Lessons from my father

Words of wisdom and lessons learned from some much earlier wars for empire.

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Words of wisdom and lessons learned from some much earlier wars for empire.

Father's Day brought me thoughts of my own father and, relatedly, of events which he experienced during his lifetime — and that appear to be recurring now.  They relate to war and peace, justice and injustice, integrity and manipulation.
My dad lived a remarkable life.  Born in the Netherlands, his formal schooling ended when he was 6 or 7.  His family moved to the Transvaal, where his father and uncles supervised a railroad-building project.  Then the Boer War broke out.  He, his mother, and siblings were interned in a schoolhouse also used as a barracks for British soldiers.  His father and uncles, meanwhile, were with the Boer forces in the hills.
After the war, the Van Dyk family moved to southern Chile and then to southern Saskatchewan, where new towns were being developed near the American border.  When World War I broke out, he tried to volunteer for the Canadian Army but was turned down because of his vital occupation as a wheat farmer.  He met and married my mother, who was a teacher in the small community's one-room school.  When depression hit the prairies, they moved again, this time to Bellingham, where Dad fought for the right to unionize the sawmill where he was an unskilled laborer.
Dad was a kind, strong man who never complained, loved America, and resisted injustice wherever he found it.  During the hard days of the 1930s, he sometimes would come home from his union's picket line bruised and bloody.  Word had it, though, that he never lost a fight.  ("Never be the one to start a fight," he told me, "but always be the one to finish it.")  Dad had other homely pieces of advice which stuck with me.  "Never walk next to a manure wagon," he said, "because some of it always falls off on you" — warning me against hanging out with the wrong friends.  Although formally uneducated, Dad got his U.S. citizenship, read daily newspapers, eagerly awaited his weekly copy of Time magazine, and worshipped President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party as he would a religion.
I had recent occasion to reread an account of the Boer War in To End All  Wars, Adam Hochschild's account of dissent before and during World War I. 
We think of the British as enlightened colonialists.  But, just as others, they could be brutal in pursuit of Empire and wealth. They invaded the Orange Free State and South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal), two independent south African states controlled by European settlers called Boers, when they learned of rich gold deposits in the region.  The war waged against the Boers was ruthless and included the destruction of farms and settlements.  Some 100,000 women and children were left homeless; many were interned in barbed-wired concentration camps lacking elemental sanitation and medical care.  The death rate was horrific. A handful of brave English dissenters, including future parliamentary leaders, opposed the Boer War and the brutality against the Boer settlers — to no avail.
The British leaders of the Boer War would, as it turned out, be strong backers of English militarization in the following decade and advocates of a European war to assert Britain's global and regional position.  Across the channel, Germany was headed in the same direction.  The opponents of militarization in the United Kingdom were the same people who had opposed the Boer War.  They also backed women's suffrage and greater freedom for Ireland.  In Germany, Social Democrats opposing militarization had strong ties to
their counterparts in Britain and in France.

But, as has been well recorded, the militarists in Europe carried the day and launched the continent into a four-year nightmare, resumed some 20 years later in the even deeper nightmare of World War II.  All in 1914 had expected only a brief conflict which would, for its leaders, be a career-enhancing adventure.
Which brings us to now.
My mother died in 1970, while the Vietnam war was still raging.  I had served in the Johnson White House but had opposed the war.  On her deathbed, she gave me surprising advice:  "If the war is still on when your boys reach military age (they were then 9 and 8, respectively) move your whole family to Canada.  It is a good and peaceful country."  Dad nodded his head in agreement.
We have troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan and are fighting on one side of a Libyan civil war.  In none of the three countries are American vital interests involved — as, it turned out, they were not involved in Vietnam. 
We are not in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya for wealth or territory, but there are vestiges there of the same mentality that caused the British to exert military power to extend their 19th and early-20th century global influence.  And the same kind of arrogance by leaders
willing to sacrifice their own country's and others' lives rather than admit a mistake or back off from overreach.
The Boer War and World War I dissenters — not to mention those of the Vietnam era — were right and their nominal leaders wrong.
I found myself thinking this weekend of what my Dad would be thinking and saying in the face of President Obama's refusal, against the advice of State and Defense Department attorneys, to honor the War Powers Act and bring our Libyan intervention to the Congress for approval or disapproval.  
"You cannot trust these people," he would be saying, "they do not care about ordinary people."   He would be saying the same about
Wall Street and corporate executives who, in this tough economic time, were giving themselves undeserved, record-high compensation packages.
I am thinking of the Boer War concentration camps, the folly of World War I, the misguided and extended American interventions in places ultimately unimportant to us, and the morally unacceptable gap that is growing between the rich in this country and those who do its daily work.   I am angry about Obama's outright challenge to congressional (and, thus, the people's) authority to have the final word on war and peace.   
Some things never change, generation to generation.  One of them is the requirement that ordinary citizens stand up, be heard, and form literal and figurative picket lines when those with power abuse and misuse it.

Thanks, Dad, for leaving that with me.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.