Posts in Uncategorized
It happened today - June 26, 2016

So here’s another King of Canada you may not have an opinion on. William IV. Who took the throne on June 26 of 1830. Good for him.

Yes, he’s still King of Canada. Contrary to a strange opinion that periodically circulates, there was a word for and concept of Canada long before 1867. And the monarchs of Great Britain are also monarchs of Canada or what would later become Canada, even before Cabot’s 1497 claims IMHO and certainly before Confederation.

Moreover, I say good for him because William was, in an unassuming way, an excellent example of how to hold political power. He never expected to become king, and only inherited the job at age 64 because his two older brothers died without having legitimate heirs. As indeed did William, despite managing 10 illegitimate children with an actress.

Known as the sailor king, not so much for his apparently shore-leave lifestyle as for his active service that saw him reach the rank of rear-admiral on his very genuine merits that earned the praise of Horatio Nelson. Mind you he was once arrested in Gibraltar after a drunken brawl. He walked around the streets of New York unaccompanied during the American Revolution until news reached the British of a plot to kidnap him. He retired from the navy in 1790 and was unable to get back in when war came against France in 1793 partly because he’d spoken in the House of Lords against the war.

As a Lord, specifically the Duke of Clarence, he opposed efforts to abolish slavery, for which he was justly pilloried and rather misrepresented in the film Amazing Grace. On the other hand, he supported Catholic Emancipation.

So far so unremarkable, you may say. But seeing the crown approaching, he made a serious effort to pull himself together, in part to survive his younger brother Ernest and especially his obnoxious widow and see his niece Victoria on the throne without a regent. Indeed, at a banquet celebrating what would be his last birthday in 1836 he declared that “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer ... I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to the personal authority of that young lady, heiress presumptive to the Crown, and not in the hands of a person now near me, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed.”

As King for almost seven years he was hardworking and conscientious, by comparison with his brother George IV who didn’t ask his Prime Minister questions for fear of seeming ignorant and his father George III who didn’t listen to the answers. And in the crisis over the Reform Bill, which he seems not to have supported, he steered a skillful course between reaction and mob violence and helped to establish the accountability of the ministry to the House of Commons on a very firm footing. And he did much to repair Anglo-American relations, a matter of enduring geopolitical importance.

What really stands out is that he did all this without adequate preparation for a job he was not expected to hold, and in many ways despite a character ill-suited to the exercise of patience and judgement. He was not a great man. But he did achieve excellence by dint of his own efforts and in frustrating the efforts of radicals on both sides helped lay the foundations for the glorious Victorian era.

Good for him.

Wish I'd said that - June 24, 2016

“The fact on our side, to be held firmly, is that the tide against us is only a tide; that is, it is a dead thing. Its rapidity is all routine; whereas we, whether we win or drown, who build a dyke, are alive.” G.K. Chesterton in New Witness April 26 1918, quoted in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 17 #4 (Jan.-Feb. 2014)

Wish I'd said that - June 22, 2016

“And he [the king of Brobdingnag] gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels

It happened today - June 18, 2016

On this date in history Napoleon met his Waterloo. The original and decisive. On June 18, 1815, the combined forces of the “Iron Duke” of Wellington Arthur Wellesley, and Prussian field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher defeated Buonaparte’s final lunge for supreme power in Europe and he was packed off to St. Helena, ushering in the long and beneficial Pax Britannica.

Perhaps the threat of Napoleon seems remote today, and France too exhausted by decades of war to exploit a victory at Waterloo had they won one. But Wellington himself said the battle was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” and the Allies were tired too. It is not impossible that an Allied defeat would have driven Prussia out of the war and British forces out of Europe and the First Empire might have lasted longer than both combined did in fact and been far more formidable in the late 19th century than the farcical one led by Napoleon III.

Would European history have been worse? Might both world wars have been avoided? We cannot say. We are not given such foresight that we can permit tyranny to triumph now to forestall worse tyranny later. Sufficient unto the time is the evil thereof and men must rally when it comes.

It is therefore sobering, and at the same time inspiring, to reflect that it was almost exactly a century from Waterloo to the outbreak of World War I, and almost exactly as long again to our own day. The men who flocked to the colours in 1914, in Britain and here, felt themselves to be the heirs of those who marched in Wellington’s ranks. And I hope we today feel ourselves the heirs of those who fought at Vimy and at Waterloo, facing tyranny in our own time as they did in theirs.

Up the Brocks


For over a decade I've had the privilege of being associated with the Brockville Rifles, despite my own complete lack of military service, thanks initially to Brigitte and I spending a weekend "embedded" with the Brocks as journalists on an urban warfare exercise at Fort Drum and then both of us being made honorary members of their officers' mess.

It's a remarkable experience and one I wish more Canadians knew about. The Brocks are a "reserve" regiment. They train citizen-soldiers who, if they see active service, will do so seconded to other regiments. Even in World War II, with massive mobilization, the Brocks were "feeders" to the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, themselves now also a reserve unit. But that doesn't make them second string.

In the first place, members of Canada's dozens of reserve units are a vital supplement to the regular forces in places like Afghanistan, serving on equal terms. But in the second, they are a crucial link between citizens and the military.

It is impossible to overstate the importance, over many centuries, of that link. In the free countries of the Anglosphere, security has never been primarily the responsibility of military professionals, dedicated as they are. Indeed it has always been understood that for the military to see itself as separate from society, an elite answerable to the state not to their fellows, is a dangerous step toward tyranny. By contrast for citizens to see the military in themselves and vice versa, as with the police, is part of a healthy body politic.

The reserve-based citizen-soldier connection is also important because it helps maintain awareness and appreciation among citizens of the need for readiness in an uncertain world and an understanding that national defence is not "someone else's problem" but that of their neighbours, their colleagues, their relatives and themselves. Including readiness to respond to domestic emergencies whether natural or man-made.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to write about the reserves on a number of occasions including in Reader's Digest after another embedded exercise, at Petawawa, in which Brigitte and I even got to ride in helicopters and wave honey-soaked rations at a mama bear. (OK, that was just me, and not on purpose.) And I've been privileged to speak to the Brocks' annual mess dinner. But it's difficult to convey the special world of the reserves to those not familiar with it.

So when I got a newsletter concerning the 150th anniversary celebrations for the regiment, I thought "This really is a remarkable window into the community of the Brockville Rifles." Not just the community within the regiment, but the larger community of current and former members and their civilian friends and supporters. So I contacted them to ask whether it would be appropriate to share it and they said to go ahead. Here it is: (you can also view it here)

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If you read the letter, I think most of you will get a sense that something unfamiliar but clearly wonderful and important is going on here. And I hope you'll consider getting to know the reserves in your own town, city or area, and to understand just how important the citizen-soldier is not just to our defence but to our way of life. Up the Brocks! And happy 150th.

It happened today - June 10, 2016

Frederick Barbarossa as a crusader, miniature from a copy of the Historia Hierosolymitana, 1188. (Wikipedia)

On this day in history Frederick Barbarossa came to a sour end. On June 10 1190 his glorious dreams of victory in the Third Crusade ended when he drowned in the Saleph river in Armenia and his son Frederick IV of Swabia apparently stuffed him into a barrel of vinegar in a failed attempt to preserve his body. Sic transit gloria mundi. Barbarossa is a name to conjure with. You’ve heard of him even if you don’t know what he did. And you may guess he had a red beard. (Especially as the Germans call him Kaiser Rotbart which is characteristically short and to the point but less flowing.) He was apparently a spectacularly successful Holy Roman Emperor, which you might think is in the “tallest building in Wichita, Kansas” category. But he was Emperor for 35 years and was renowned for his political cunning, military skills and organizational capacities, an important quality for good or evil not to be underestimated. King John of England was also apparently a very hard-working man with an eye for detail… unfortunately. Indeed, it was under Barbarossa that the so-called Roman Empire of the Dark and Middle Ages, essentially a rather loose German-centred entity created by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III in 800, first became referred to as Holy. I was going to say “became Holy” but that is much less clear. I’ve never been very sure what it was for or what good it did, because it did seem to keep a certain high ideal of unity and rule of law alive but was a meddlesome and turbulent entity in practice. Barbarossa himself was forever fighting wars in Italy that I don’t think did the Italians, the Germans or him any good. As for his Crusade, well, I realize he wasn’t planning to drown, possibly the result of a heart attack. His army was set upon and mostly slaughtered in the aftermath, leaving the Third Crusade in the hands of Richard I of England and Philip II of France who really didn’t like one another. And Richard went on to have lots of fun fighting Saladin, won a bunch of battles, and didn’t capture Jerusalem, before staggering back toward England, being captured, ransomed and generally doing England no good either. But I digress. Barbarossa’s grand venture wound up getting him in a terminal pickle. It also generated an Arthurian-style legend that he is not dead but sleeping with his knights in a cave in some mountain in Thuringia or Bavaria and will one day be awoken by ravens and restore Germany to its greatness. Which might explain why Hitler called his invasion of the USSR Operation Barbarossa. Another reason to prefer Arthur. The point is, for all his glory, what legacy does he have? Like Richard II, he would be less famous but a greater benefactor of mankind if he’d stayed home and governed well. Oh, one final weird point. His semi-preserved remains were eventually buried in a variety of places, his meat in the Church of St. Peter in Antioch, his bones in Tyre Cathedral and his heart and vital organs in Tarsus. Not as an insult; for some reason this was considered an honorable way to dispose of remains in those days. (Likewise Richard Coeur de Lion’s heart was buried in Rouen, his guts in Chalus and the hollowed-out remains at his father’s feet in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.) In the end, you can scatter your remains afield if you like. But in life Barbarossa, like Richard, ought to have been more focused, stayed at home and tried to govern his own people instead of walloping others. Such earthly glory is fleeting, and generally hollow even before it flits.

Wish I'd said that - April 6, 2016

“Economics does not say that isolated government interference with the prices of only one commodity or a few commodities is unfair, bad, or unfeasible. It says that such interference produces results contrary to its purpose, that it makes conditions worse, not better, from the point of view of the government and those backing its interference.” Ludwig von Mises quoted in Sven Rydenfelt A Pattern for Failure: Socialist Economies in Crisis

It happened today - April 4, 2016

On this date in history Moscow wasn’t founded. A distinction April 4 1147 shares with a great many other historical dates, to be sure. But this one’s a bit different.

It’s different because April 4 1147 is the first historical reference to Moscow, as a minor town on the western edge of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality. Vladimir was the local big player in those days, and Moscow gets noted because of a meeting there between Yuri Dolgorukiy, son of the Grand Prince of Kiev and then in charge of Vladimir-Suzdal, and Sviatoslav Olgovich, a local potentate with a mixed record who was at that point apparently Prince of Belgorod Kievsky, whatever that was.

Apparently Dolgurukiy liked the place enough to give it a timber fence and moat in 1156. And the invading Mongol Batu Khan hated it enough to burn it down and massacre its inhabitants. So the Moscow that later appeared was, as sadly with so much of the area, deformed by the Tartar yoke in ways that were tragic for its inhabitants and the world.

The site of Moscow or the fort “na Moskvě”, on the Moscow River as it was known when Alexander Nevskii’s youngest son Daniel was given it as some sort of feeble consolation prize in the 1260s, had of course been occupied periodically from at least Neolithic times, as any place suitable for a village or city tends to be. But the Mongol conquest draws a sharp line between what might have happened there and what actually did.

April 4 1147 would be a much happier date without the Mongols. And that quality, too, it shares with a great many other historical dates including very recent ones.