Month: March 2022

A Never-Ending Tragedy

Thousands of years of history have established, beyond challenge, that battlefield conquest has never brought lasting peace to the victor or the vanquished. True, many mighty empires have risen, flourished and lived triumphantly as world powers – but not for many hours on the great Clock of Time.

Today, we are witnessing yet another example of the wrong way to find peace on our fragile planet as Russia tries to force Ukraine to rejoin the once-great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which had seemed to collapse overnight as the rest of the world rolled from the 1900s to the troubled 2000s.

Ukraine has rejected Russia’s demands, preferring to keep its own elected government, to enjoy a free press and other perks of democracy.

Consequently, a daily diet of death and destruction has unfolded as Russia launched its brutal attack on Ukraine and tanks rolled across the border. Thousands of citizens have fled their homes, clutching whatever they can carry. Young men have stayed behind to fight the invaders while their wives, many of them young mothers carrying young children, have stumbled onto trains and busses and safety.

Television news has become a daily serial of rockets, shells and machine-gun fire from inside the battle lines. With warnings that we were about to see scenes that might upset us, TV crews brought us the reality of a young mother lying sprawled on the road, a child in her arms. Both dead. Killed by shrapnel. On the same broadcast, we were shown older men digging graves to bury their dead because there was no other service available.

I watched with dismay, not for what TV was displaying but because not one network emphasized that this is the way wars are now fought. What Ukraine is suffering is not new. That is the saddest fact of today’s unfolding tragedy. We – the human race – haven’t learned a thing from the procession of tragedies we have tolerated to settle our differences.

The world had hardly recovered from the First World War when we were embroiled in Korea, then Viet Nam, then a couple of middle east wars and the never-ending war in Afghanistan where three empires were sent home defeated. England lost an entire army there; Russia didn’t fare any better, and the USA has quit for now.

I have written before on my own experience as a civilian under heavy wartime fire in Coventry on November 14th, 1940. A month shy of my 16th birthday, I was just off shift, waiting for my bus to get home, when the sirens sounded. The first incendiaries from the bomber pathfinders of Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 3 fell shortly after 7 p.m. The all-clear sounded little more than 12 hours later. Coventry is remembered because Germany coined a word for the raid, “Coventration,” total destruction. Many of the dead are buried in a mass grave now part of a contemplative park.

But Coventry was not the most frequent target for bombardment. Neither was London – a fact some Londoners still challenge. The most bombed city in England was Hull, on the east coast, where 1,200 were killed and another 3000 injured. It was under red alerts for 10,006 hours; 95 per cent of its residences were destroyed as well as 27 churches,14 schools and hospitals. And, I have a feeling only the English would record among the wreckage 42 pubs and eight movie theatres.

Where did they shelter? They called it “treking” (cct). By 1941, one-third of the population hiked out into the country when the sirens sounded. Having lost 400 killed in raid shelters, the people of Hull preferred the fields, and they knew the German bombers didn’t fly in bad weather.

Across the channel, German cities fared even worse as the RAF built in strength and the U.S. Air Force joined to complete round-the-clock bombing. On Feb. 13/14, 1945, an all-night raid on Dresden by 800 RAF bombers followed by a daytime attack by 210 aircraft from U.S. 8th Air Force created a firestorm. Estimated deaths were as high as 30,000. Critics of the raid insist the death toll, in a city jammed with refugees fleeing from the advancing Russian Army, was closer to 250,000 and that most of the dead were women and young children.

Attempts were made to charge the men responsible with war crimes, but their defence that “the attack was necessary” was accepted as valid.

In Ukraine, there has been criticism of the Russians for using “rocket attacks.” In England, I remember the first of the evil “flying bombs,” the V-1, which would fall to earth when its noisy engine ceased to pulsate. The brief silence that followed was hypnotic. If the rocket was at low altitude and flying away from you, you could stand and watch as its nose dropped. Wherever it exploded, it was going to be away from you. If it was on course toward you, you raced for any cover available – or prayed. In Germany, it was called Vergeltungswaffe – the “Vengeance Bomb.” At the peak of its use, 100 V-1s a day were fired across the Channel.

Then came the V-2 – the Vengeance 2. It was supersonic and exploded on contact. The missile now being used to crush Ukraine is a vastly superior V-2 – which was designed by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Most of his team was offered sanctuary with him in the USA if he would share and develop his V-2 building skills. He would, and he did. The Russians had pirated the factories making the parts and assembling the V-2s and scooped up enough scientists to keep stride with the USA.

If it ever comes to a shooting war between Russia and the USA, they will both be firing rockets similar to those originally designed by von Braun’s team and built by 12,000 factory workers from concentration camps who died in their thousands during the late war years from sickness or starvation and were replaced with other camp victims.

So, fret and shudder as we will – as we must – at the happenings in Ukraine, let it not detract us from facing the fact that generations of us have allowed the shape of modern warfare to develop as it has. Readers interested in following the numbers can Google on Casualties of the First World War and History of Western Civilization. 

The opening paragraph on “Casualties” notes that total numbers may vary because “many deaths went unrecorded.” However, there is general agreement that they are close when they say “some 70 million people died … including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians died” in World War Two. Many other civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.”

Whatever way you interpret the stats, the numbers point to a lot of mothers dying with dead children in their arms on bomb-destroyed streets, just more victims of a world that has lost its way. And with twice as many deaths as the military.

I am reminded of a verse learned many years ago: “War begets poverty, poverty peace. Peace begets plenty and riches increase, but riches bring pride and pride is war’s ground, and war begets poverty, and so we go round.”

Still More Questions Than Answers

I had been hoping to resist ever again writing about Donald Trump, the disgraced man who dreamed of becoming King of the United States of America; a man so immersed in his gold-plated illusions that he couldn’t believe “the people” had rejected him at the ballot box in 2020.

He exalted when a riotous mob attempted to take over the seat of government in Washington DC on Jan. 6th, 2021 and is now facing possible trial on charges related to that event.

Unfortunately, while we wait for the ponderous wheels of justice to turn, we suffer more inane comments from a man who still has a chance of running for the presidency in two years. Observers of U.S. politics say Republican Party support for Trump still runs strong while his supporters shrug off his continuing outrageous verbosity.

His most recent successful smash and grab for headlines came in an interview with the Washington Examiner in which he told interviewer David Drucker that, while he was “surprised” when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he thought “it was a tough way to negotiate, but a smart way to negotiate.”

They were not his first words of praise for Putin. During his short time as president, Trump openly admired his Russian counterpart, especially Putin’s move to be elected “for life.” Trump would have loved a second term at the top and might have used it to lobby his Congressional supporters in the House of Representatives and the Senate for a more lasting grip on the U.S. presidency.

On the far side of the vast Atlantic Ocean, the English people aren’t quite sure what to do about Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Note: I write English, not British, which would include Scotland, Wales and a chunk of Ireland where the home folk might appreciate the distinction.)

The PM, hair carefully coiffed astray, was recently described as “not famed for being a man of conscience, but (with) a solid grasp of optics.” In an opinion piece, Maya Foa, director of the human rights charity Reprieve, focused on Johnson’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss oil exports and imports.

She said: “He surely knows that shaking hands with an autocrat who has just overseen a mass killing will harm Britain’s moral standing on the global stage, at a time when this could not be more important.”

Britain is seeking ways to buffer its loss of oil supply from Russia because of the latest round of trade embargoes protesting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Saudi Arabia could solve Johnson’s supply problem, but the article points out his timing was bad. Just days before his visit, Saudi Arabia executed 81 men. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) claims there have been more than 900 executions since 2015. Should an English PM want to shake hands with such a business partner?

And, what’s happening in my own town and province while the lingering pandemic continues to threaten in faraway places? Well, on Saint Patrick’s Day, enough COVID-19 restrictions were lifted to make green beer almost – I repeat “ALMOST!” – attractive. We are told to rejoice and enjoy the “new normal.”

At the same time, the UK, France and Germany are reporting a new, “disturbing wave” of infections and have alerted North America to that fact. I understand Premier John Horgan’s problem and the pressures he must have been feeling from a tired public and business community.

I hope his “new normal” is the lasting kind.

Will Fiscal Sanctions Stop Putin?

It came in more silently than a screaming bomb or shell; it left no dead or wounded. But, it could prove to be the one “missile” that can change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s present mindset on the right of the people of an independent country to choose their leaders.

Fitch Ratings, a company that keeps tight watch on the borrowing and spending habits of public bodies and rates them at specified times throughout the year, fired the shot.

On March 8, it released its latest findings on Russia’s Long-Term Foreign Currency program, bluntly stating: “Fitch Ratings has downgraded Russia’s default rating to ‘C’ from ‘B.’” Expertise in high finance is not required to explain what ‘C’ means on any report card. It is a red light flashing. In the international markets where governments go to borrow money, it is a warning that there will be a critical increase in the cost of borrowing due to poor repayment of previous loans.

To get the best borrowing rates, a Triple-A rating is the coveted goal. Dropping to ‘B’ isn’t desirable but can be handled. ‘C’ is getting close to the edge of the cliff where financial disaster looms.

Fitch acknowledges such rating reviews are “subject to restrictions and must take place according to a published schedule – except where it’s necessary for CRAs (the examiners) to deviate from this order to comply with their legal obligations.”

“Fitch interprets this provision as allowing it to publish a rating review in situations where there is material change in the credit worthiness of the issuer that we believe makes it inappropriate for us to wait until the next scheduled review date to update the rating.” The extra emphasis is mine with two key phrases (change in credit worthiness) and (makes it inappropriate to wait) indicating the red light is flashing at high tempo.

Fitch needs no emphasis boost from me when the rating bluntly states: “The ‘C’ rating reflects Fitch’s view that a sovereign default is imminent.” A master’s degree in accounting is not required to understand that “sovereign default is imminent” means that recent sanctions make it hard for Putin to pay his bills.

In the gentle language of the accountant, Fitch says that since early March, “developments … have, in our view, further undermined Russia’s willingness to service government debt.”

Fitch kindly sums everything up with terse statements even Putin and journalists should understand. Under a sub-headline: “Factors that could lead to negative rating: Failure to fulfill commercial debt payment within stipulated grace periods.”

And a final advisory headed: “Factors That Could Lead to Positive Rating Action/Upgrade: Improved confidence in Russia’s willingness to repay debt, for example, due to implementation of policy that is consistent with its continuing servicing of debt obligations alongside expectations there will be capacity to execute debt payments.”

Read it again. Carefully. “Improved confidence in Russia’s willingness to repay debt …” Can that mean some of the weapons of war being used in Ukraine haven’t been paid for? Weapons like the thermobaric weapon – the “vacuum bomb” spotted among the armoured columns featured daily on television?

It’s the huge 24-rocket launcher mounted on tank tracks for mobility. It is sometimes called the “aerosol bomb” because it’s a two-stage explosive. The Guardian tells us: “The first stage distributes an aerosol made up of very fine material – from a carbon-based fuel to tiny metal particles. A second charge ignites that cloud, creating a fireball, a huge shock wave and a vacuum as it sucks up all surrounding oxygen … The blast wave can last for significantly longer than a conventional explosive and is capable of vaporizing human bodies.”

While it is not clear if the weapon has been deployed in Ukraine, Dr. Marcus Hellyer, senior analyst at Australian Strategic Policy, says the weapon is “pretty standard in terms of Russian tactics. It is not illegal even though its effects can be horrific because of the effect of creating a vacuum and sucking the air out of the lungs of defenders.”

And its use in Ukraine and anywhere else in the world is in the hands of a reputed billionaire who has already let it be known that he controls some nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

Maybe if fiscal sanctions can bring him into line, we change our clocks this weekend and settle down for a quiet summer.

“False Flags” and Ultimate Failure

I was a little disappointed a few nights back when USA President Joe Biden launched his carefully worded critique of Vladimir Putin without once chiding the Russian leader for using one of the oldest lies ever spoken by a dictator to justify the conquest of a neighbour.

Maybe President Biden isn’t quite old enough to remember the last days of summer in 1939 when Germany parked what was the best trained and armed military machine in the world as close as it could to the border of Poland. Just a military exercise, German leader Adolf Hitler said, nothing to worry about. He had used the same response in the past and had never been seriously challenged – not even when his border exercises got a little wild, and several small European countries awakened one morning to find their own national flags replaced by the swastika.

The great powers – France and the British Commonwealth – were concerned, but not unduly, and the USA was resting in contented isolation. England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been over to Germany for a man-to-man chat with Hitler and returned to England waving a piece of paper and proclaiming “Peace in our time.”

In mid-August 1939, Chamberlain’s promise got lost in a flood of speculation on the new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The pact, signed August 23, pledged non-aggression between Russia and Germany for at least 10 years and plans for a joint invasion of Poland by separate armies but under their national commanders.

In late August, Germany started reporting attacks on their in-training troops by Polish army units. Following one such attack, they invited a few American reporters along to see a scattering of Polish uniformed bodies repelled by vigilant German soldiers. It was later established the Germans had set up a “false flag” unit to stage the attacks.

In 1939, when the Germans finally launched their attack on Poland, they said it was simply to expand Germany’s “living room.” That attack started on September 1, and two days later, at 11 o’clock on an English Sunday morning, the nation listened to Prime Minister Chamberlain, in a fragile voice, inform us that diplomacy had failed and “we are at war with Germany.”

I remember how loud the kitchen clock ticked when the radio was turned off. And, the calmness of my Dad’s voice as he assured his wife, his 18-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son that “everything will be okay, they’ll never get this far.”

He was wrong. They did get “this far,” but not for six months or so and then only by air. After the brutal conquest of Poland, Hitler took a break for a few weeks (known as the “phony war”), then launched his “blitzkrieg” that ravaged the Netherlands, Belgium and France and almost destroyed the entire British army before it was plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk.

We did wonder from time to time if it would ever end, especially during those never-ending nights of sirens, explosions, fires, shattered homes and broken people.

Then came a series of events, each more momentous than the last in human and financial costs. But none of those costs were big or painful enough to convince humanity there must be a better way.

To continue as a big guy on the world stage, Hitler – tired of trying and failing to bring England to its knees – inexplicably turned his attention on Russia. Remember, he had a 1939 non-aggression pact stipulating that there would be no aggression between Germany and Russia for at least 10 years.

On June 22, 1941, Germany stunned the world with a surprise attack on Russia. The German army comprised three million foot soldiers, 19 Panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces. What followed was a Russian “scorched earth” retreat … nothing left for the Germans but charred remains.

The onslaught of Russian winter and inadequate supply line provisions did much to defeat the invaders. The vast German army never made it home. In its charge across the steppes of Russia, the Germans used a three-pronged attack column formation. The right column reached as far as Ukraine and died there.

I wonder if it would have helped if President Biden had reminded Mr. Putin that Ukraine once played in the big leagues and won? And that even though mentally unbalanced Hitler was an expert at “false flag” tactics, he was ultimately a loser.