Culture of Fear or Compassion ?

ct-photos-eiffel-tower-in-the-french-flag-s-co-006Since my wife and I had just been in Paris, France a month ago, I  was filled with great sadness when I heard about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015.  Terrorism is something I have a difficult time wrapping my head around. I cannot for the life of me understand how someone can cause harm and death to innocent people such as the carnage we saw in Paris. The news media has repeatedly said that the people who carry out such acts of violence have been radicalized, that is, have become more radical. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a radical as  “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”.  I guess for radicals that means carrying out acts of murder.  This is what I can’t get my head around.  How can someone with any kind of conscience murder innocent people? The only explanation I can come up with is these people have been brainwashed. The MacMillan Dictionary defines brainwash as “to force someone to accept a particular set of beliefs by repeating the same idea many times so that the person cannot think in an independent way”.  How exactly terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are able to do this using the internet is a mystery to me, but this  must be what is happening.

IMG_1182What concerns me the most is that many people are becoming fearful. On November 23rd, the American Government issued a world wide travel alert cautioning Americans to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. This obviously means that Americans are becoming fearful. Don’t get me wrong, caution when traveling is always a good thing.  Travellers should always use caution when travelling outside of their country whether terrorism threats are around or not. That is just common sense.  Moreover, we are beginning to see a rise in Islamophobia (or anti-Muslim sentiment). That is when there is prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims. U. S. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been advocating for more surveillance of Muslims. (see Muslim-Americans fear ‘ugly rhetoric’) Mr. Trump says, “we’re being foolish, we’re kidding ourselves” if law enforcement doesn’t keep close surveillance on mosques, and he expressed support for the idea of a database for tracking Muslims in the United States. Some have even resorted to using religion to justify Islamophobia or fear of Muslims. During a November 15 sermon at First Baptist Church in Dallas, pastor Robert Jeffress told his congregation that the Paris terrorists were “acting according to the teaching of Islam,” and said “it is time” to call out Islam as “a false religion … inspired by Satan himself”.  (see Theological Studies Director calls out) This is wrong, pure and simple. It simply is not fair to put all adherents to Islam in the same category.  In fact, the majority of Muslims around the world have condemned the Paris attacks and other acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim extremists. Even more, most if not all non-extremist Muslims categorically say that these extremists are not true Muslims. (see Muslims Around World Speak Out)  The bottom line is we must not let the terrorists achieve their goal. The root word of terrorism is terror which Dictionary.com defines as “an instance or cause of intense fear or anxiety”.  The very goal of terrorism is to instil fear in society so that our leaders cave into their demands. 

IMG_1239This fear, caused by the Paris terrorists and other terror attacks, has changed the debate over refugees.  Since returning home from Europe a few weeks ago I have been asked many times if we were affected by the refugees that had been dominating the news media before the Paris incident. Of course we were not.  My wife and I even had a conversation with another couple recently at an airport where this couple expressed real concern over Canada accepting refugees from Syria. They told us that they heard one of the Paris extremists was a refugee. Once again their concerns were stemming from fear.

There seems to be two camps in this debate; Do we allow the Syrian refugees into our country or do we keep them out as there might be an extremist among them? Canada’s new prime minister,  Justin Trudeau has promised to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada. (see Trudeau…) The debate in Canada and United States over the refugees is heated.  Several of Canada’s premiers have spoken out on the issue, both for and against. Petitions against bringing in the Syrian refugees have been popping up online. (see Should Canada stop).  Quebec’s premier Philip Couillard said it well when he said, “We must keep our arms open to refugees. They have fled their villages, they have seen their parents murdered and sometimes in front of their eyes. They come here in search of peace and freedom. Always remember that the Syrian refugees that will come to Quebec are themselves the first victims of terror.” (see We must keep our arms open)   The Free Dictionary defines a refugee as “one who flees, especially to another country, seeking refuge from war, political oppression, religious persecution, or a natural disaster”.  These people fear for their lives. They have witnessed horrible things. As Mr. Couillard stated, they are victims themselves. Alberta’s new premier,  Rachel Notley said it even better when she delivered an impassioned speech on the need to keep our doors open to Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attack, to not treat them as if they are terrorists about to launch a jihad in Edmonton or Calgary.  (see Graham Thomson) Here are some of Premier Notley’s words from Monday, November 16 speech; “…The refugees are themselves fleeing exactly the kind of terror that we were all shocked to observe and watch unfold this weekend. And that’s why we need to be reaching out to them…” The Premier later told reporters: “We cannot have our decisions being driven by fear.” The premiers of Quebec and Alberta are right! We must not be driven by fear.  My fear is that my country is buying into a culture of fear and as a result becoming less compassionate. I have always believed and been proud of the fact that Canadians are a compassionate people. Now is the time to show compassion for the Syrian refugees and NOT fear them. Now is the time to show the extremists that we will NOT be dictated by fear, that we will continue to travel abroad, and that we will NOT live our lives in fear.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United State said  in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Roosevelt is right! My fear is that fear will take hold in our free society thereby making us prisoners of fear.

We Shall Never Forget!

As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th.  When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success of Operation Overlord was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

IMG_3091In regards to the Canadian mission, fourteen thousand young Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. The landings initially encountered heavy resistance from the German Division as well as Canadian soldiers faced mined beach obstacles. They also discovered upon their landing on the beach that the preliminary bombardment proved less effective than had been hoped, and rough weather forced the first wave to be delayed until 07:35. The Canadians took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Since they had strength of numbers, as well as fire support from artillery and armoured squadrons, the Canadian forces cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.

IMG_3155The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price the Canadians paid was high. The battles to take control of the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. John Keegan, distinguished British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

It was very surreal to stand on Juno beach, knowing what happened on that beach 71 years ago. I knelt on the sand, ran the sand through my fingers as I thought about the D-Day invasion and what our troops endured that day. I toured the Nazi bunkers that are still there and envisioned how the Nazis would have operated. One of the most emotional moments at Juno Beach was during the video the museum showed at the end; a video titled, “They walk with us”.  It consisted of newsreel footage of the D-Day assault and ends with a father and mother walking down present day Juno beach discussing what happened there with their two children. I’ll say no more other than it affected both my wife and I deeply.

My wife and I also visited Pointe du Hoc located in between the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha. To understand the significance of this place, here is a history lesson.

IMG_3294
Pointe du Hoc lies 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) west of the center of Omaha Beach. As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, the prominent cliff top location was the most fortified part of the beaches by the Germans.

The American assault force was carried in ten landing craft with another two carrying supplies. One landing craft carrying troops sank and all but one of its occupants drowned, another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other put the stores overboard to stay afloat. Once within  1.6 kilometres (a mile) of the shore, German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft. These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in landing at the base of the cliffs, but British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 7:10 am with approximately half the force it started out with. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels (a device with hooks) so ladders and ropes could be attached to the cliffs. The cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach. As the Rangers (a U.S. WWII soldier specially trained for making surprise raids and attacks in small groups) scaled the cliffs, the Allied destroyers provided them with fire support and ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.

IMG_3298The Rangers successfully scaled the 30 metre (100 foot) cliff only to find that their radios were ineffective. Those Rangers that reached the fortifications learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of over 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men.

As it was in Juno beach, it was very surreal to be there, knowing what happened on that point 71 years ago. There are still some bunkers intact but the most noticeable markings of the event were the numerous craters caused by the air and naval bombardments. Some of the bunkers were in pieces. Some of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155mm guns, are still there. As we walked about the site I tried to envision what the American Rangers had to endure to succeed at their mission.

2015-10-08 17.16.25We also made a brief stop at Arromanches, located on the British Gold beach, where one of the two portable temporary Mulberry harbours is located that were built and operational within three days of the invasion. Mulberry A was for the Americans at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B was serving the British and Canadians at Arromanches. A heavy storm destroyed the American harbor on June 19, but Mulberry B remained in use for eight months. Block ships were sunk off the Normandy coast to create protection from the open sea. These ships are still there and my wife and I marveled at the ingenuity of the Allied planners. In the first 100 days following D-Day, the harbor landed over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies for the Battle of Normandy; successfully contributing to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

2015-10-08 16.16.41We also visited two of WWII cemeteries; the Canadian cemetery and the German cemetery. Again we were in admiration at how well-kept these cemeteries were, regardless of nationality. We were also saddened when looking at the various head stones when we learned many, many of these soldiers who died ranged between ages of 17 to 23. It was especially heart retching for my wife and I since our son is presently aged 21. Another very stirring moment for us was when we read the sign at the entrance of the German cemetery. The sign read, “Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21 000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all who had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” As I’ve stated IMG_3333before, this speaks of the nature of the French nation. They have a great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for.

As we did for the WWI soldiers, my wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for the WWII soldiers and the sacrifice they made to liberate France and other European countries from Nazi oppression. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWII had to sacrifice to  achieve their assigned goals.

We Shall Remember!

November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.

Now I’ve always felt that Remembrance Day was an important day to remember our fallen soldiers and I have often attended ceremonies, but since visiting the World War I and II sites in France, I have a whole new appreciation for this day. In this post, I will share my experiences visiting the WWI sites and cemeteries in France and Belgium. Experiences of my visits to WWII sites will be in another post.

2015-10-11 14.29.38The first site I visited was the Canadian National Vimy Memorial which has always been on my “bucket list” to visit. The memorial towers over the scene of Canada’s most recognizable First World War engagement, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on  April 9 to 12, 1917. In 1922 the French Government granted land on the crest of the ridge to the Canadian nation and this piece of land is now a Canadian National Park. To help you understand the importance of this site, here is a history lesson.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military operation fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.

The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the heavily German fortified Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, this seven-kilometre (4 mile) ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines. In May 1915, the French army attempted to seize the ridge but failed with 150 000 casualties. In February 1916, the British Army attempted to take control of the ridge but the Germans were able to push them away from the ridge.

IMG_3473Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together and men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

IMG_3444For me, visiting Vimy Ridge was an “eye opening” experience even though I’ve taught about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for many years. The first thing you notice are the craters left behind from the three-week bombardment that preluded the attack that occurred on the 9th of April. They were everywhere you looked. Large areas are fenced off with electric fences with signs stating that there are still unexploded devices in these areas. In fact, the attendant in the information told us that recently someone brought in a what they thought was a rock only to find out it was an undetonated grenade from 98 years ago.

When visiting the preserved trenches, I was struck by how close the Allied and German trenches were to each other. We were told that the trenches were 25 metres apart in places. In the area between the opposing trenches, known as “no man’s land” are several huge craters. We were told that these craters were from Allied soldiers tunneling under “no man’s land” and detonating explosives. My wife and I learned about the conditions of the trenches. Soldiers would spend months in these trenches often standing in ankle to knee-deep mud and water which caused many soldiers to acquire infections in their feet known as “trench foot”. The soldiers also had to contend with rats and head lice in epidemic proportions. The food was usually canned food and not much variety either. Many soldiers perished not because of battle but because of the horrific conditions of the trenches.

The park also does a tour of the tunnels. The tunnels at Vimy Ridge were part of a 20 kilometre (12 mile) network of tunnels stemming from the city of Arras. The soldiers would exit these tunnels to go onto the battle field. While soldiers were in the tunnels awaiting battle, they had to be perfectly quiet as they could be heard in the nearby German tunnels. The lighting in the tunnels was minimal so when our guide demonstrated what it would be like in there in 1917, it was almost pitch black. The temperature in the tunnels is a constant 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).

IMG_3726In the nearby city of Arras, my wife and I visited the Wellington Quarry (la Carrière Wellington) a museum that opened in 2008. The museum is a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by the British Army in WWI. Here is another history lesson.

From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, the chalk beds underneath Arras were extensively quarried to supply stone for the town’s buildings. In 1916, during the First World War, the British forces decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid in a planned offensive against the Germans. The quarries were to be linked up so that they could be used both as shelters from the continual German shelling and as a means of conveying troops to the front in secrecy and safety, so 500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, were brought in to dig 20 kilometres (12 miles) of tunnels. They worked alongside the British coal miners. Many were soldiers of below average height who had been rejected from regular units because they did not meet the height requirements.

The tunnel system could accommodate up to 20,000 men and these tunnels were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. Thousands of soldiers were billeted in the tunnels for eight days prior to the start of the Arras offensive on 9 April 1917. At 05:30 that morning, exits were dynamited to enable the troops to storm the German trenches. The Germans were taken by surprise and were pushed back 11 km (6.8 miles). However, the offensive soon bogged down and it was eventually called off after casualties reached 4,000 a day.

When you visit the quarry which lies 20 metres (65 feet) below the surface you are immediately struck by the numerous tunnels down there. A guide takes you through showing the many bottles, cans, shoes, and other WWI artifacts that are still there. You are also shown the graffiti on the walls left by the soldiers as well as one of the exits that led to the battlefield. It was truly one of the most moving and spiritual experiences I have ever had.

IMG_3434My wife and I also visited the many, many WWI military cemeteries in the area. We were actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. We visited three or four commonwealth cemeteries, which lay many Canadians. We visited a German cemetery and a French cemetery. What was astonishing to us was the number of unknown soldiers in these cemeteries. One of the cemeteries we visited had over half of the graves as unknown soldiers. Another surprising observation we made was how well-kept these cemeteries were. There were flowers growing between every headstone, the grass was always well-groomed  and monuments were found in every cemetery. I IMG_3518think this speaks of the character of the French people and nation. It says they have great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for. I was also struck by the sense of peace in these cemeteries. It was truly a humbling and touching experience to visit these resting places of WWI soldiers.

Notre Dame de Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery. Beside this cemetery is the Remembrance Ring  (Anneau de la Mémoire) officially known as Mémorial International Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.  This new memorial was inaugurated on November 11, 2014 and takes the form of a 328-metre ring of concrete with 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel inside listing 579,606 German, IMG_3528French and British names. Now that is a lot of fallen soldiers and that does not include the many unknown soldiers whose names are not part of this memorial. What was so unusual to me was the fact that the French Government collected as many names as they could obtain of soldiers who perished in WWI regardless of their nationality; regardless of which side of the war they fought on. Once again this speaks of the character of the French nation. My wife and I wandered around in awe of this memorial finding our family names. It is very powerful and humbling experience to stare at 113 people with the same surname as me who fought with the Germans, the enemy of the day. As you might have gathered, my ancestry is German.

My wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Even though WWI was such an unnecessary war and a world war caused by the big egos of the leaders of the day, it was still necessary for soldiers to keep France and Belgium from being occupied and controlled by a foreign empire. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWI had to endure.