Book Review: What do we talk about when we talk about war?
By Noah Richler
Goose Lane, 2012
Reviewer: Shirley Farlinger
How is it that Canada of Blue Helmet fame has been persuaded to become a military nation equipped to deal with “scumbags” in Afghanistan?
Author Noah Richler, son of Mordechai, addresses this question drawing from his extensive experience as writer and producer of radio and TV documentaries for the BBC and CBC as well as author of “This is My Country, What’s Yours?” He is not a historian but makes use of his Classics degree from McGill University to compare the ancient myths of good versus evil from Greek heroes to our present rewriting of Canadian stories which inform our ideas about war.
What has been going on? Harper has been looking back at the War of 1812-14 to celebrate that odd military heritage and how we, with our British and native allies declare victory and burned the “White House”. Americans see it differently.
Some citizens in Auxbridge object to this tack and remind us of their non-violent heritage as new settlers. But the Royal connection is now celebrated as our embassies will have mandatory pictures of the Queen and her 60th anniversary is a major CBC TV event.
The World War I Canadian National Vimy Memorial has been rededicated. In fact Vimy Ridge became the “guiding light” of Gen. Rick Hillier’s monumentalist vision for the Canadian forces. The story that might include the view that the war to end all wars was really an “absurd senseless slaughter” is eliminated in a peon to war as a permanent condition sure to return. Paul Gross’ film “Passchendale” was shown across Canada and “Passchendale in the Classroom” was distributed by the Dominion Institute claiming that Canada was born out of the trenches of World War I. There is some truth to the idea that Canadians from across a vast land did come together but at what a high cost!
World War II is one the author does not disagree with but he notes that after 1953, after the Korean War, a United Nations operation, our first combat operation was in 2005 in Kandahar where the population perceives us as occupiers. “To hell with Canada determining its own post-colonial path.” Forgotten is when Prime Minister Pearson tried to warn President Johnson to get out of Viet Nan and he was physically attacked by the President. How little influence we had.
The Pearsonian tradition has been trashed as the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre was moved in 1994 to Ottawa where is became a “pathetic shadow of its former self.” By 2010 we had only 22 troops, 155 police, 20 military experts for a total of 197 peacekeepers. Yet peacekeeping around the world is gaining importance. About 100,000 serve in many places.
PM Chretien’s refusal to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq was not really drastic as we continued to supply the US with military goods.
After 9/11 the American public was convinced the terrorists came from Canada even as we offered sanctuary to their air flights. From 9/11came the need to attack Afghanistan and the rationale that our trade with the US would suffer if we did not cooperate. Prime Minister Paul Martin preferred trying to stop the slaughter in Darfur and the Sudan and establish peace and nation-building but he was persuaded otherwise.
In 2010 a Nanos poll showed that 52% of Canadians favored peace-keeping, only 21% favored further combat missions. No wonder. By 2011 Afghanistan had cost us $18-29 billion and 158 lives.
“This book”, says the author, “is not a judgment on Canadian troops.” A great number continue to want to make a difference beyond the borders, he argues. We may not “cut and run” but we do cut and walk- first behind the wire and then out of the country.”
At home the changes have been subtle but swift: -the dismantling of the gun registry, -the refusal to offer sanctuary to war resistors, -turning our back on bringing Omar Kadhr back from Guantanamo Bay, -our seeming acceptance of torture as a means of interrogation, -the peace-keeping lobby described as anti-American. – the revived scenario of the US annexation of Canada.
This last the author says “properly belongs in comic books.”
The new guide to citizenship, “Discover Canada” describes serving in the armed forces as a “noble way to contribute to Canada and an excellent career choice.” In the guide the military is mentioned thirty five times, peacekeeping once. The MacDonald Cartier route is now the “Highway of Heroes” rightly of great importance to those who lost loved ones.
War chroniclers such as journalists Rosie DiManno in the Star and Christie Blatchford in the National Post happily pillory the idea of peacekeeping. The role of the brave female foreign correspondent seems to captivate them and of course it is more exciting.
What do our gurus think? “There has been little response from conservative think-tanks in Canada where the policy seems to be to ignore whatever dissents from their point of view; soldiers and the public are more open-minded” notes the author. “The majority of Canadians believe war-fighting is a primitive and barbaric path for a democracy to take when, tragically but reluctantly, it must.”
Either peacekeeping was a fifty-year aberration or Canada has an innate disposition toward “soft power,” “making a difference” and the sort of work that is now so disparaged.
Richler argues that the Canadian public has not been all that supportive or interested in the war in Afghanistan. He offers proof in the huge outpouring of sympathy and aid to Haiti.
A crucial question remains: How influential has been the militarization of Canada to the majority election of Stephen Harper? What can we expect in the next four years?
Richler waxes eloquent on our desire to put an end to war and maybe the reader will disagree but it is a great book for the peace movement to use. Any author that gives concrete suggestions on the way forward is worth his/her weight in medals.
What can be done to reengage Canadians especially the younger generation in the discussion of Canada’s priorities before Canada engages in any more “interventions?”
Ideas on how Canada could put into action its desire to “make a difference” by working together.
1. Create a new regiment under the aegis of the Department of National Defence that was dedicated specifically to the practice of peace operations rather than wars of existence.
2. Found a new college in which at least a minor degree in some aspect of peace operations was a necessary condition to graduate.
3. Create a national community corps complementing the new regiment in its developmental activities in foreign territories but also at home. Institute a form of voluntary national service of 1 or 2 years. They would be paid a modest but livable sum.
These policies would facilitate a new ethic of armed forces able to respond to the changing demands of world citizenship, ones that are only going to increase as relationships between countries in an ever-contracting globe become more interdependent and intertwined.
The point of the separate Peace Operations (OP) Regiment would be to create a specialized Canadian military force acting as a third party and designed for the particular tasks and challenges of conflict resolution in global theatres.
The PO Regiment would be fully equipped and trained and subject to the same rigorous standards of universal service.
It would corral the energy of Canadian youth already interested in humanitarian causes around the world.
The regiment should be backed by a parallel institution of higher learning in civil society – a College of Peace Operations. People who could hold chairs could be Louise Arbour, Lewis MacKenzie, Stephen Staples – many Canadians are suitable.
What we talk about when we talk about war lays the ground for what we must be talking about when we talk about peace.
Shirley Farlinger is the former Editor of The Bulletin and a long-time Science for Peace member.