canconcolumnists
home | about | archives | forum | submit

How do you spell Vichy? C-A-N-A-D-A

Stephen Gowans

philippe Petain, who had distinguished himself in the defense of Verdun in World War I, later became marshal of France, and then prime minister when France was on the verge of collapse to the Nazis. In June of 1940, Petain signed a peace pact with Hitler that guaranteed his name would live forever in infamy. Petain agreed to an armistice that allowed one-third of France to remain unoccupied, while the remaining two-thirds, including the capital, Paris, were given over to the Germans. With the Nazis in Paris, and Hitler gleefully marching through the Arc de Triomphe, Petain had no choice but to establish the seat of his government elsewhere. He chose Vichy, forever polluting the region's name with the rank odour of pusillanimous collaboration.

Petain's government was largely dominated by the Germans, and by Pierre Laval, a socialist and former prime minister of France. Laval found favour with the Germans, and by 1942, had assumed virtual leadership of Vichy's collaborationist regime.

After the liberation of France in 1944, Laval fled to Germany and then to Spain, finally giving himself up for trial in France in July of 1945. Petain was sentenced to death the same year, but was later reprieved and imprisoned for life grim ends for men who must have fancied themselves as pragmatists.

We might revile Petain and Laval today, but how many of us would have reviled them at the time, especially contemporary Canadians, who are so accustomed to knuckling under to a country whose expansionist ambitions and ardent militarism surely make Nazi Germany a bush-league bully?

With 200,000 troops deployed around the world in 40 countries, with a military budget that towers over that of its regional rivals together, and a penchant for lobbing cruise missiles on the flimsiest of pretexts, usually in violation of international law, it's hard to escape the bully tag. Nazis confined their jack booting to Europe. Today, Washington recognizes no frontier.

Imagine it: The redoubtable German army a finely tuned, hyper-muscular military machine jack booting through Europe, smashing whatever obstacles lay in its way. Could it be that at some point Petain uttered something equivalent to Margaret Thatcher's TINA there is no alternative? Was the advancing German army a force to resist, or one the pragmatic would have seen a need to come to some accommodation with, much as Canada, in true Canadian fashion, is about to come to some accommodation with one of history's most bone-headed ideas the National Missile Defense, or NMD.

Were this the bone-headed idea of a modest little power, like Switzerland, Canada would surely ridicule it, but as it's the bone-headed idea of a great bully and, as misfortune would have it, our next door neighbor it's treated more delicately. When you're the mouse sleeping next to the elephant, collaboration might not be such a bad idea. Just don't call it collaboration. Call it pragmatism.

Everyone knows the NMD is bone-headed, including its biggest cheerleaders, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who don't even bother to defend the Walter Mittyesque scheme. They just keep repeating that it's a done deal, or, say, as Rumsfeld did in one of his more fatuous moments (of which, I'm sure, there will be many more) that the administration's hands are tied. It seems that Bush's cabinet is constitutionally bound to protect the "Murican" people, and the NMD is simply, we're told, a protective shield. In other words, TINA. They couldn't turn it down, even if they wanted to.

In Canada, everyone knows that Canada's going to go along. It's our nature. We're pragmatists.

The military says Ottawa has to participate, otherwise the Canadian Armed Forces will miss out on some cool stuff. Defense Minister Art Eggleton conducts focus groups with the public to find out whether there will be an outcry if Canada climbs down off the fence we're now perched on to embrace the American scheme, and if so, how to keep Canadians from getting too agitated. Sensing that the public is wary of the plan and he should be: even the Globe and Mail, whose editorial policy usually reduces to "Americans good, opponents bad," denounced the scheme he discovers from the focus groups that Canadians are pragmatic about defense issues. Or such is the official spin.

Petain was pragmatic about defense issues, too.

Bone-headed or not, the NMD is a wonderful boondoggle, which explains why something that has such an egregiously bad track-record can still be a done deal. It doesn't matter whether it works, or touches off a new arms race, or threatens to plunge the world into a thermonuclear holocaust, or stupidly eats up money that might be put to better use, say in putting Americans in jobs and college and health care rather than in prison cells. All that matters is that this lunatic's sinkhole funnels an ocean of cash into the coffers of the defense industry itself a sinkhole. There are profits to fatten, and as far as fattening goes, the NMD is a Black Forest cake dripping with maple syrup. The two fat ladies couldn't pack this thing with more calories.

It will be acknowledged that the promise of a gooey, calorie-laden profit expander is handy for bringing reluctant countries on side. Jean Chretien, rushing off to Washington to be the first foreign leader to genuflect before the White House's newly installed resident cretin, and grand imperial Pooh-Bah of the world, is given a clear message, according to the Globe and Mail: "Those who support NMD would be part of the massive military-industrial development of the system."

I'll bet Bombardier, darling of the Liberal government, a company which just might cash in on that massive military-industrial development, is able to stifle whatever niggling qualms it has about the NMD, if any.

And Chretien and Eggleton and Foreign Minister John Manley, always eager to remain on good terms with a business community that basks in the warm glow of defense boondoggles, and none too keen on getting into a scrap with the bully-boys in Washington, will find a way to submerge their own reservations.

As Colin Powell says, "It's a done deal." Even in Canada.


Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at sr.gowans@sympatico.ca.

home / about / archives / forum / submit