Galicia Division controversy

The National Post is reporting on controversial Canadian monuments to Ukrainians who volunteered to fight with the Waffen-SS starting in 1943. A large number of those who fought in the division immigrated to Canada after the war, aided in part by intervention from the Roman Catholic Church. While the immediate context of the controversy is critical comments from the Russian embassy (possibly with questionable motives), some of those quoted advocate more critical thought within the Ukrainian community about the wartime roles of their compatriots:

“It would be refreshing and perhaps a form of self-healing …” writes University of Alberta professor David Marples in a 2007 book on “heroes and villains” in Ukrainian national history, “if Ukrainians could offer a conception of their recent past that looked at all aspects of these events, recognizing in passing that heroes could be criminals.”

One of the monuments in question is at St. Volodymyr Cemetery in Oakville, Ont. It commemorates a major battle, the Brody, fought by the Ukrainian Galician Division of the German Waffen-SS against the Soviet Red Army, during which more than three-quarters of the Ukrainian soldiers perished.

The article also describes potential involvement of future Galician Division soldiers in anti-Semitic actions and war crimes. A spokesperson for the B’nai Brith is quoted saying that they would oppose future such monuments, but do not object to the existing ones remaining in place.

The article mentions the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada (Deschênes Commission) which concluded in 1986 “that members of the Galician Division who immigrated to Canada hadn’t had charges against them substantiated”. I was once able to briefly speak with a former commission member at a Massey College event, but he did little but reiterate the high level conclusions of the commission.

I should read Marples’ book.

Modern board games

Here are a couple of interesting journalistic accounts of complex modern board games:

They both emphasize games that seek to accurately model military conflicts, particularly “A Distant Plain“, which is about the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

A few years ago, I tried to convince the student government (Lionel Massey Fund, or LMF) at Massey College into buying a game called “Persian Incursion” which sought to model an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They rejected the proposal as too expensive and controversial. It would be interesting to try a game like this sometime, but no board game café where I have asked yet has carried them.

Pullman on authoritarianism and eroded democracy

Along with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Phillip Pullman’s essay “Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms” must be one of his most radical pieces of writing. It corresponds to his general concern about lack of oversight over powerful institutions and speaks out powerfully against the authoritarianism that can arise in parallel with public fear:

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

One early passage in his new novel La Belle Sauvage evokes a similar theme:

She tried to keep a steady pace. She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeus corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumors were true. (p. 153–4)

Authors like Pullman and Margaret Atwood play a valuable societal role in drawing attention to such dangers: that fear will drive us to hand over control to unaccountable entities and that a drift toward dystopia is possible. Among all the dangers we face, we mustn’t forget the nightmares the state is capable of imposing.


End of the Cassini mission

After a 20-year mission, and to avoid any risk of contaminating Saturnian moons with microorganisms from Earth, the Cassini space probe was deliberately crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere today.

The science it has returned has been stimulating and the imagery spectacular. The watery moon Enceladus now joins Europa among the solar system’s most intriguing life-compatible bodies.


I saw the 70mm film version of “Dunkirk” last night and found much to appreciate about it. The production values are excellent, and it generally seems an unusually realistic depiction of history and combat, with less of the spectacle and fewer of the implausible dramatic storylines that often dominate the genre. The non-linear storytelling adds to the sense of chaos, and perhaps adds a bit more dramatic tension to a story where — for anyone who has taken high school history — the broad outlines of the ending are known in advance.

The film is unusual in part because almost no characters have names which are mentioned or emphasized. Rather, most of the storytelling is visual and told in overlapping vignettes: sinking ships and air combat, and repeated portrayals of the men of the British Expeditionary Force waiting on the beach for its evacuation.

In some ways, I felt the film consciously subverted some of the tropes of spectacular high budget war films like the notorious “Pearl Harbor“, and even the more unified and neatly structured storytelling of classics like “Saving Private Ryan“. For instance, a successfully tense scene centres around whether an oil slick from a sinking ship would catch fire; in a “Pearl Harbor” type film, the leaking ship probably would have exploded in the shot when it was first shown. Only two moments struck me as transparently unrealistic: when the senior officer on the beach somehow knew exactly how many people had been rescued just as the last boats were leaving, and an odd scene in which men trapped in a sinking ship somehow believe that throwing a man or two overboard will address the problem of bullet holes below the waterline in the hull.

All told, the film was evocative and memorable, as well as generally non-moralizing (though the heroic Winston Churchill quotation in the closing minutes might have been usefully tempered with some reference to his disastrous involvement in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16). The absence of well-known actors (though I certainly recognized Mark Rylance from the excellent “Bridge of Spies“) added to the sense of watching a plausible historical reenactment more than a standard Hollywood drama.

Recommended for those with an interest in history, real-world sets in place of heavy CGI, and perhaps seeing very expensive ship sets being rotated and submerged. I’m curious about whether some genuine WWII aircraft were used in the air combat scenes that linked together the disparate bits of the plot.

Arming Saudi Arabia

I find the debate about Canadian arms companies selling weapons and vehicles to Saudi Arabia a little perplexing. The media coverage seems to turn on the question of whether the arms and equipment are being used to oppress the civilian population of Saudi Arabia. I find this perplexing because there seems to be ample evidence that oppression at home and abroad is the main business of the Saudi government, and that anybody selling them anything should expect it to be used that way.

On one hand, it’s appealing that moving to non-fossil fuel sources of energy could undermine countries like Saudi Arabia. On the other, it’s frightening to think what would happen to the region in a future where nobody wants or is willing to use their oil.

Activism as being a catalyst

When we think about global trends, we tend to focus on their importance and how rapidly things are changing. China’s economic rise, along with massive economic development and urbanization around the world, all have unambiguous importance, though we will endlessly disagree about how they will interact and few of us will live long enough to feel confident we saw the final outcome (there are major limits to knowledge and prediction).

If one makes a sincere effort to understand what is happening in the world and feels compelled to try to encourage some of the best possible outcomes, given the state of the world right now, perhaps it makes sense to think in terms of which trends you hope to speed up and which you hope to inhibit.

The key question in effectiveness has to be: am I / are we making a difference in terms of an important objective.

So perhaps it makes sense to think about being a catalyst or accelerant (to choose a more obviously violent analogy) hoping to create as substantial a ∆ifference as possible in the final chemical equilibrium.