Challenging the ‘victim-in-chief’

There is a choice, in the US election, that goes beyond politics, it seems to me. And it seems to me that the choice is between two styles of approaching issues, challenges, and problems – from a place of ‘victimization’ or from a place of ‘empowerment’.

If you are a victim, your focus is on whoever or whatever you think victimized you.  That victim identity can give you a lot of energetic power, and make it difficult for others to respond to you in a way that would help you to actually change that identity.

If you choose empowerment, even if you are at the bottom of a system, you can make changes – although you may well attract a lot of resentment from those who chose the victim identify.

Unfortunately, these terms push buttons for many of us – as one can see in the US campaign.

The victimization/empowerment choice doesn’t break down by party lines. It is, as anyone who has read the work of Barry Oshry knows, a bigger issue than political party affiliation. It is a choice in how one wants to regard the world in which one lives.

But there are echoes of these two identities in the two main parties contesting the election.

Many Trump supporters, whose sense of victimization has been stoked over a long time by talk show hosts who have become millionaires in the process, see him as the person who is going to revenge them on the establishment that they see as having made them victims. To do so, they have to disregard news coverage (because it is the product of a ‘liberal media’) of the stories of how Trump has victimized hundreds of small businesspeople as part of his rise to apparent billionaire status.

Trump himself, who – in the views of some conservative radio commentators is likely to lose the election badly – has taken to stoking the narrative of victimization in recent days. He claims that the election is going to be rigged by a corrupt establishment, and thus, that he also will be a victim of ‘the system’

‘Dance of blind reflex’

In my experience of social change, victimization – while it can generate powerful energy – does not create meaningful change. People who see themselves as being victims of any system can empower others in the sense of helping them to also claim an identify as victims – but they cannot help them see themselves as people who individually hold the power to make the kind of changes they want, in their own lives or in the society in which they live.

They find themselves in what Oshry calls the ‘dance of blind reflex’ – in which they end up victimizing others, and not changing their own status.

Empowerment, in its truest sense, is not easy. It requires one to examine one’s values and beliefs and ideas, and to take responsibility for how one acts and thus how one is treated by others around you. It requires you to go beyond blind reflex, to go beyond instinctively lashing out at others. It requires us to recognize, and name, what we are doing and what others are doing. None of this is comfortable.

It is especially uncomfortable, I think, in a world in which so many of us have conflated ‘anger’ and ‘violence’. Many of us feel extremely uncomfortable with anger, and don’t recognize that it is a sign of health – that someone has crossed our boundaries, has done something that is not acceptable to us. And because we don’t know how to express anger in a healthy fashion, especially in a political setting, we often swallow the anger, leaving it to seethe below conscious awareness, until something happens that pushes that button and we flare up in rage.

Rage and revenge

Via the internet, I’ve seen a lot of rage being expressed at Trump rallies, which seem to validate and even encourage expressions of rage. Many people seem to see Trump as the one who is going to revenge them on the system that has failed them – a system which they feel they had no part in creating or sustaining. ‘The worm has turned’ might well be their slogan.

Even Trump’s geopolitical commentary is cast in the tone of ‘victimizer’. He talks often about how others are talking advantage of America, of how it is time to stand up to them and take America’s power back. This sense, that America is losing its power and authority in the world, is – as some commentators have noted, akin to Russia’s perspective on the west.

But I think it is bigger than that, and it echoes something I heard Gwynne Dyer say a long time ago – that the biggest challenge of the 21st century, for Canada, would be to deal with a superpower neighbour that was losing its superpower status.

It seems to me that the 21st century story, for America, is that it is no longer the ‘city on the hill’, isolated from the world around it as if the experiences of the rest of the world are not shared by the US. The 21st century, I think, is when America begins to realize it is not exceptional, and that it shares the problems that the rest of the world has been experiencing for a long time.

Trump would have Americans build walls and turn America into a gated community that keeps out the rest of the world. But that is a narrative that goes nowhere in an interconnected, inter-related world – even if it was achievable.

The other choice

There is another choice, I believe. America can choose – as many of its citizens have – to act from an empowered narrative, even if they feel they are at the bottom of the system. They can identify the changes that they want to make, to solve the problems of joblessness, homelessness, crime, urban blight, and poverty in their communities. They can do it in relationship with the rest of the world, not in isolation. There are many examples of exactly how Americans are doing this, both at home and in the world.

It is not a narrative they are likely to hear from the conservative talk radio hosts, who – at least one of them suggests – are promoting Trump because it is good for ratings and thus good for their own bottom line. It is a quieter narrative, and sometimes it takes work to find these stories. But the examples are there, and they are powerful, of how individuals and communities are creating change. It is a narrative that Americans share with many other countries, in which people have created social change individual by individual, action by action, project by project.

That change is not coming just from one political narrative or party. Utah, for example, has done an extraordinary job of addressing homelessness in an effective way that is sustainable and saves money for the public purse. Other American cities and states also have taken action, and it is not a blue or red question – it is a question of what works, and to me, that is in fact the essence of conservatism.

No future in ‘being a victim’

I don’t believe, myself, that most Americans buy into that victimization narrative, but I can imagine it is hard to rise above it when it is blasted so relentlessly by talk radio hosts and cable tv shows. There is comfort in seeing that somebody else has caused the problems that we face, that we ourselves don’t have any responsibility for contributing to them. Acting powerfully to create change is difficult, and learning how to do it – and finding others who will support you as you do it – can be challenging.

But what I have learned over my lifetime is that there is no future in always seeing oneself as a victim, or in banding together with others to bemoan that victimization. It may feel good for a while, but it doesn’t change anything. Often, in many societies, that narrative has led to terrible conflict and war. Only when people come together to hear their stories, to resolve differences between individuals and groups, and find ways to work together – difficult as that may be at first – can they build or rebuild the peace that allows them all to live well together.

So, even as Trump promotes his gospel of victimization, I want to celebrate all the Americans who – even if they might feel that they are at the bottom of a system they don’t like – are choosing to act powerfully to create change around them. They are the future of America.

We as observers in the ‘world outside America’ can support them by a strategy of ‘accompaniment’. We can share stories of how people – inside and outside the USA – are acting powerfully to create change. We can respect those – in the US and elsewhere – who are struggling with how to express their values in a confusing time, even if we don’t share their views of how those values should be expressed in society. And we can name the kind of behaviour we see (bullying, for example), even when it isn’t comfortable to do so. Naming it clearly, without responding in kind, is the first step towards changing it.

The tears of grandmothers

I have been reflecting, as I weeded the raspberry patch, on the power of grandmothers in our world. It is not the kind of power we are used to thinking of – political power or economic power. It is the power of care for the future – and, sometimes, the power of tears.

One story in particular came to mind. It is told by Sam Obaydee Doe and Emmanuel Habuka Bombande, in A View from West Africa, in A Handbook of International Peacebuilding: Into the Eye of the Storm, edited by John Paul Lederach and Janice Moomaw Jenner. It is about the women of Mano River, who intervened in a violent dispute among the Kissi people who lived on the the border between Guinea and Liberia.

Forty of the women, led by Saram Daraba Kaba, of the Mano River Women’s Network for Peace, were listening to the elders on the Guinean side of the border. “To the astonishment of the women, the level of anger and bitterness could not allow any meaninful exchange with the elders. Sponstaneously, the women decided to sit and just listen. They did nothing but listen. As the elders spoke, their emotions deppened, and they cursed and swore to massacre their own kinsmen on the other side of the Liberian border.

“At a point where the women could no longer take in the outpouring of violent language and the quest for revenge, they broke down in tears one another the other. Some of them rolled on the grass and wailed loudly, ‘What is the future for our children?’

“Suddenly all the elders, who a few moments before had been swearing and cursing, also broke down and joined in the weeping…..The elders looked at one another and one by one began thanking the women for their patience and tolerance in allowing them (the elders) to discover reason and wisdom. They vowed that on the contrary, they wanted to reach out to their brothers on the other side and swear an oath that they would never allow government soldiers or rebels to use their territory or kin to inflict further pain and suffering on the two communities.”

Other powerful stories from the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding also are told in this chapter, but it is this one – the grandmothers sitting down and weeping, and by doing so, illuminating what the conflict was doing to their people and society, that has always remained in my mind..

It is one of many stories of how grandmothers are weaving togehter the frayed and broken places of our society. The grandmothers of Africa are raising a generation of grandchildren orphaned by their parents’ deaths from HIV/AIDS – aided by Canadian grandmothers who were moved by their courage and reached out, through the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, to nurture their African sisters.

Or the story of the grandmothers of the Playa del Mayo in Argentina, who stood in the plaza silently, wanting to know what had happened to their children during the dirty war when so many people disappeared. They stood there patiently, month after month and year after year, and their quiet presence was more powerful than any protest demonstration could have been.

Or the grandmothers of the Greek Islands who, having once been refugees themselves, welcomed families fleeing violence in Syria and other parts of the world, seeking peace and a future for their children. They saw cold and hungry people, and they welcomed them into their homes and communities.

I find myself wearied beyond words by hearing the anger and contempt expressed by people like Donald Trump. All it does is create more and more anger – there is no empathy, no understanding, and very little listening.

So I have been wondering what it would look like if the grandmothers of the United States sat down and wept about what is happening to their children, and grandchildren, their famiies, and their communities.

I imagine them, listening to the angry voices around them, trying to make sense of their grustration and grievance, and finally breaking down in tears, and asking ‘Where is the future for our children?”

Sixteen years ago, the women of Mano River showed the power of tears.

I think it is time for the grandmothers of America to reach out to one another, across borders, across political differences, across ethnicity, and speak for the children and grandchildren – through their tears. By doing so, they may create powerful change indeed.

The potential power of ‘many small coffee shops’ – a reflection on personal agency

A long time ago now, I lived in a small town in Canada’s North, where a bitter strike was underway at a local mine. It happened, coincidentally, that plans for expanding a local hotel, which housed a coffee shop where a great many people came to have coffee in the morning, were underway. Phase 1 was to tear down the coffee shop.

As a consequence, people had to find new places to have coffee in the morning. Other places were smaller, and so it happened that many of the people engaged in the strike – on one side or the other – found new places to have morning coffee. And so some places became associated with various sides in the strike.

Economic problems put the hotel expansion on hold, and so there never was a replacement for the big coffee shop where most people had gathered.

Looking back now, it seems that one consequence was that the conversations in the various coffee shops became limited and self-reinforcing. Where people would have, in the big coffee shop, heard other points of view, they began to hear only the views that they agreed with.

All of this became clear, of course, only in retrospect. The strike became more violent, and one miner set off an explosion that killed a group of men who had been working as replacement workers. The town was shocked to its core.

I have been thinking about this in light of the Brexit vote. I began thinking about how, in earlier times, people gathered at local pubs and coffee shops in England and chewed the proverbial fat. It provided a place for people to let off steam, complain, blame factors beyond their control. But rarely did people have a chance to let their complaints change the larger society in which they lived.

Fragmenting as it expands

Social media has changed that utterly. In a sense, when social media first began to influence us, it was a lot like the one big coffee shop in that small town. Now social media has fragmented as it expanded, offering a selection of ‘coffee shops’ that we can go to, so that people can gather virtually in a place with others who think the same way as they do.

And social media has offered a way for a variety of actors to influence the discussions everyone else is having. I try to use social media to share stories of locally-led achievement (and there are many such stories to share), but I know that there are a lot of other motivations at work.

There are ‘made up’ stories – ranging from satire to deliberate distortion – so that it can seem extremely difficult to know what is actually fact and what is fiction. And often it doesn’t seem to matter, as people seize on the stories that support what they believe and agree with.

In effect, we are all in a variety of small coffee shops, exchanging our stories – and grievances – which are magnified upwards through that same social media, which is proving to be easy enough for people to manipulate.

When the conversation focuses on grievances, on what people perceive as an individual loss of agency, the conversations end up reinforcing that sense of loss of ability to influence the larger conversation. And when the focus is on ‘globalization’, just as in an earlier time when the conversation would have been about ‘industrialization’, we lose the stories of how individual people are acting – from the local level upwards – to change the pictures they don’t like.

The narrative of ‘lack of agency; or lack of ability to create change around us is a pernicious one. When we feel as if our lives are out of our control, we try hard to find ground to stand on. Often that ground is about the things we can’t control, ignoring the fact that others around us are finding ways to act on those problems in small ways that start from the ground up.

The power of locally-led change

We focus on the nation state response to climate change, or refugee arrivals, or the economy, as if the state has an ability to control the bigger forces at play. We ignore the ways in which individuals, and smaller units of governance like our cities, are responding effectively to these issues. In doing so, we empower politicians, or would be politicians, who suggest there are easy solutions to complex problems – the idea that from the top of the system, they can institute the change that we want, even as we recognize – at least to ourselves – that this kind of control is no longer possible in a globalizing world.

In many ways, I suspect, the debate is not so much about ‘globalization’ as it is about how our process of governance is changing, in ways that are just as hard to see clearly as it was for that small city to see what would happen when there was no longer a place people could gather to hear what others in the community were thinking and saying.

I believe a new form of governance is emerging – one that some scholars call ‘nodal’ governance, because it reflects the idea that governance is a collective process in which ‘governmentness; is only one factor – not one that is privileged above all others. It is a process that largely grows from local initiative and agency.

There are many stories, if we care to look for them, about how this new kind of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘locally-led’ governance is emerging to offer an alternative to ‘big governance’, which seems hopelessly gridlocked. If you are feeling a ‘lack of agency’, I encourage you to look for – and then share widely – these stories about how people are creating change for themselves, from the bottom up. In this way, we can harness the power of many ‘small coffee shops’ to help create a different narrative of agency in that ‘one big coffee shop’ that is our world.

Divorcing a narcissist – analyzing Trump’s campaign….

There has been a great deal of interest in ‘narcissistic personality disorder” as a result of Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination contest. So it is surprising that there has been so little apparent analysis of Trump’s candidacy in these terms.
It seems clear that Trump has decided – in his mind – that he is seeking something to which he feels already entitled. He is, in his mind, already Presidential. This political contest is only about removing obstacles to the perfect union with the nation’s voters which he already sees in his mind.

When I began to analyze the Republican primary nomination contest in terms of the marital relationship of narcissists (there being many articles about ‘divorcing a narcissist’), a lot of things began to fall into place.
If you think of Trump’s own perceived relationship with US citizens as being like the spouse of a narcissist, then anyone in the way of the relationship is a target to be either charmed or attacked, depending on their behaviour.
Disagreeing with the narcissist releases a floodgate of hostility,” says one New York Times blog post. “You aren’t supposed to have an opinion of your own. The narcissist is a master at turning the tables. ‘I never said that. You’re much too sensitive. Everyone says you’re crazy and mean.’ When you try to set limits or to defend yourself, the narcissist stockpiles your grievances to throw at you during a later date.”
Think, for example, of when Jeb Bush tried to confront Trump during one of the debates – and the sheer nastiness that this evoked from Trump. Or when Hillary Clinton, or Megyn Kelly of Fox News, called Trump out on his self-evident sexism.

This dark side emerges only after the narcissist has charmed a woman into marriage. From the same New York Times article :
They come into the relationship with this charming and very seductive beginning. But that turns into emotional warfare. Narcissists are people who lack empathy, who are not accountable for their behavior. They set up their world so it’s about themselves. They exploit others for their own gain. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you eventually discover you are there to revolve around them and to serve them. You can only imagine the shock that happens for people when they get seduced into something they think is the best thing that ever happened to them and it turns into this kind of relationship.”

There don’t seem to be many effective ways to deal with someone whose world revolves entirely around themselves, whether in a marital relationship or in business or politics. Almost anything I have read about dealing with this kind of narcissist – sometimes called ‘malignant narcissism” or ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ – sounds almost helpless – more about how to manage the person’s behaviour or how to respond to the environment that person creates than to change that behaviour. Much like the Republican party establishment sounds in trying to deal with Trump’s ever more outrageous behaviour.
Behaving according to an agreed set of rules, written or unwritten, requires one to see that there are rules – or that those rules apply to the person in question. This is not how narcissists see the world.

The most specific kind of advice about narcissists seems to be focused on how to divorce a narcissist.  And this is interesting, because as you read about how the Republican Party – and other candidates – are trying to deal with Trump,  the frustration and lack of effective ways to manage his behaviour sounds a lot like the conversation wives of narcissists must have with their therapists.
They want out of the relationship because it is damaging them and their children (read Party and voters), but getting out will cause even more damage. It is – for the spouse, just as for the GOP – a ‘lose-lose’ proposition.
Wives of narcissists go into marriage with a certain picture of the relationship; so too did other Republicans go into the contest for the US presidency with a picture of how the process should operate. By the time they discover the true nature of that relationship – which is set on the narcissist’s terms – they discover that the narcissist has rewritten the rule book, and they are far behind the proverbial eight ball..
And when they finally try to share their story with family and friends, they often find that it is hard to convince them of the problem because the narcissist seems so outwardly charming and successful and their story so much more powerful than that told by their spouse. The problem looks entirely different when you are on the inside, than it does from the outside.
In the case of Trump’s candidacy, the media seems to serve as a stand-in for ‘family and friends’. He manages them by trying to charm them, even as he controls their access. If they write critical stories, or dispute his stories, he bullies them by mocking personal attributes, or (in one case) by billing them for a flight he had invited them on as part of doing a story.

You can hear the frustration of ex-wives  (or the victims of schoolyard bullies) in the complaints that ‘fact checking” Trump has no effect on his behaviour.  Just as the narcissist controls how the marriage is seen from outside, Trump is able to use social media – most specifically Twitter – to manage his own public image, forcing the media to respond to that image. When it comes to extricating one’s self from a relationship with a malignant narcissist, the results sound more like scorched earth warfare than about any normal kind of human relationship.
Spouses of narcissists, say commenters, often come to the point of divorce because they want to protect their children. But the narcissist turns the children (read – voters, or maybe the country)  into bargaining chips during protracted and expensive ‘scorched earth’ battles that go on and on, drawing in lawyers and judges as part of the narcissist’s cast of background actors.

So I have been wondering – what will Trump do if he loses some of the upcoming primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Cruz seems to be leading in Iowa’s Republican caucuses these days, and just yesterday, Trump began musing about whether Cruz is really eligible, given that he was born in Canada – known in US political circles as the ‘birther’ strategy. Cruz has declined every invitation to attack Trump (and appears, by all I have read, to be as narcissistic as Trump) – but that doesn’t seem to matter.
If you think about it in terms of separation and divorce, who will he turn on if he doesn’t achieve the goal he already sees clearly in his mind. Is he likely to turn on the voter who is rejecting him? Is he likely to turn on the media for distorting his message? Is he likely to turn on the GOP and the other candidates, including whichever one wins the GOP primary? Safe to say that it’s not likely to end well.

When a narcissist joins your team….

I still remember that team meeting – the rest of us were keen, excited about the possibilities now that we had coalesced as a team and felt ready to move forward on our plans to meet our membership needs. We were all excited – but one of us was, it later became evident, excited for a different reason.
In retrospect, I realize he was a narcissist, proud of his new title. And he saw us as a backdrop for his role – not as partners in a collaborative team effort. In some senses, I suppose, he was more aware than we were. He knew that holding a title, as he did (even if appointed, not elected), gave him power. It was something he had been pursuing for a while.

Over a period of years, our team had developed as a collaborative effort. We shared the responsibilities once held by one person, who held the title of regional director within the organization – and we made our decisions collaboratively, as equals. It worked well, for some time, and we built the organization in our area until it was seen as the strongest region within the global organization.
The person who held the “title” was committed to working collaboratively, and it worked well, so we never saw the need to incorporate the team concept into the organization’s bylaws.

Then came this man, and everything changed – rapidly. As we talked about our plans, he talked about ‘the board’ and what it wanted. Odd how it seemed that the board had reservations about everything we wanted to do – and he was the one who knew what the board ‘wanted’.
So all our plans, highlighted on flip chart paper, went nowhere (unless, as I realize in retrospect, they suited his purposes) – although he talked about them a lot – to others. It was just that it never seemed the right time for many of these plans to move ahead.

And then there was the ‘palace coup’. We had one vacant team spot – he proposed to fill it by calling for interested members. We had done this several times before, to fill a spot. But this time, he proposed to add all the new volunteers to the team and to let the roles become clear over time.
In the corporate world, one would have called this a ‘hostile takeover’. But in our world, this was called “expanding the team”.  What it meant, effectively, was that we were outvoted – as he had recruited, and conversed, with all the “new team” himself. Unable to change us, he had recruited his own team.
The organization itself was made up of people who work in such situations on a regular basis. But no one seemed curious about why our long-established team was dissolving. They apparently just saw numbers – he had expanded the team. And no one called any of us to ask why, after so many years, we were all leaving the team – and the organization.

I still remember, at a locally-organized event we were all attending, watching as the ‘director’ spoke about the team without acknowledging the rest of the team members in the room – including those who had done the bulk of the work to organize the event.
I guess in his mind, it was clear. He was the director – he was in charge. For him, we were just a part of the backdrop.
From the audience, it must have sounded okay. I mean, he did give credit to all those who had laid the foundation that he was now standing on. He has continued to do this – give credit to those who built the foundation, even as he and his actions effectively dismantled it.

If I sound bitter, it is because for a long time, I was. I just didn’t really understand why – until I heard a recent program on CBC Radio about narcissists. Then I began to see him clearly, for the first time.
I don’t belong to the organization any more. I felt that for an organization made up of people who work with (among others) dysfunctional teams and organizations, there should have been more curiosity about why such a long-established team had dissolved.
But now I realize that the organization, too, was one of his victims. He was charming to board members, cultivating each member even as he acquired knowledge – which he then could use to build his own reputation and business.
He saw power opportunities, and he took them. And having learned the organization’s language, and thinking, he cloaked it all in the right words. It just took them a lot longer to see him clearly than it had taken us.

Very sad. And I guess I am still somewhat bitter – but mostly at the organization, for not walking its talk.
He, as I now realize, was being absolutely true to himself.
He was, after all, the ‘director’.

Widening the conversation about peacebuilding…

One of my hopes for the New Year is that the Canadian government will broaden the conversation about peacebuilding beyond the role of the Canadian armed forces.

A long time ago, I heard Gwynne Dyer speak in Yellowknife. One thing he said has remained with me – that Canada as a country is more like the United Nations than any other country on earth. Our population is made up of people from all around the world.  As a nation, this gives us a unique perspective on – and potential contribution to – building and nurturing peace around the world.

We need to take advantage of this capacity as we think about peace and security issues – because how one sees peace and security differs, based on our backgrounds and experiences. And we don’t often have the chance to share experiences as widely as we could and should.

Over the past month and a half, I have been curating stories about how Canadian communities and people are welcoming Syrian refugees. I have noticed how often those who have themselves been refugees and immigrants are at the forefront of the welcoming, as they see a way to give back some of what was given to them.

Often, in my work as an election observer, I have met Canadians who have served our country in a variety of ways, and heard some of their stories. Many of us have come back from international work with no way to share our experiences more widely – either with others who have similar experiences, or those whose work lies in soldiering.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak as part of a panel on human security. The other participants were from our military. I spoke about the value of civilian participation in peacebuilding and democracy, and I included some stories. One was about how, when I returned to Yellowknife from Bosnia in 1996, I did not walk on paths apart from the paved road and sidewalk for almost a year. It had become second nature for me to avoid anything but the paved road because of the danger of mines.

The next morning at coffee, a colonel spoke to me about my presentation. He said that when I told that story, he was instantly back in Bosnia. He, too, had shared that experience. We don’t often enough have the chance to share such experiences.

Why does it matter that we share our stories? In the early 1990s, in Somalia, there was extensive international participation in trying to end the fighting in that country. The Australians sent a contingent, who were posted in Baidoa, where there had been back and forth fighting as Said Barre tried to regain the capital, Mogadishu. There was famine, and fear, in Baidoa.

Before they deployed, the Australians spoke with an Australian NGO that had been working in Somalia. They learned about the culture, and about the importance of elders. So when they went to Baidoa, they behaved differently than troops posted elsewhere.

They reached out to the elders, and to the NGOs who were feeding the people. They asked for their advice, and they followed it. They disarmed the community block by block, leaving guns only to those who were guarding the NGO premises. They worked with the elders to rebuild law and order, refusing to accept the local warlords as having any authority in governance.

Not only did this strategy help to restore law and order in Baidoa (at a time when other armed forces, including the Americans, were accepting warlords as ‘government’), but it helped provide security for the lightly-armed Australians. The elders brought news of arms dumps, and other security issues, often walking long distances to tell the Australians about these risks.

Knowing the situation in advance, from a cultural perspective, helped the Australians understand the security situation differently than other armed forces did. It helped them craft a strategy that worked.

Expanding Canada’s dialogue about security, and peacebuilding, beyond just the armed forces offers Canada a chance to act differently – and very likely, more effectively – in places like Syria. I hope that the Canadian government will see this opportunity and will find a way to expand the dialogue on how to build peace (and fight war, if that is necessary) beyond the Canadian armed forces. For a country so like the United Nations in our population, we have a unique opportunity to convene a different kind of dialogue about security – and that is a gift we can bring to the world in 2016.



“I have your back”

I read a wonderful story yesterday.
It was a story that began with an anguished mother who had spent an entire night comforting her eight-year-old daughter. The family is American Muslim, and the young girl had been watching the television news with her grandmother when she heard Donald Trump’s call to deport refugees and ban all Muslims from coming to the United States.
The young girl went off to pack up her treasures, afraid that soldiers were going to appear at her door and force her family to move.
As she comforted her daughter, the mother had to come to terms with the idea of just how dangerous this kind of rhetoric is. And in the morning, she turned to Facebook to pour out her anguish.
The response she got was unexpected, and heartwarming. She began to hear from US Army veterans, many of them parents themselves, who wanted to reassure her daughter that they would never be a part of driving American Muslims from their homes.
“Salamalakum Melissa!” said the first soldier. “Please show this picture of me to your daughter. Tell her I am a Mama too and as a soldier I will protect her from the bad guys.” Later, she told Upworthy that “It bothered me all night. Stuck in my craw, so to speak. This rhetoric and fear, hate, and violence is not okay. It’s not the United States that I would fight for. I was awake all night.”
She turned to social media to call on other vets to respond, creating a hash tag called #IWillProtectYou – and the messages of support began pouring in.
“Let Muslim children know that we will not hurt them. That they are safe here in America. That we will protect innocents as we always have and by added benefit keeping our oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution”, said one vet. Another one said: “I am not Muslim, but when anyone says the Army that I served with will go on to remove Muslims from my country, they’ll have to take me too.”

Coincidentally, it was not the only story I read yesterday about what soldiers I know call “I have your back”.
In The Times of Israel, I read about Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who was the ranking US officer in a German prisoner of war camp during WWII. Some of the soldiers who were there were Jewish Americans.
The Nazi guards wanted the Jewish soldiers separated – they would be sent off to labour camps where they would most likely die. Edmonds spoke up: “We are all Jews here”, he told the Nazis, as all 1,000 American prisoners in that camp stepped forward.
The story of his heroism, which saved at least 200 Jewish American soldiers, remained hidden for years. He never talked about it, not even to his son, who uncovered the story serendipitously. But when the story emerged, he was posthumously recognized with Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II – one of the “Righteous Among Nations” remembered at Yad Vashem. He is only the fifth American named, and the first serviceman – and the first whose actions saved the lives of other Americans.
These are two inspiring examples of what soldiers understand as the concept of “having your back”.
I didn’t fully understand this concept until my time as an election observer in Georgia, almost a decade ago. My partner was a retired Dutch general, who had once commanded 45,000 men at the Dutch military college. I had never been a soldier.
When you work as a long-term election observation team, you spend a lot of time together. We had dinner together every night, and we travelled long distances around the area we were responsible for. We had a lot of time to talk.
It was in working with him that I grasped the idea of “I have your back” and what that means. Someone else I know calls it the concept of “honour”, meaning that you would lay down your life for your fellow soldier. It is not a concept that most of us as civilians ever experience in its full meaning.
But this week, those army veterans in the United States demonstrated so clearly what it means to “have your back” – and that for them, this concept applies not just to fellow soldiers but to those of us they are sworn to protect. And I am touched, and grateful.
And as I listened, this morning, to an interview on CBC radio about Canadian participation in the co-ordinated assault on Daesh which ended with a discussion of how Canadian soldiers are affected by their participation in such missions, I thought about how we need to tell them that “we have your backs”, both when they are in the field and when they are home.
Whatever decisions are made about how Canada reshapes its participation in the attempts to bring peace to Syria, I hope with all my heart that our message to our soldiers will be “we have your backs”. And “thank you” – for now and always.