tonight I’m listening to the federal leaders’ debate on foreign policy, and I have yet to hear anything thoughtful on what Canada’s foreign policy should be and how that might drive our military commitments.



Saturday, September 26, 2015

Praying for the Sick: A Sermon for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. George’s Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 27 September 2015

Texts for this Sunday:   Esther 7:1-6,9-10,20-22; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  James 5:13-14


This year my wife and I started on a journey.   It started when my wife saw the doctor because of abdominal pains, and it ended up, months later, with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. 


Now I don’t say this to talk about me or my family.  We’re not the first ones to take this journey, and it’s a busy path. Some of you, I am sure, have taken this journey before, and most of you have walked it with a loved one.  You know the stages on this uncertain and unwelcome path, starting with shock and fear, moving into uncertainty and unfamiliar medical places like the chemotherapy clinic.  After a while you find yourself well on your way and the path before you unfolds into a long slow grind, treatment by treatment - with hair loss, fatigue, changes in body weight as milestones along the way.


Throughout our journey, my wife’s faith has been an inspiration to me, and has kept me going as I walk with her.  She often says that she’s felt God’s hand in hers as she takes this unexpected journey, and she marvels at how we have been surrounded and supported by the prayers of others.


Brothers and sisters on both sides of our families are praying for my wife.  In churches where we have been members, a charismatic Anglican congregation in Medicine Hat and a more high church one in Waterloo, people are praying for my wife.  Chaplain colleagues of mine from across the Christian spectrum have been praying for my wife.  A friend of ours, an Orthodox priest, came to our house to anoint her.  He brought a gold cross, holy oil from a monastery in Greece, and long prayers, all very foreign to my wife’s tradition.   Afterwards, my wife said that she felt fabulous.


It should also be said that many of our non-believing friends have been very kind to us.  We have received a beautiful card and thoughtful gift from a sister who is atheist.  Many friends have used social media to say things like “sending healing thoughts and positive energy your way”.  Such expressions are encouraging and welcome.   It’s good to have company on the journey, 


However, one thing we’ve discovered in our journey is that prayers — the real, intentional prayers of faithful Christians -  do make a difference.  Having vague expressions of positive energy and happy thoughts sent our way is all well and good, but knowing that prayer warriors are with us, remembering us before the throne of grace and asking God to give us his strength and comfort and healing power - knowing this helps keep us going.  We feel supported and held up on our journey, as if some had volunteered to take a hand and help us over a patch of rocky ground, and others had offered to carry our pack or give us a sip of water.  


Today’s reading from the Epistle of James reminds us that we who are the church, we as the body of Christ, are called to pray for one another.   We’re called to rejoice at good fortune, to “sing songs of praise”, but we’re also called to pray for the sick and suffering.  Amidst all the other things that we as church are called to do - worship, mission, outreach - we the church are called to be a caring community that ministers by our prayers as well as our actions.


I confess I didn’t really understand this until my first parish in a rural community.  We had a small prayer list, and it was always an event when someone’s name was added.  At the church door, people would ask my, “why are we praying for Frank?” or, “What’s wrong with Eva?”.  Fresh out of seminary, I would follow my training on confidentiality and say, “I can’t say”, or “I don’t have permission to share the details”.  Such statements didn’t really work at the church door.


What I realized over time wasn’t that my parishioners weren’t, as I first thought, being nosy.  I learned that they were teaching me about compassion.  They were teaching me about how God’s people are called to journey with one another, and that being part of the body of Christ is as much public as it is private.   Sometimes compassion and concern don’t always work well with confidentiality.


Before I close, I would like to reflect on what exactly we are asking God to do when we pray for the sick.  James tells us that “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven”.(5.15).   This verse raises several questions.   Will God only act to cure the sick if we pray to him?  When people get sick, are they being punished for their sins?  Should we expect God will heal the sick if we pray?  What if the sick get sicker?  What if they die?


I don’t have answers to all these questions, but I have some thoughts.  First, I don’t think we have to tell God what to do.  I don’t believe that God only helps the sick if we pray hard enough.   Jesus in the gospels does often heal others when he is asked to, and he often credits people’s faith for their curing.  Sometimes, however, as with the woman with the haemorrhage or the lame man at the pool of Siloam, Jesus is the one who steps in when no one else has faith or wants to help.  So prayer, I think, points us towards the Son of God, the one we call Saviour, who was sent to us only by the compassion of the Father.  Jesus came to be among us because of the Father’s love for us.  Prayer is calling on that love.


As for the relation between sin and sickness, we as Anglicans reject the idea of illness as punishment. We don’t believe that people get sick because they’re being punished for something.  Our liturgies, in the anointing of the sick, at the time of death, and during the funeral, remind us that the faithful can and do die, but that even as we go down to the grave our prayers and our alleluias are heard by God.  We know that the resurrection of Jesus foretells a time to come when sin and death will be no more.  In the new world foretold by Revelation, and mentioned in places such as Eucharistic Prayer Three of the BAS, there will be no place for the things that hurt and kill us, including cancer.  If there ever was a connection between sin and sickness, it is part of our fallen world.   Scripture only tells us that God did not intend creation to be this way, and God will fix creation in his own good time.  


As Anglicans, we believe in praying for the sick.   This parish still uses the Book of Common Prayer, and you will know the prayer from the service of Compline that uses these words:

“Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous”.


These words comfort us with the promise that our God is the enemy of sickness, sin and suffering.   In our prayers for the sick, whether our prayers are couched in the noble words of the Prayer Book or whether they are own halting, uncertain words of prayer, we connect our love for the suffering with the love of God, and we commend the sick into God’s care.  For those who are sick, knowing that they are held in prayer is a great comfort, for it connects them with the Body of Christ, and it reminds them that their journey of sickness, however difficult and uncertain, will bring them to the love of God.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Alfred Knopf Canada 2015).

The Buried Giant is the seventh novel from Ishiguro and his first in a decade, since Never Let Me Go was published in 2005.  Whereas his last novel was about cloning in a dystopian near-future, the new one is set in a post-Arthurian fantasy Britain.  That choice of setting raised some eyebrows, and the novel has been badly roughed up by critics, including James Wood in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

Critics found the novel's allegory to be unconvincing and the attempt at archaic dialogue to be "old timey" and even laughably "Monty Pythonesque".  Ishiguro's famously flat style and his interest in the banalities of human life were, they argued, curiously out of place for a setting that is usually chosen for heroic fantasy.  The Buried Giant is set just after the reign of King Arthur and a bitter war between Saxons and Britains, but no one can remember much of it because people have had their long-term and even much of their short-term memories stolen by something they refer to as "the mist".

The heroes of the novel are not warriors but an eldery couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out on a journey to try and find their son, who they can only vaguely recall.   The journey becomes a larger quest about memory and launches an ethical discussion about whether a society (or a marriage, for that matter) can afford to forget wrongs committed in order to live at peace, or whether recalling those offences is necessary for justice (and perhaps reconciliation) even at the risk of rupture, hatred, and the renewing of cycles of violence.  The question, as Wood notes, is what Ishiguro is prompting us to think of "by literalizing historical amnesia in this way".

As Axl and Beatrice come to the end of their quest, they discover that "the mist" is an enforced truce, a wizard's solution to war that is, as James Wood calls it, "a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement".  This a clever quip on Wood's part, because it touches on the terrible reawakenings of national memory and grievance post-Tito that provoked the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  However, while the phrase "Never Forget" can become a national slogan (Israel and the Holocaust and the USA and 9/11 come to mind), it's hard to imagine a national process of reconciliation where the remembrance of past crimes is not a necessary precondition for reconciliation and forgiveness.  If Isihiguro is saying that to remember violence and crimes committed is to risk fresh crimes and new cycles of violence committed in the name of vengeance, he seems to suggest that such risks are worth the price of memory and the possibility of better futures.  Axl and Beatrice's kind farewell to a young Saxon, who is being groomed to hate Britons, seems to suggest that one can remember the past without falling victim to it.

Something not mentioned in the reviews I've read, but raised (to my mind) by the choice of two aged protagonists with memory problems, is the spectre of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.  I wouldn't suggest that Ishiguro is setting this theme up as a minor allegory, but the affection between the two that persists after the loss of memory, and their inevitable forced parting, makes Axl and Beatrice poignant and (dare I say) contemporary characters, despite the archaic fantasy setting.  As they anticipate the return of their pasts, both characters wonder if their devotion to one another will withstand the recovered memories of damages inflicted.     Ishiguro thus raises the question of how memory and reconciliation work eenin the most intimate relationships.

Given Ishiguro's famously flat style, readers may be disappointed by two of the briefest and most laconic swordfights that have surely ever been described in a novel.   Likewise, while there are ogres, pixies, and even a dragon, they are, not surprisingly, presented in the most muted ways imaginable.   Readers will have to decide if these descriptions, like fragments of memory, are enough.

I found The Buried Giant a frustrating but strangely satisfying work, that left me with more questions than answers.  Perhaps, as an English prof of mine once said of King Lear, another work about an old man whose memory is in tatters, it is a book only suited to those at certain stages of life.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Military Taxdollars At Work

From today's New York Times, "David Petraeus Urges Stronger U.S. Military Effort in Syria":

"A Pentagon effort to train rebel forces to take on the Islamic State has produced only a handful of fighters. Officials with United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said Monday that only about 70 individuals who had been trained under a $500 million program to take on the extremists were currently in the field."

Leaving aside the fact that David Petaeus has apparently finished his moral timeout, and is now qualified to be a foreign policy advisor, I couldn't resist doing the math on this one.  Assuming that all $500 million was actually spent on 70 Syrian fighters, which is probably not the case, that works out to $7,142,857 per moderate Syrian rebel.  

While it's tempting to think that it would be cheaper, or at least only slightly more expensive, to develop sentient autonomous killer robots, it's worth noting that putting a soldier in the field in the contemporary battlespace, according to Western standards of warfighting, is expensive.

In 2012, CNN reported that it cost between $800,000 and $1.4 million to deploy a US soldier.  I haven't found any figures on what it costs to deploy a Canadian Forces member per year, in 2010 the Vancouver Sun reported that if you divided the 2010 cost of the Afghanistan mission by the number of soldiers deployed, that worked out to about $550,000 per military member in theatre.  That figure did not take into account the cost of the member's salaries, or the differences in equipping and training, say, a combat infantry soldier from a helicopter pilot.

These estimates don't take into account the long-term costs of pensions, post war retraining (e.g. GI Bills) and medical support and rehabilitation for seriously wounded soldiers, who are much more likely to survive than than were in previous wars.   These costs are not likely to be born by the US for proxy Syrian fighters, but they should be considered in the cost that a first-world country will bear in fielding a combat force.

As politicans talk about what sort of standing militaries their countries should have to protect national interests and project power abroad, and whether highly paid volunteer militaries are still viable (as opposed, say, to some form of national service), constituents need to reflect on what they are willing to pay for.  Furthermore, when a politican includes expensive military commitments among his or her campaign language (viz. Ms. Fiorina at the most recent Republican candidates' debate), it's worth asking what the actual cost of militar force in the 21st century actually might be.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jeffrey Toobin on ''Cafeteria Government''

Whatever one thinks of Ms. Davis, Jeffrey Toobin's short essay on the New Yorker website  raises some interesting points about whether religious accomodation amounts to "cafeteria citizenship" and even to "cafeteria government". 

If citizens (and now in the US, small business and family-owned corporations thanks to the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling) are free to decline some obligations (eg, to serve customers, to provide certain kinds of health care) on the basis of their religious beliefs, what degree of accomodation should be allowed to government employees?  Is it acceptable for a govrernment to accomodate the beliefs of its employees by allowing them to decline to perform certain tasks, such as issue marriage licenses to same-sex peole, provided that there are other government employees that are willing to perform those same tasks?  What are the limits to such accomodation?  Voluntary military service comes to mind as one government sector where all employees must be willing to perform, enable or at least sanction certain actions, specifically acts of violence at the behest of a lawful authority.  Are there comparable cases where accomodation is not possible in government service?

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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