For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax. It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far. Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban, I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed. I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.
Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy” provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)
Private Johnston’s great adventure ended abruptly on February 18th 1900. The 19 year-old militiaman had lied about his age to join the special contingent of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, recruited to fight Boers in South Africa. But on the first day of the first battle Johnston took a bullet in the head. Mortally wounded, he died nine days later. “8105 Pte. Johnston G.” reads the casualty list. “Died of Wounds, 27-2-1900. Buried at Paardeberg, S. of Modder River, 150 yds S.W. of ford, 200 yds. west of house used as hospital.” A century later, preparing to travel to South Africa and intrigued by that cryptic entry, I resolved to find out who he was, explore where he fought, and visit his grave.
Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.
The Colonel from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was visibly annoyed. How, he said, could I possibly suggest talking directly with American warships when they are simply following orders from Washington, and a constant provocation and threat to Iranian sovereignty! My reply was equally emphatic, although genuinely sympathetic because this was not just a debating position but, literally, a potential matter of life and death. Our resulting animated but cordial discussion extended well into post-meeting teatime. Now, more than fifteen years later, the tragic deaths of 176 innocent civilians aboard Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 are a haunting reminder of that exchange.
Thirty years ago this month, naval officers on the Canadian Forces Command and Staff Course were taking the annual professional tour of NATO naval and military facilities across western Europe. As usual, the itinerary included Lübeck, on the border between East and West Germany, for briefing by the West German Federal Border Protection service (Bundesgrenzschutz) on the 1,380 kilometre network of fences, fortifications, guard towers and security zones isolating the ironically named German “Democratic” Republic. But 1989 was different. “I don’t know what to tell you” the BGS briefing officer told us. “Yesterday even the cleaners here had to undergo a six month security clearance. Today I have a thousand East Germans in my parking lot!”
Deep below the manicured gardens and historic architecture of Hanoi’s ancient Imperial Citadel of Thang Long lies a secret that was opened to the public only in 2012: the headquarters from which the Politburo and Central Military Commission of North Vietnam conducted the “American War” between the bombing of 1967 through the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.
It would be easy to dismiss the daily sunset ceremony at the crossing straddling the storied Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Amritsar, as a caricature of militarism taken to extremes. But I don’t, and here’s why. On the day I visited a few years ago it was indeed reminiscent at first of the famous Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on 1970s television, but an unforeseen event uncovered a very human face behind the mask of blatant hostility.
She was unremarkable in appearance, but there was something of steel and fire beneath that soft-spoken shyness. It was apparent that the young soldier holding her hand represented welcome moral support, but not an irreplaceable element in achieving her purpose. Though she would not have recognized it in herself, she had come to the local office of the European Community Monitoring Mission not so much to petition for help as to enlist us as the chosen instrument for her inexorable campaign.
“5/6 June 1940: 1 Hampden and 1 Wellington lost …”:
In the history of the epic drama of the Second World War, this cryptic entry in the Bomber Command War Diary of Britain’s Royal Air Force seems little more than an inconsequential footnote. As those words were penned, two million German soldiers were facing the combined armies of France and Britain in the struggle for France. Adolph Hitler’s armies had trampled across the futile neutrality of Belgium and Holland in a matter of days. Neutral Norway had been taken with apparent ease. France was to fall to the Nazi onslaught within less than three weeks. When studying such momentous and overwhelming events, it is well to remember that such little footnotes are enormously momentous in their own right for the individuals to whom they refer.