Comment and Articles

As an advocate of discussion and debate of Canadian defence and foreign policy, RUSI Vancouver will share opinions and observations from academia, the media, and respected historians.

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Gwynne Dyer Commentaries

We are pleased to introduce the noted independent, London-based, Canadian columnist and military historian Gwynne Dyer as a regular contributor in the Comment section on the RUSI Vancouver website. His thought provoking, well informed and pertinent commentaries will appear regularly.

Gwynne Dyer was born in St. John’s Newfoundland and educated at Memorial University, St. John’s; Rice University, Houston; Kings College, London. He served in the Canadian, American and British naval reserves. Dyer lectured at Sandhurst Military College following which he moved into a full-time career in journalism.

RUSI Vancouver appreciates any comment on Gwynne Dyer’s contributions on the RUSI website at RSVP@rusivancouver.ca

Gwynne Dyer’s website is: www.gwynnedyer.com

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NATO at 70 - 2 December 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


When he took office in January 2017, Donald Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete”, but he hates all multinational institutions so that hardly counts. Just last month, however, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said that the NATO alliance is “strategically brain-dead,” which is closer to the truth.

Yet the leaders of the alliance’s 29 member countries will all be in the United Kingdom on Wednesday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO’s foundation. Brain-dead or just deeply confused, it continues to stumble around and receives frequent transfusions of cash. Why?

Macron was furious last month because nobody in NATO could satisfactorily answer his big question: “WHO IS THE ENEMY?” The alleged Russian threat is still the glue that holds the alliance together, but Macron doesn’t believe in that. His own answer is that the alliance’s real enemy is terrorism, but that is equally silly.

Terrorism is a major nuisance but not an existential threat, and counterterrorism is usually a secret ‘war’ in which armies have little importance. The appropriate tools for combating it are generally intelligence services and police forces, not armoured brigades.

Very rarely, as in the case of the recently defeated ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), terrorists do control territory and can be fought openly. The recent behaviour of Turkey and the United States in northeastern Syria, however, shows the duplicity and cynicism with which those major NATO members now view the alliance.

President Trump agreed to let Turkey’s strongman leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, invade Syria and attack the Syrian Kurds, who have been America’s close allies for the past three years in the war against ISIS. He also implicitly consented to let Erdogan’s forces ethnically cleanse the Syrian Kurds from their homes and settle several million Syrian Arab refugees in them instead.

Neither Trump nor Erdogan consulted with their NATO partners about these potential war crimes. Indeed, President Macron found out about it all in a Trump tweet, which explains his fury. But the other European members of NATO said little in public, because Erdogan was also threatening to dump a couple of million Syrian refugees on them instead if they complained.

So, what useful purpose, if any, does NATO serve 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enemy it was created to fight? NATO’s member-states often try to revive the glory days by pretending that the Soviet Union has been reincarnated in Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, but that’s nonsense.

Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. It has no Eastern European allies anymore: they all joined NATO (or are still in the queue) after their Communist governments fell in 1989. NATO’s armed forces were twice as big as those of the Soviet bloc even in the Cold War, but they now outnumber Russia’s four-to-one.

True, this advantage is somewhat diminished by the fact that NATO’s military power is divided among 29 countries, and that two of the more important members, the United States and Canada, are on the far side of the Atlantic. But it is preposterous to plan on the basis that the Russian ‘hordes’ are itching to invade western Europe. Indeed, it always was.

The former ‘satellite’ countries of Eastern Europe are understandably anxious about the risk of another Russian take-over, and NATO offers them some reassurance. The only European countries that are vulnerable to Russian military intervention, however, are former parts of the Soviet Union itself like Ukraine and Georgia (what the Russians call the ‘near abroad’) – which is why NATO does not let them join.

The modest truth is that NATO is a familiar and comfortable club that lets the European members demonstrate their commitment not to return to the devastating wars of the past. It gives Canada a safer, broader context in which to discuss security matters with its giant American neighbour. And it lets the United States pretend that it still leads the ‘free world’.

They had to hold a celebratory one-day summit to mark the alliance’s 70th birthday, but what will they talk about in Watford? (Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is keeping the meeting well away from London, mainly to minimize Trump’s exposure to the media.)

A few ritual topics come up every year, like whether each member is carrying a fair share of the alliance’s burden of military spending. This is usually an American complaint about the European members, but Washington conveniently forgets that much of its own spending goes to pay for an accelerating strategic competition with China in which the Europeans have little interest and no obligations.

The participants are mostly old pals and for the most part they will pass a pleasant day together. The alliance does not do much good, but it does no real harm either. Let them have their day out.

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Protests Everywhere - 30 October 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


Journalists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they’re writing this week is endless pipe-sucking ruminations about what’s driving the seemingly synchronized outbreak of protests in many very different countries around the world. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

You will doubtless have seen a few examples of this fashion recently. If you lived in the belly of the media beast, like I do, you’d be seeing dozens a day, as journos try to explain the phenomenon with varying degrees of success. Varying from zero to about 1.5 out of ten, in my opinion, but there is clearly something trans-national going on.

A group of young Catalan nationalists, walking out the highway to occupy Barcelona airport two weeks ago, were chanting “We’re going to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-nationalists, in the sense that they are defending their freedoms against a regime in Beijing that wants to smother them under a blanket of conformist Chinese nationalism. But the tactics are the same in Catalonia and Hong Kong, and the emotions are too.

A striking thing about the tactics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non-violence that characterized would-be democratic revolutions from the mid-1980s until the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow jackets) in France who began their protests almost exactly a year ago, down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong today, the majority are still non-violent. However, they cannot control (or maybe just don’t want to control) the minority who throw bricks and flaming bottles at the police.

The police, of course, use violence too: tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes guns. People have been killed – in small numbers in most places, but in the hundreds in Iraq and in Sudan. Even bigger bloodbaths are possible in Hong Kong (if the regime in Beijing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if September’s protesters return to the streets)..

Another common denominator is that the trigger that sets the protests off is usually something small. The bread price went up in Sudan; metro tickets got more expensive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Lebanon; the price of petrol rose not very dramatically in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month – and the next thing you know, masses of people are out on the street..

Moreover, when the government backs down and cancels the offending law or charge, as has generally been the case after a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their demands have expanded to include things like full democratic rights (Hong Kong, Algeria and Egypt) or an end to a corrupt system (Iraq and Lebanon) or action on huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just taxonomy, not really analysis. It doesn’t explain why this phenomenon is happening at the same time in such different countries. It doesn’t explain why it’s happening now, not last year or in 2022. And it certainly doesn’t tell us where it’s going next.

Nor do I have answers to these questions, and I can’t bring myself to make the usual trite remarks about global media and imitation, or the lingering and unresolved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41% of the world’s population is under 25. However, these events are showing us one important thing: we really do have a global society now.

You could see it taking shape even three decades ago, in the way non-violent revolutions flashed between countries, bringing  some form of democracy to the Philippines, then South Korea, Thailand and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the target then was just crude dictatorships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about economic and social inequality as well as political oppression, and increasingly it’s also about generational inequality. Obviously, the injustices are more blatant and extreme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not really very different and the young know it.

Never mind the nationalists and the populists, who are just playing the same divisive old tunes as always. What we have here, despite the multiplicity of languages, religions and histories, is an emerging global society with shared values and ambitions, especially among the young.

There are millions of angry dissenters from this evolving consensus, but for the first time ever we really are becoming one people. That is a comforting thought as we head into the millennial storm of climate change. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Polish Lessons - 16 October 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat. They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call ‘socialism’. (Other people call it the welfare state.)

So, while they fight the ‘culture war’ against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programs that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters. It doesn’t sit well with the ideologies of the people who lead these parties, who are neither poor nor poorly educated.

A case in point is Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which has made the journey from traditional conservative values to rabid nationalism and populism over the past decade. But at the same time, it has pursued ‘universal credit’, a punitive reform of the country’s generous welfare programs that has left most of its working-class voters worse off, and forced some to turn to food banks.

The Conservatives have been getting away with it, in the short term, because Brexit is an all-consuming emotional issue in which the same old, poor and poorly educated part of the electorate mostly voted ‘Leave’ in blatant contradiction to their economic interests.

However, it does not make electoral sense in the long term. Populists always manufacture some sort of crisis for their supporters to focus on at election time, but few others will work as effectively as Brexit. Sooner or later their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.

In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6% of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turn-out since the fall of Communism in 1989. That is a full 6% higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015 and will give them an absolute majority in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament).

The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organization. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom (the ‘Christ of the Nations’), and always finds some imaginary threat to ‘Polish values’ that only it can protect the nation from. In 2015 it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were heading for Poland); this time it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.

In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists. Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.

Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses” including “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

So far, so bad, but typical of the new generation of populist parties in the West. What is very different and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns but also their economic needs.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand- worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west. Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which does respect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left-wing even though it is culturally right-wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age. It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus programs, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the Church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth-rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.

And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4%, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.

So, if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they must go.

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Johnson’s Cunning Plan - 30 September 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he had to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he had to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piled up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turned against it.

So, Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed, because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks during a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So, here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by inciting Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses such extreme language, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.





November 19

A Book Review

Tank Action, An Armoured Troop Commander’s War 1944-45.
By David Render with Stuart Tootal.

When 19-year-old David Render landed in France five days after D-Day he had two existential problems. As a green second lieutenant he had to take command of not only his own but a troop of tanks manned by veterans of the North African campaign. He was taking the place of a popular and experienced officer who had just been killed; his veteran crew was exhausted, fearful, and close to rebellion.

Render’s second task was to lead his men against German Panthers and Tigers. As a tank commander he couldn’t function without peering out the top of his open turret, and thus was constantly vulnerable to snipers. His Sherman was outgunned and lighter armoured than his adversaries;and if that wasn’t enough the hedges and ditches of Normandy bristled with Nazi troops wielding portable tank-killing weapons. The tankers, if hit by an armour-piercing shell, figured they had six seconds to get clear and avoid incineration in a “brew- up.” The German 88-mm artillery and tank-mounted guns granted Render and his comrades an average life span of less than two weeks.

David Render won over the loyalty of his crew. He, and they, survived in spite of the Panthers and Tigers. As Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery said, “In war it is the man that counts, and not only the machine.”

This book is a look at tank battles from a ground-level perspective. It opens the reader’s eyes to the incredible bravery of the troopers and the brutal reality of World War II’s armoured battles that followed the Normandy landings.

Highly recommended.




In 2010, several members of the Naval Officers Association of BC (NOABC) decided to salute the role of BC’s shipyards during World War Two. The project eventually transitioned into a monument to include all workers in the BC shipbuilding industry. The following article in the July-August issue of BC Shipping News by RUSI President Cam Cathcart, outlines the eight year journey of the project, with a few nautical miles left before it’s completed.

...why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute
the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry?

Honouring B.C.’s legendary shipbuilding industry

by Cameron Cathcart


Curious how projects get started. Many have a definite purpose. Others, the result of a dream. The shipbuilding monument project began with a question: why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry? That question got a few people thinking in 2010.

The Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society was formed, and the concept of a memorial began to take shape. The idea was to position a statue of a Second World War shipyard worker on the North Vancouver waterfront. But, that hectic period of non-stop shipbuilding also included thousands of women, along with navy personnel acting as advisors. It was clear that all three had to be represented in a shipbuilding monument. The next step was to engage a sculptor.

The artist chosen was Norm Williams, who had recently completed the monument to B.C.’s fishing industry and its workers situated outside the old Steveston Cannery, now the Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site in Richmond, B.C. His first task was to develop a maquette, or model, showing the three statues in various poses within the parameters of a single monument. Mr. Williams has since created the Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn statues located at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, the initial flurry of excitement for a shipbuilding monument began to wane at this time and for several years the project suffered an overall lack of enthusiasm. That changed in 2017 when the Naval Officer’s Association of BC (NOABC) announced plans to mark its 100th anniversary at a fall 2019 conference in North Vancouver. This sparked renewed interest by the Society and the monument project was revived in earnest.

By now, project costs had increased substantially and it was obvious the final price for the shipbuilding monument would be much higher than originally contemplated back in 2010. Also, urban renewal had changed the old Burrard Dry Dock site at the North Vancouver waterfront with the area that now includes an art gallery, a new hotel, a residential complex, public market, restaurants, boardwalk and a public pier.

The Society now had to re-engage with the City of North Vancouver to determine where the monument could be located on the revitalized waterfront. Meanwhile, the North Vancouver Arts Advisory Committee, along with the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, were consulted for artistic design and historical accuracy of the sculpture components. These were approved, and the City endorsed the project, agreeing that the monument be located east of the new pier on the North Vancouver waterfront boardwalk.

The building of vessels on the British Columbia coast has a long history. Well before European contact, coastal Indigenous people built large, sea-going dugout canoes for fishing, whaling, transportation and war. The first ship built on the B.C. coast by Europeans was at Friendly Cove, now Yuquot, in Nookta Sound in the early 1790s.

As European settlement took hold in the late 1800s, various types of vessels were built by B.C. shipbuilders over the years such as deep-sea sailing ships, paddle wheelers, lake ferries, tugs, fish boats and the occasional pleasure craft. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that U.K.-built passenger ships, used for West Coast service, began to be phased out and replaced mainly by vessels built in B.C. shipyards.

For most of the 20th century, the North Vancouver waterfront housed the largest shipyard in western Canada, with more than 450 ships launched from the site throughout this period. Opened in 1906 as Wallace Shipyard and re-named Burrard Dry Dock in 1921, tugs and barges for the forest industry, navy vessels, ferries, small cargo ships and icebreakers were launched from this historic location including the St. Roch, the RCMP schooner that achieved fame by traversing the Arctic in both directions in the 1940s.

The busiest and most record-setting activity on the North Vancouver waterfront occurred during the Second World War. Burrard Dry Dock, along with neighbouring North Van Ship Repairs, built close to 250 of Canada’s wartime Victory ships and 50 naval vessels, establishing a reputation for high standards of workmanship. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 14,000 workers were employed in round the clock shifts at Burrard, including 1,000 women, to feed the war effort. The B.C. shipyard was the first in Canada to hire women during the war. They filled the gap while men went to war with jobs ranging from store-keeping to welding.

When the war ended in 1945, shipbuilding in B.C. dropped dramatically and thousands of workers were let go, including all the women hired during the war. But, new contracts slowly picked up as the post-war economy began to surge. These included modern tugs, self-loading log barges, cargo ships, coastal tankers, patrol boats, state of the art icebreakers, arctic oil exploration ships and passenger and railcar ferries. In the 1950s the Royal Canadian Navy also began to modernize its fleet with new destroyers, several of which were built in B.C. shipyards.

Today, two replenishment ships have been ordered by the Royal Canadian Navy, along with a polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. All three vessels are at the final design stage at Seaspan Shipyards in North Vancouver, from which the first of three fisheries research vessels were recently launched. Along with building new ships, for several years cruise ship, ferry and navy vessel repair and upgrading work have been consistent and reliable activities for British Columbia’s shipyards.

The shipbuilding monument needs $350,000 to be completed and installed on the North Vancouver waterfront by October, 2019. To meet this challenge the Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society has launched an appeal for contributions at eight levels that reflect the type of ships built by B.C.’s shipbuilders, ranging from Minesweeper to Victory Ship to Naval Supply Ship, to mention just three.

The monument will consist of three bronze statues that show a male worker using a torch to bend pipes, a female worker taking a break, while a naval petty officer unrolls ship plans. It is designed to engage people, with sculptures positioned at ground level on the walkway east of the North Vancouver waterfront pier.

The shipbuilding monument will salute the legendary British Columbia shipbuilding industry and its workers, and for its support of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Marine during the Second World War.

The project began with a question: why is there no tangible recognition of British Columbia’s proud and illustrious history of shipbuilding?

The answer is the shipbuilding monument, now ready to be launched.


MEETINGS

RUSI Vancouver members gather for lunch on Wednesdays at 12:00 Noon at the Officers' Mess of the 15th Field Regiment (RCA) located in the Bessborough Armouries, 2025 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, BC.