“This is a book of enormous erudition. I am stunned by Richler’s courage and insight. He dares to take on the pathology orchestrated by the military apologists in our political, academic and media establishment; debunking it, dismembering it, eviscerating it. Rarely does someone of letters take on such a subject and convey the argument with such force and clarity. There’s no question that the apologists will have exquisite apoplexy, but surely that’s the ultimate tribute. The rest of us will exult in his embrace of the values of peace and decency, in a Canada that once was and might yet be again.”
— Stephen Lewis, former Canadian Ambassador to the UN
“Well-written and passionate, this is a fine polemic about important issues. You don’t have to agree with everything Noah Richler says — I don’t — but you must take him seriously.”
— Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919
“Noah Richler has written an important book of great clarity, insight and courage. Like George Grant’s classic Lament for a Nation, it ranges from politics to philosophy, from literature to the mass media, in support of an intelligent, passionate and highly articulate argument. What We Talk About When We Talk About War deserves to be read and discussed in every political office, classroom, book club and Legion hall in the country.”
— Ron Graham, author of The Last Act
“Since May 2nd, 2011, Canadians have watched their country swerve from the middle lane to the far right. A country once proud of its role as a peace-making moderate is being reconstructed as a Canada defined by war, violence and death. The change is brutal and deeply divisive. Noah Richler has taken the trouble to tell us why Canadians should worry.”
— Desmond Morton, author of Who Speaks for Canada?
“In a way that is utterly free of jingoism, What We Talk About When We Talk About War demonstrates that the rabid outpourings of the mid-war years in Afghanistan have been blown away in a gust of Arctic air. A tonic to the spirit, Richler’s book explores the rootedness of Canadian values and connects them to the experience of life in an enormous and damn lucky country.”
— James Laxer, author of Tecumseh and Brock
“Noah Richler’s important book reminds us why it is essential that we question the motives of military missions bathed in slogans. What We Talk About When We Talk About War provides a thorough analysis of our country’s myths of combat and of peace and, separating rhetoric from truth, incisively exposes the key players bent on convincing us of the merits of a ‘just’ war.”
— Amy Millan, singer, songwriter with Stars and Broken Social Scene
“A timely and thought-provoking examination of how we, as a nation, have allowed our perception of ourselves to be changed from peacekeepers to warriors, how the real-life experiences of the monstrous brutality of World War I have become the nation-building myth of today, and how our preference for ‘peace, order and good government’ has graduated to a willingness to die for the sake of a greater cause. Richler urges us not to ignore these major, unexamined changes in the Canadian narrative lest we are redefined into a people we have never wished to be.”
— Anna Porter, author of The Ghosts of Europe
“The questions Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War poses resonate deeply, and while I may not agree with some of his conclusions, Richler offers a compelling perspective and unearths a treasure chest of sources, references and incidents that will richly enhance anybody’s quest to affirm what being Canadian really means. This book is a must-read for the aspiring military professional and every citizen who is concerned about perpetuating into the twenty-first century what we understand to be the Canadian Way.”
— Lt.-Col. (ret) Patrick B. Stogran, PPCLI, Veterans’ Ombudsman 2007-2010
And what can we do here now, for at last we have no notion of what we might have come to be in America, alternative.
— Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies
The Vimy Effect
Building Schools for Girls
The War Becomes a Mission (Impossible)
What Is to Be Done?
“The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums.”
— Arthur Koestler, Janus: A Summing Up (1978)
War enters the unconscious early.
As children growing up in London, England, in the early 1960s — about as far away in time from the end of the Second World War as Canada is today from Jean Chrétien’s first turn as prime minister, the Oka Crisis and the introduction of the GST (which is to say not far at all) — my sister Emma and I used to collect Action Men, the soldier dolls called G.I. Joes in North America. We had a lot of them, and made extra props, clothes and, in our backyard, whole installations of trenches and a No Man’s Land from the broken ones on whose plastic limbs we’d paint blood using red paint from our model airplane kits (Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Junkers, Lancasters and B-1 bombers). We had officers’ quarters, a mess tent and, behind the lines, a bar for time off. When Martha, our younger sister, was silly enough to have her Barbie doll wander into it — well, the Action Men who’d suffered at the front, who had lost their friends and drank too much because they didn’t know how long they had to live, took turns assaulting her. So ended Barbie’s visits.
That bit of shame occurred several years before I came to understand my own sexuality or knew what an erection was, but, no matter, I’d already learned plenty about war and heroism and what it was to be a man from a plethora of comic books, television shows and movies such as The Battle of Britain, Tobruk and The Great Escape down at the Kingston Kinema. On the way home from school, I’d stop in at army surplus stores to buy Allied and German uniform crests and bits of old military junk that were far from useless to me. In one of these shops, I first saw the iconic poster of Steve McQueen on his motorbike making his great escape, the barbed wire over which he’d vaulted safely behind him as he gazed with such serene bravado at the far horizon. I liked it so much I worried I was homosexual, which, of course, would not do in any of the army games we played in the schoolyard.
From the schoolyard we learn so much — and a lot that needs the better part of a lifetime to be unlearned. Graduating from the schoolyard’s various traps of male primitivism is the endgame of a good education in the schoolhouse proper, the point being to civilize young boys and girls (none in our school, damn it) and to teach what it means to be Barbie, victimized — to be the German rather than the Action Man — and, is the hope, why reason and not might is the best arbiter of what is just. The schoolyard’s simple animal indoctrination never really disappears from our consciousness but is suppressed through the civilizing process to be managed by the rules of school and family and, later, by laws. We are taught not to bully the fat boy or the kid who stammers or the one who wets his pants and to include these children in our games and rituals. We are taught to recognize the virtues each may have and, in so doing, that folk who appear different or lesser are as entitled as any other to the same privileges and the right not to be at school in fear. But these are hard lessons, the order that is taught a fragile edifice. Under stress, we revert to the natural order of the schoolyard, call it the jungle, easily, and we do so in the barbarous theatre of war most of all.
Such is the lesson of John Rae’s The Custard Boys (1960), an English novel about a gang of schoolboys evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War. Fallen off the bookshelf now, it is sometimes compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). In Rae’s novel, the children play at games of war even outside their training as cadets at school, zealously imitating real-world action in a pretty “Norfolk village that was so far away from the war in which we longed to play our parts.” The boys pick a fight with a rival gang of kids from the village, but their plan of attack goes badly after Mark Stein, the Jew in their midst, runs scared and abandons his post. For punishment, Mark is court-martialled and sentenced by the eldest of the bunch to be shot at dawn.
No one takes the mock trial seriously, only, during the execution that takes place the next day, one of the guns is inadvertently loaded with live rounds and the boy is killed. Again it is proven that war, as the protagonist schoolboy John Curlew’s uncle Laurence has described it, is “the universal perversion.” A contrarian, he says, “We are all tainted: if we cannot experience our perversion at first hand we spend our time reading war stories, the pornography of war; or seeing war films, the blue films of war; or titillating our senses with the imagination of great deeds, the masturbation of war.” Uncle Laurence’s debate with the local vicar is a key moment in the novel in which the age-old contradictions of fighting — “All this nonsense about counting the life of battle good” — fire the pair’s argument.
“All war is horrible, of course,” said the vicar, letting the worn phrase slither through his lips almost unnoticed, “but it is one of the paradoxes of human experience that out of evil comes forth good. War brings out the best in many men.”
“It brings out the beast in them, vicar, not the best.”
“In some possibly, but men act like animals whether there is a war or not.”
“We are all animals, aren’t we?” asked my uncle. “We’re all murderers at heart. When it comes to the point there are very few men who find it difficult to kill one of their fellow-creatures.”
“What you are really saying is that most Englishmen do not shirk their duty. And what is more, they achieve heights of noble self-sacrifice that we ordinary mortals cannot hope to attain.”
“Self-sacrifice!” I had never heard my uncle’s voice so scornful. “How many genuine cases of self-sacrifice does one find in a war? Men fight because they are told to and because they haven’t the moral courage to say ‘No.’ When they are killed they are not giving their lives for a noble cause — they’re dying because they haven’t been lucky enough or smart enough to stay alive. I’m not trying to mock the dead; they know the truth better than any of us. But their countrymen and their families weave a tapestry of heroism and self-sacrifice, they colour it with such rubbishy phrases as ‘the good die young,’ and then when the next generation comes along it cannot see the truth for the tapestry, it cannot see that there is nothing noble or heroic in war, but only man at his most bestial, fulfilling his ancient urge to kill.”
Rae was eight years old when war broke out, fourteen when it ended. Later, he performed his national service as a second lieutenant with the Royal Fusiliers. Beyond having come of age in wartime as the fictional John Curlew did, Rae would have witnessed the primitivism of the schoolyard during his time after the war as an enlightened and sometimes controversial headmaster at a prestigious London boys’ school. He would have known of the bombing and the rationing. He would have seen soldiers and refugees coming to Britain during the war and others arriving after it. The fact of his having lived through those years provides an authority to the abhorrence of war that he shared, too, with eminent soldiers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, a veteran of both world wars, who was appointed Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in 1943. In Ottawa in 1946, Eisenhower told Canadians: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility and its stupidity.” Eisenhower’s more flamboyant, outspoken compatriot, Gen. George S. Patton, however, viewed war differently. The “universal perversion” was exhilarating for Patton, who proclaimed in 1945: “I love war and responsibility and excitement. Peace is going to be Hell on me.”
Wrote nineteenth-century English novelist Thomas Hardy in The Dynasts (1904), “War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading.”
Fighting stirs individuals and serves the leaders who organize people into gangs, tribes and states because it provides the responsibility and the thrill of a cause to citizens impassioned by the prospect of their community’s defence. And it offers, in the words of Sgt. Ed Wadleigh, a veteran of three tours of Afghanistan with both the British and Canadian armies, the chance to the eager merely “to prove oneself, to play your part in a grand adventure, or simply to get in scraps and gunfights for a few months and fuck shit up.” It has always been thus. In Farley Mowat’s 1979 memoir of his service in the Allied 1943 campaign in Sicily, And No Birds Sang, the Canadian author remembers his father, who had “gone off in 1915 to fight in the Great War, fired by the ideals of Empire — a soldier of the King.” The father pulls into the family’s Richmond Hill driveway on September 2, 1939, and proclaims, with irrepressible excitement: “Farley, my lad, there’s bloody big news! The war is on!” (“It’s very absurd when a war is imminent,” said Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher who was imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist views. “Immense crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to applaud. They echo the government’s decision to have them killed.”)
Wars that must often wait until they have been played out to gain the attribute of having been just typically begun as adventures offering opportunity in far-off lands to professional soldiers but also to men and women from disparate and often less economically fortunate parts of a country. This is certainly the case in Canada, where it has almost always been necessary to travel to the fight because it was never going to cross the water and come to home. This phenomenon of being relegated to territory distant from the action has provided English Canada with one of its most enduring post-colonial creation myths, Vimy Ridge its enduring emblem. It took the First World War, the country is repeatedly told, for Canadians a mari usque ad mare to actually meet each other — and, in the mud of the trenches, to bond.
Rallying Quebec to fight for the ideals of Empire during the First World War was harder. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 was provoked by the mounting casualties since the Battle of the Somme and the collapse of voluntary enlistment during the summer of 1916 that left the Canadian Expeditionary Force desperate for fighting men. Conscription became law at the end of August 1917, after the Battle of Vimy Ridge cost Canada 10,602 soldiers, 3,598 of them killed. The draft led to riots in the province, the citizens of which largely regarded the conflict as English Canada’s war. Still, the phenomenon of the distant territory applies to Quebec too, and enough French Canadians fought in the Second World War that the enormity of that moment is remembered in several outstanding novels of the period as a moment of high excitement. In Roger Lemelin’s comic 1948 family saga, Les Plouffe, a French-Canadian bestseller that was later translated as The Plouffe Family, Josephine listens to her son Ovide read letters from his younger brother Guillaume, who is fighting with the Allies in Europe and the family has discovered to be safe. In the final scene, Josephine is overcome by Ovide’s relaying of Guillaume’s battlefront heroics and famously runs to the balcony of their Quebec City home and calls out, “C’est pas croyable! Guillaume, qui tue les hommes!” (“Unbelievable! My Guillaume, he kills men!”) At the end of Germaine Guévremont’s Le survenant (1945), translated together with its sequel, Marie-Didace (1947), as The Outlander (1991), the stranger — the “survenant” — leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, to fight in the war. The Second World War provided Manitoban francophone novelist Gabrielle Roy’s characters the similar prospect of escape from the poverty of Montreal’s working-class district of Saint-Henri, and a thrill akin to that which Farley Mowat’s father knew. In Roy’s most famous novel, The Tin Flute (1945), Emmanuel Létourneau is a soldier on leave who wonders why he has joined up at all as his regiment leaves Montreal’s Bonaventure train station for the war. “We’re going to see the world!” yells one soldier drunkenly. “Tell the boys in France to hold on till we get there!” shouts another.
Roy’s Emmanuel, however, feels doubt. A group starts to sing, “There’ll Always Be An England,” and he tells himself that
they’re singing in Germany, in Italy, in France...Just as we could sing O Canada! No, no, no, he thought vehemently. I’m not going to put myself on any patriotic, national bandwagon. Am I the only one?
The train pulls away from the crowd, and the troubled soldier decides that “none of them was going to war with the same goal as the others. Some were going to the end of the world to preserve their Empire. Some of them were going to the end of the world to shoot and be shot at, and that was all they knew.”
He sees an old woman, whose lips he imagines he can read, saying, “There’ll be an end. Some day there’ll be an end.”
Some day there’ll be an end, and then another cruel beginning.
War moves in cycles of boom and bust, the bust coming about only when the exhilaration and the boom of the new war have turned to punishment. We commit to war, figure out how to “stay the course” and then, when the key players are defeated or exhausted, how to find a way out and live in peace for a while. Humankind has found this cycle and the havoc it wreaks easy to justify and impossible to arrest. Immutably, we are convinced of war’s purpose, seduced by its gains and beholden to its drama.
For a brief moment at the beginning of the Cold War, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki having been the Second World War’s epoch-changing act, it seemed as if the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon might finally put a halt to this pattern. In April 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stated in his final address to Congress that the prospect of nuclear annihilation had rendered war “useless as a method of settling international disputes.” MacArthur was no pacifist, though his reluctance about atomic weaponry that President Harry Truman had considered using when, in 1950, war broke out in Korea, is on record. Four years later, in a speech to the American Legion in Los Angeles, the eloquent but often troubled soldier went further. “The great question is, can war be outlawed from the world?” he asked. Were it to happen, said MacArthur, “it would mark the greatest advance in civilization since the Sermon on the Mount.”
The Second World War was an unholy juggernaut of devastation and killing that plowed a road of turmoil not ending at Auschwitz or Nagasaki but wound on through Eastern Europe, Korea, Vietnam and numerous African fronts. In its aftermath, it was appropriate for MacArthur to contemplate how the elimination of war “would not only create new moral and spiritual values, it would produce an economic wave of prosperity that would raise the world’s standard of living beyond anything ever dreamed of by man” — as, in Canada, Liberal politician Lester B. Pearson was, in his own distinctive way, also imagining. But a short half-century later, in our own era’s climate of numerous and perpetual small conflicts and the “Global War on Terror,” MacArthur’s expression of hope seems preposterous, so out of touch with today’s zeitgeist that statements such as the ambitious general made in his better moments would be dismissed as naive and unpatriotic were anyone other than an officer to express them. The idealism of MacArthur’s contemplation is demonstrated no more frustratingly than in the Middle East, where Muslims and Jews continue to feud by the very Mount where Jesus delivered his Sermon. In Israel and Palestine, war has entered a territory beyond exhaustion in which no possibility of peace seems attainable. The spread of nuclear technology and the hostility of neighbouring states make the possibility of apocalyptic devastation terrifyingly real, even ineluctable, and yet the killing is justified because there is not the will to negotiate and fighters, not diplomats, are the players governing the cycle in its mired second stage. We accept the situation and adjust our expectations accordingly. The enemy is a harbour of ideas that cannot be reconciled, and killing — destroying the bodies that are their vessels — becomes the best way to achieve the conflict’s ends. Death is the exercise. Soldiers are the means.
Killing is what is required of the soldier, who, in order to perform, must suppress whatever are his or her “human” instincts and do as instructed. “It’s just business,” said Canadian Katie Hodges, a veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan by 2010. The corporal was echoing the view of her erstwhile boss, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Rick Hillier, that the job of the Canadian Forces is “to be able to kill people,” and she is right. In war, a soldier’s personal views must be left behind; on the battlefield, they are an impediment. “A soldier who is able to see the humanity of the enemy makes a troubled and ineffective killer,” wrote Chris Hedges, a divinity student before he became a New York Times foreign correspondent and the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). “We must be transformed into agents of a divinely inspired will, as defined by the state, just as those we fight must be transformed into the personification of unmitigated evil. There is little room for individuality in war.”
But suppressing the individualism of human beings is no easy feat. Lt.-Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army Ranger and now a professor of psychology at West Point, writes in On Killing (1995) of soldiers’ propensities to shoot high and miss their target. Interviews with Canadian soldiers form a part of Grossman’s research that vindicated, across the experience of many nations and wars, the pioneering though often challenged work of U.S. Army combat historian S.L.A. Marshall, who claimed that most soldiers never shoot to kill. Grossman’s landmark treatise explores the measures an army must take in order to create the moral distance necessary to counter the empathetic responses of humans to members of their own species that are the cause of this bad aim. “The history of warfare,” writes Grossman, “can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.”
There continue to be amazing technological advances in this grisly behavioural science, ones permitting snipers to find a human target at 2,430 metres (the record established in 2002 by Canadian sniper Cpl. Rob Furlong before it was broken by Craig Harrison, a British member of the Household Cavalry) and unmanned drones to kill from thousands of kilometres away in air wars in which combatants never have to meet the enemy or register its destruction as anything more than white puffs of smoke on a target screen. “Without warning, without remorse” is the motto tattooed on one Canadian sniper’s forearm, though soldiers less clinically inclined may continue to succumb to the sort of individual feelings that hinder the martial enterprise. Even without the incidence of medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — or, as the condition was called in the First World War, “shell shock” — soldiers may entertain fears, revulsion and objections to their situation. They may be distressed by killing, as not only “war resisters” are, or by torture and its dissonance with the values of the civilization the war is supposed to be defending, as U.S. Army reservist Sgt. Joseph M. Darby was. (Darby copied the photographs of abuse at the Abu Ghraib detention centre, images that eventually found their way into the public arena.)
Most of the time these contrary thoughts exist only as part of what Israeli writer David Grossman, a veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and no relation to the lieutenant-colonel), calls, in his moving novel To the End of the Land (2010), war’s “mysterious dance.” For Grossman, who lost a son serving in the Israeli Defence Forces two days before a United Nations-brokered ceasefire brought an end to his country’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, these sorts of feelings are but yet more links in “the dark, calculated formal course of the larger system, which comprises thousands of people, soldiers, civilians, vehicles and weapons and field kitchens and battle rations and ammunition stores and crates of equipment and night vision instruments and signaling flares and stretchers and helicopters and canteens and computers and antennae and telephones and large, black, sealed bags.” Ora, the Israeli Jewish mother and his novel’s central character, walks the length of the country, in an existential rather than belligerent claiming of the territory, preferring not to be at home should a soldier visit with the dreaded notification of her son’s death. Her defence against the unthinkable is to refuse to meet it. (The novel’s less elegiac title in the original Hebrew translates as A Woman Running from the News.) A heartbreaking expression of parental love, the situation Grossman eloquently imagined had undoubtedly manifold real-life expressions after Pte. William Jonathan James Cushley was killed in Afghanistan on September 3, 2006. Speaking with Anna Maria Tremonti, a former foreign correspondent and the host of CBC Radio’s flagship news program, The Current, Private Cushley’s mother, Elaine, recalled the visit of two soldiers surely bringing the news of her son’s death to her home in Port Lambton, Ontario: “I wouldn’t let them in at first. I heard the doorbell and I looked out the window, and I seen two soldiers there and I just went back to bed. I obviously realized, but I didn’t want to. If I opened the door I knew they’d have to tell me.”
Such is the reality of war “projecting,” said Grossman in Toronto in 2010, “its brutality in the tender bubble of family” while, on the front lines, soldiers stripped of their individuality by the levelling act of the uniform carry out operations determined by authorities making their decisions far from the fulcrum of battle and its primitive contests of survival. The photograph seen all over the world of the incomparably powerful circle of U.S. President Barack Obama and his security advisers sitting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and watching, on May 1, 2011, the storming by U.S. Special Forces of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound is a testament to what technology can achieve — the reconnaissance, the helicopters, the arms and the live feed of the cameras attached to the soldiers’ helmets — though also to the way in which the basic truths of war are unchanged. War is hell, and it is all-consuming, though only for some. To the soldiers who fight the wars, the field of vision is narrow and small. Leaders and their acolytes operate in a different space, one large enough in war’s first stage for flag-waving and lofty rhetoric, and the ability to urge the young soldiers on without penalty.
As battle persists, distance is diminished. The pity of war finds its way home and risks unsettling a society’s martial commitment. Our humanity comes to the fore, the painful recognition of war’s nihilism a phenomenon that has been revisited innumerable times over the course of the nearly three millennia that have passed since the seminal, unforgettable scene in The Iliad in which Homer describes the noble Trojan warrior Hector’s return to his wife, Andromache, and their son, Astyanax. The meeting is a lull in the unrelenting, savage stalemate of Troy’s war with the Achaeans — ten years of it already (Canada’s turn in Afghanistan has turned out to be as long) — and Hector’s reunited family is a symbol of the peaceful and civilized life that the Trojans have been defending. Hector makes the mistake of appearing before his wife and child still clad in full armour and the plumed helmet that he has not thought to remove. In Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century translation, the “illustrious chief of Troy”
reached down for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror.
Here, so powerfully rendered, is one of the earliest recorded instances of war “projecting its brutality in the tender bubble of family.” But the sorry truth of it is that our lamenting the poignancy of such scenes is as much a constant as the violence of war is. Not just the works of Homer but those of Goya, Tolstoy, Picasso, Wilfred Owen, Erich Maria Remarque and Michael Herr spring to mind, so that it becomes hard not to conclude that whatever shame, pain and outrage such works stir in their readers constitute, by and large, penance no more exacting than rites of confession in a Catholic church. Our heady undertaking of war and then, afterwards, our hesitation before the horror it engenders are integral but perfunctory rites of passage in its age-old routine. “Even with its destruction and carnage,” writes Chris Hedges in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, war “can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”
The remorse some (though far from all) experience, the brief concession to repentant feeling, is less likely to alter human behaviour than to excuse it and permit another go. For a moment we show ourselves to be human before repeating war’s cycle of original insult, escalating injury and then destruction before fatigue sets in and peace has a tenuous chance of taking hold again. We move through this cycle acceptingly because a majority considers the pursuit of war to be basic to human nature, evidence of the festering barbarity that burgeons in the jungle and that the 19th century scientists Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin believed was barely suppressed by civilization’s delicate veneer. They are symptoms of the inalienable attributes of the forlorn species that American poet E.E. Cummings called, in 1944, “this busy monster, manunkind.”
Cummings, who enlisted with the ambulance corps in the First World War and was imprisoned by the French military for three and a half months on suspicion of espionage (though likely for his anti-war views), expressed his dissent fervently and angrily in the poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big” (1926). Olaf,
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or
was an uncommon hero who paid for his obstinate, courageous stance. “I will not kiss your fucking flag,” he tells his commanding officer, a West Point colonel. Defiantly, while his superiors (“a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride”)
egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat —
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
Perhaps it is a consequence of Canadians having fought other people’s wars for so long, of being in their essence volunteers, that, outside of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars (1977) and the American-born Charles Yale Harrison’s short novel Generals Die in Bed (1930), no comparable objector and little such anger exists in our own canon of war literature — or not the anglophone portion of it at any rate. (In Roch Carrier’s bawdy La Guerre, Yes Sir! , the character Joseph chops his hand off with an axe to avoid having to fight in the Second World War, but the act is desperate and self-defeating rather than noble.)
Canadians are a stoical and, all too frequently, deferential lot. “Since the 18th century,” wrote military scholar David Bercuson in the Globe and Mail in July 2001, “Canada’s soldiers have played a central part in shaping the nation we are today. Canada’s borders, its French-English constitutional and cultural duality, its unique form of constitutional monarchy, its relationship to the United States, its role in major multinational institutions, its very independence were all shaped by wars that were either forced on Canada (the War of 1812 being the best example) or wars Canada chose to take part in out of higher principles or national self-interest or both (the two world wars).”
Bercuson’s contestable historical argument, made weeks before 9/11, is indicative of a vigorous trend that has come to the fore over the course of the last decade. It upholds the idea that Canada is a “war-fighting” nation, but it is a wish for the country more than it is fact. Several thousand Canadians fought in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, though Quebeckers mostly dissented, foreshadowing the Conscription Crisis of the First World War of 1914-18 (or 1919 if you were a soldier unfortunate enough to have been dispatched to the failed Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks in Siberia). The rest of the country fought en masse, Acadians having joined the “Great War” willingly, as hordes of English Canadians did, to fight for “King, Empire and peace the world over” (words New Brunswick soldier Athanase Poirier wrote home before his death in March 1916), with some four thousand Aboriginal Canadians, about a third of those eligible, also volunteering. (Canadian Aboriginals continue to hold the warrior in high esteem, a phenomenon evident in the annual parade of soldiers at the head of the entry of First Nations into the dancing circle of Winnipeg’s November Manito Ahbee powwow, though many of today’s Aboriginal youth, such as the Kahnawake, are encouraged by their elders to enlist with the U.S. Marines, rather than the Canadian Forces.) Canadians also fought, illegally against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (or “Mac-Paps”) of the International Brigade, and then in great and legitimate numbers in the Second World War that followed. They served with the United Nations (UN) in Korea, as volunteers or as drafted dual citizens in Vietnam and then as peacekeepers in a half-century of global conflicts afterwards, but the significance of Canadian troops never having fought, outside of the Fenian Raids of 1866-71, to defend the country’s post-colonial boundaries on home soil is easily underestimated. Battle has been, to Canadians, that real but ever distant phenomenon. The claim that the country’s borders, its francophone-anglophone duality and its relationships with the United States and abroad were shaped either by wars forced upon it, or by other conflicts that it chose to take part in, is the fantasy of a political lobby that, unchecked over the course of the last decade, has seen the country’s ability to fight wars as the truest indicator of its maturity.
In Bercuson’s jingoistic schema, government is handmaiden to a military that is essential to Canadian political evolution “because it is the only instrument of government sanctioned to use deadly force — the ultimate policy instrument — to protect Canadian sovereignty.” And yet the singularity of Canadian political development is that it has, after 1812 (when the colony was fighting the war of the mother country) with only scant exceptions, disdained from using “the ultimate policy instrument” to defend its integrity. Historically, Canadians have addressed what differences they do have in the legislature and in the courts and, furthermore, have exported this practice and made of it the dominant inclination of the country’s foreign policy. Ottawa’s relationships with Aboriginal peoples are encoded not in a history of conquest and defeat (and massacre) but in a set of treaties, disputed but still binding. The relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada has been shaped mostly through negotiation, first with Lord Durham and then with an ongoing (and unending) train of Canadian prime ministers. The relationships with the United States and Britain have evolved through discussion rather than the application of “deadly force,” the country’s very borders the result of discussions at which Canada, unfortunately, did not take part. The country’s special, though presently diminished, relationship with the United Nations was similarly the result of Canadian confidence in the country being able to achieve its political ends without the use of military force.
Bercuson’s unrelenting military boosting — he was making the same point as a guest on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup exactly a decade later, in July 2011 — distorts and downplays the significant roles that Canadian politicians, diplomats, jurists and a variety of other civilians (such as artists) have had in shaping not just the domestic Canadian polity but abstract, universal ideas about statehood that have served as examples internationally; in Scottish constitutional arguments, for instance, and of course in the development of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948. The nature of this contribution is significant specifically because the truth of Canadian history is that our military’s stake has not been inordinate. Resolution through discussion and compromise, and the recognition of the interests of others that such an approach entails, is seen to contribute to the greater good and to have characterized not only relationships between the government and Aboriginals, between English and French-speaking Quebeckers (and between the British government and the conquered French colonists before that), but those between Aboriginals and the original Canadians and brokers and fur traders of the Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay since before the modern nation-state and its apparatus of government was founded. Effectively, the only country Canada has ever sought to colonize has been itself, negotiation mostly the tactic. In 1885, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent troops to the end of his incompletely built railroad in order to suppress Louis Riel and the Métis and put an end to the Northwest Resistance in present-day Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with the aid of Lt.-Col. “Big Tom” Strange and his rapidly assembled Alberta Field Force, though with only dubious results. Today, it can be argued that the colonization effort continues, most notably in the North and in Quebec, though through economic and not military means. This is not an accidental outcome but a consequence of our history. The legacy of Canada being founded on the back of the business of the Hudson’s Bay Company is that the model of the corporation reigns. Rather than the imperatives of the military and a dynamic of conquest, the forces of pragmatism and regulation (and the monopsonistic power of the powerful company that also, to an extent, provides) are what have shaped Canada today. Canada, once Prince Rupert’s Land, is a sum of land claims greater than its parts, a country legitimized in courts and boardrooms as much as, if not more than, through soldiering.
Bercuson’s bid for the military’s pride of place rides roughshod over history but also discounts the particular lesson of twenty-first-century conflict, which is that, whatever the borders of the modern state may be, “sovereignty” depends only in the violent short term upon what armed forces do. In the long term, a country relies upon consensus and a deference of a population to the idea of the state in which a people finds itself — something that is displayed, for instance, in a willingness to pay taxes for the broader community’s benefit. This dull fact is hard to mythologize, but along with the act of putting on a uniform, this simple but drastically necessary show of civilian commitment to the greater good is the meaningful proof of the national compliance that has “played a central part in shaping the nation we are today.” True, Canada has fought wars regularly, but these have always been undertaken on behalf of some greater, multilateral purpose of a higher power or alliance, such as “the British Empire,” “the Commonwealth,” “Europe,” “NATO,” the “UN,” “the free world” or “the international community,” and the democratic ideals that Canadians have invested in these causes. Although the country has fought under the command of other states, and distinguished itself, it has tended to do so in the service of a greater idea that cannot be reduced to narrow self-interest, if only because the altruistic feeling of the general population counts for as much as any government-induced patriotic feeling. Sometimes Canadian governments have contributed troops to these causes zealously, even in craven fashion; at other times (Pearson’s, Trudeau’s and Chrétien’s leaderships spring to mind) with more of a sense of the possibility and the right of the country to choose its own direction and not simply that of the more powerful empire of the day. Whether attained by old-fashioned and now unpopular Canadian peacekeeping or the “war-fighting” that Afghanistan put into the limelight, the truth is that Canadian political principles have provided cause for deploying Canadian troops in the service of other peoples’ battles since well before the country’s inception. Canada, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper only recently decided to emphasize, is a country that has never invaded another for territorial gain. Even after 9/11, threats to the viability of the nation that typically worry other countries are, in Canada, abstractions. Canadians leave their homes, shops, museums and cinemas and enter into cities, towns and countryside of exceptional stability, safety and calm. In the absence of barbarians at the gates, the task of national security has been, in Canada, a rarefied one — this, even after 9/11, when it became possible to imagine the destruction of office towers and an enemy within.
Still today, the most palpable threats to the integrity of the country felt by Canadians are political — and internal. Outside of the histrionic Hollywood imaginings of an alarmist crop of right-wing militarists in government and academia and their excited acolytes in the media, genuine challenges to Canadian unity are more rationally seen to be derived not from the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea but from domestic issues concerning language and land claims or the greater impediments of regional narcissism and greed . Who are you to tell me to speak French or English (this as the brightest in the world learn several languages as a matter of course), or that this oil or this hydroelectric power is mine, not yours? Don’t mess with it. These are the typically Canadian phenomena that pose threats to a nation constructed upon a very unusual set of ideas, though still within the bounds of highly civilized ideas about community, peaceful coexistence and a respect for human rights, the parameters of which are constantly being redefined. Even Canadian attitudes to land, the thing that came first, are extraordinarily complex. They have more to do with ideas about identity and belonging and the management of shared resources than they do with personal livelihood — as is the case, say, in the Balkan countries or any number of states with longer histories though less effective systems of taxation, so that the actual possession of land is seen as integral to a family’s base prospects of survival.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the cornerstone of the patriated Constitution of 1982, is the epitome of the Canadian disposition. Like its predecessor, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document drafted for the United Nations by McGill professor of law John Peters Humphrey and proclaimed in 1948, the Charter has been much studied by other countries wanting to institutionalize their own tenets of social justice. The Charter is a refined and principled document even if, in practice, some of the disputes it referees, or the various tribunals it puts into play, seem ridiculous. The preteen seeking lost NHL millions after being dropped by the school hockey coach, the gym in Montreal required to screen its windows so that Hasidic Jews across the alley are not offended by the sight of exercising women in workout wear, the francophone “forced” to ask for a 7UP from an Air Canada flight attendant in English or the condominium board ordered to give the parking space nearest the elevator to an overweight woman — these can all appear trivial causes, easily ridiculed, ones that abuse high-minded Canadian notions of the defence of human rights, jamming the courts and making the country resemble a dysfunctional parody of a utopia as others grapple with infinitely starker realities of torture, persecution and civil unrest quelled by imprisonment and tanks. But, as outrageous and apparently trivial as they can be, legal arguments of this kind are a small price to pay for a society in which the balance of individual and group liberties is constantly being held up to rigorous debate and scrutiny. Even the passing in 2007 of a “code of behaviour” for new immigrants by the small Quebec municipality of Hérouxville, a justifiably derided document that included decrees against stoning and female genital mutilation, against banned face coverings and the carrying of symbolic weapons to school, can either be seen as racist — which it was (Hérouxville had no “immigrants” at the time) — or as proof of the degree to which decades of political barter with Quebec and First Nations have resulted in constitutional debates and the pursuit of good government seeping down and establishing themselves as a fundamental part of the national character.
If the Canadian’s world is abidingly prosperous and fair, it is exactly because the country’s history has depended for an end to conflicts only rarely on the gun and overwhelmingly on the civil process of which the Charter is the highest expression. But for a few skirmishes — on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, at Queenston Heights in 1812, during the Lower and Upper Canada rebellions of 1837, the Fenian Raids of 1866-71, in battles with the Métis in the 1885 Northwest Resistance, a brush with terrorism during the October 1970 FLQ Crisis and with Aboriginal protesters at Oka twenty years later — the example of Canada really has been of the “peace, order and good government” its departing governors willed for it when that phrase was written into the British North America Act of 1867, defining the standards to which the new country’s Parliament should aspire. The history of give and take that characterizes the country called “Canada” stems from the common sense and necessity of Inuit and voyageurs realizing they could not survive the obdurate country alone, so they built caches of food and goods to be shared by consensual, practical agreement with strangers who, in turn, would construct more. It stems from European explorers and early settlers realizing agreements about how best to travel and pursue trade — war’s antidote — in territory they could not, in their wildest fantasies of nation-building, ever have expected to govern closely. It is derived from the country’s train of inhabitants learning not to regard all-important others, already resident, as an enemy to be vanquished, killed or expelled but as peoples with essential knowledge to impart. Its stems from the fact of a country being founded not on genocide and appropriation but on the back of the Hudson’s Bay and North West fur trading companies organizing the territory for trade intended to be profitable despite the impediments of vast distances that can make business, even today, impracticable.
More than how to fight, the lesson of Canadian experience is that it is a lot cheaper and more practical to have peace along thousands of kilometres of sparsely populated river highway than to believe that these routes, and the prosperity they provide, can profitably be managed through force. Canada’s legacy of oral and written treaties with Aboriginal peoples and the bugbears of Québecois and now Western and Newfoundland recalcitrance can seem grave challenges in the difficult moment, but they are, by and large, petty irritants to a country that historically has possessed the guile and the magnanimity to rise above it all. The country’s national boundaries have been peaceful, its territories mostly orderly and its governments, by ordinary standards, good.
The Vancouver novelist and sculptor Douglas Coupland described the chance of being born or raised in Canada after the Second World War as “winning the lottery,” a point of view that has a popular Canadian leitmotif. Fourteen-year-old Albertan Samantha Terry is but one of a legion of Canadian high school students discovering early on the urge to “make a difference.” Said Terry, who raised $32,000 in 2011 to help sponsor the building of a school in Nepal, “Life is like a lottery and we got the winning ticket, but you should share your prize with everyone.”
Through the second half of the twentieth century and into the beginning of this one, Canada can make the reasonable claim, supported by numerous polls and standard-of-living indices, to have been one of the most fortunate countries in the world to live in. For at least fifty of the last sixty years, Canada has been a generally open and welcoming country, one in which a mythology of rescue, human generosity and the possibility of starting anew flourished because the idyllic story has mostly been true. The ordinary Canadian’s world is free from the ravages of war, famine, climate change, energy scarcity, poverty, political dictatorship or institutional racism. The country provides universal health care and social welfare programs for citizens when life takes a bad turn. This has been grievously less true for many Aboriginal peoples contending with the vicissitudes of the Indian Act or new immigrants who, qualified professionals in the countries they have left behind, are relegated to driving taxis or washing toilets in hotels and office towers, but even these unfortunate constituencies have significant numbers of concerned Canadians advocating for the improvement of their situations and live far from the penury and racial or gender-based discrimination known to citizens of many other countries that have no courts or charters to which they can turn.
Canadians are not better than others but simply more blessed, not having had to contend with any great amount of hardship to come by their lucky chance or to do much other than be vigilant to maintain it. Their good fortune has been awarded them through birthright or, for some 250,000 new residents per annum, through the second chance of immigration. In Greek mythology, sea nymph Thetis, Achilles’ mother, explains to her son that he is able to live either a long but unremarkable life or a shorter one with everlasting glory. On the eve of battle, the vacillating Achilles considers, in Robert Fagles’s fine translation of Homer’s The Iliad,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
My journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies...
true, but the life that’s left me will be long
Had the hero been a Canadian coming of age during the fifty years after the end of the Second World War, there would have been no dilemma. The long and peaceful life was the only one to be had. Canada was the just nation. It kept the peace and promoted development abroad and an equitable society at home. Its governments sought to recognize the equivalent worth to society of different kinds of people with different kinds of abilities doing different kinds of things so that, as Jonathan Swift writes in his long poem of 1713, “Cadenus and Vanessa,” it could be said, “Who’er excels in what we prize, appears a hero in our eyes.” A host of measures was taken to reward difference and to boost wages and compensation where the market failed to do so in order to make the country even more fair.
Privilege, however, can be hard to bear.
The peaceful country, true to its nature as a twentieth-century paradise, also contained the seeds of its own dysfunction. For Canada was, to too many, the country in which it was also proven, as Tolstoy the political analyst might have said, that all “happy countries are all alike,” which is to say not interesting. Without a legacy of hard-fought “wars of existence” — without conquests and glory to be sung, or treachery, brutality and blood spilled for the sake of the country on its own soil — Canada’s history can appear to be uneventful and its future can look that way too. The country’s fate is the ironic one of utopias imagined throughout the centuries by philosophers from Thomas More to Karl Marx and Dr. Seuss — conceptions of everlasting, better worlds that did not survive prolonged scrutiny, not even in thought, because the social equilibrium upon which their idylls depended were too beatifically good to be true. Humans have appetites, they have failings and, above all, they resent being bullied into somebody else’s grand design. Utopia is an unnatural state, even a modest liberal Canadian one, and because it is, inevitably something will surface to disturb its impossible order and put humankind through the hard work of envisioning the better place again. Life has been lived this way since the Garden: Paradise exists to be spoiled.
For many Canadians, the country’s good fortune was something to be decried, an explanation of what for a long time has been characterized as an abundant capacity for failure, mediocrity and apology in the national character. In this representation there are good Canadians and there are bad. Bad Canadians are the descendants of United Empire Loyalists lured north by land grants with their tails between their legs after Britain, the mother country, lost the War of American Independence (and by the promise, not repealed until 1793, to slaveholders among them that their human “property” could be kept). They are Americans dodging the draft during the Vietnam War or “resisting” further tours of duty in President George W. Bush’s one with Iraq. They are dodgy immigrants who have fled wars in far-off countries or, worse, who have played a dubious part in them and who can therefore be demonized publicly and without trial. They are dual passport holders and others who cannot possibly become good Canadians because they do not speak English or French. They are refugees who have taken the easy way out and who conspire to bring to Canada their aged parents, useless to the labour force and the tax base, in order to take advantage of universal health care and other social benefits. They are freeloaders who speak of rights, not responsibilities, and who revel in asserting differences rather than celebrating common values. They arrive as losers and the second-rate, or they are born into this inferior company and acquire these traits through the complacency of Canadian citizenship apparently making few demands. They are likely Liberal or, worse, from the New Democratic Party but, either way, socialist. They do not have the better stuff of Canadians who, loyal to the Queen, rushed to defend the realm in 1899, 1914, 1939, 1950 — and 2002.
History, as has argued Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, the author of Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2003), can be used but also abused. “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped and bound up with our history,” writes MacMillan. “That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”
Stories that purport to explain the contemporary, peace-oriented predilection of many Canadians through the suggestion of its being the result of some lesser historical pedigree stick because they are easy to recount. Stories like these may even have a certain historical footing but are generally true only in part. We are influenced by these or others, permitting them a role of “national” explanation only for as long as we desist from offering alternative narratives, factual or mythic, that challenge them. For just as the person living in Canada today cannot be blamed for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, nor for having refused ships filled with hundreds of desperate refugees the right to land on safe shores (as the Canadian government did with the Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914 and the Jews on the MS St. Louis in 1939), nor for having oppressed Aboriginals for a couple of centuries before our own (when you and I were not actually agents in these stories), the flight of United Empire Loyalists or any other of the ensemble of cowardly renditions of the Canadian character does not explain the conduct of anyone who did not belong to these groups or live within the sphere of these stories’ immediate telling. So too, the kudos derived from inspiring, elevating accounts of the valorous behaviour of troops on the battlefield occurring several generations prior to ours is not automatically an attribute of the present generation’s to flaunt.
The only way in which the behaviour of anyone living today is plausibly explained by such stories, positively or negatively, lies in encountering their substantiations of Canadian national identity and condoning them, as we do through ritual and other ways of consciously upholding particular traditions, or by standing to the side and not objecting to their messages. The racism and xenophobia that saw migrant ships turned away from Canadian harbours more than seventy years ago define the failings of our national character only to the point that Canadians (and especially Sikh and Jewish ones, now comfortably landed in this country and forgetting the story of their provenance) are aware of these historical moments and do not agitate against their being re-enacted with, say, a leaky ship of Tamil immigrants — as arrived in B.C. in 2010. Analogously, the valour of Canadians on the battlefield between 1914 and 1918 or at any other time can only be claimed as an attribute when the example of it is repeated and is consciously the reason for the actions of the person living later. But even then, it is not enough to claim the line.
The implication of our history is that Canadians, good at the job as they are when they do need to fight, are overly cosseted and disinclined to defending themselves because they do not have to and that they do not want to pay a bill of citizenship that seems out of proportion and unnecessary. Canada, without a legacy of revolution or big wars fought on its own soil, without the sort of rallying tests that are conventionally regarded as forging a national character, has been the safe but also a boring place — soft at the edges and indifferent to any debt to be paid toward society because nobody at home was ever calling it in. At the apogee of its telling, this story says that Canadians forgot their military, did not see the point of it. During the 1990s, the country dispatched her soldiers in the UN’s blue-helmets into the very middle of hellish situations rather than keep them on the right side of wars as they have conventionally been fought, with good on one side and bad on the other. While this was happening, believed the impatient and the outraged (or the simply befuddled), the country’s diplomats were becoming increasingly tedious guests at the gatherings of nations by making lofty claims about the country’s superior, internationalist nature and travelling the so-called “moral high ground.” A significant number of Canadians, mostly those who were not Aboriginal or from Quebec or Newfoundland (where different mythologies have reigned), yearned for the chance of another way to see and be seen. It was difficult being a Canadian in this position, being the citizen craving a more old-fashioned idea of a unified, strong country rather than one confused by the more complicated allegiances of multiculturalists. It was difficult being the politician hoping for a seat at the table of international policy-making without the “hard” power to put him there (it is almost always a him). It was difficult being a journalist simply wanting a more consequential beat.
Wars are speedier and more dramatic catalysts of change than are general strikes, social policy and plebiscites, so that without the discombobulation of violence, history strolls more than it is pushed along and the stories that become the cornerstones of the country — that become its “foundation myths” — are slow to be altered. For the Canadian malcontents, a reconfiguring of history was of the essence, and the acclamation of the military was key. It was not so much that the country’s history was uneventful but that the country had an eventful history of which too few were aware. Here was a position that could puff chests and be aggrandized by including, in its embrace, wars that Canada had fought on behalf of the bigger, better empires of Britain, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
And yet, in the 1990s, the prospect of a more zealously proactive nation — one with a stronger, more pivotal military doing more than UN peacekeeping — seemed an impossibility in the face of a Liberal Party, still dominant after four decades, and its upholding of a gentler, more accepting, multicultural idea of the country. According to A Look at Canada, the study guide for new citizens that was extant then, the country aspired to be
a peaceful society in which respect for cultural differences, equality, liberty and freedom of expression is a fundamental value. Canada was created through discussion, negotiation and compromise. These characteristics are as important today as in the past.
Any new version of the country would require a complete uprooting of this proposition and for the work to happen forcibly. Such a prospect appeared utterly unlikely, especially after Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s return to power in 2000 for a third consecutive term in an election in which the weak opposition of the Reform Party and Progressive Conservatives’ newly formed Canadian Alliance, led by Stockwell Day, was summarily defeated. To a right wing becoming ever more extreme, it was clear that in Canada the idea of a broadly inclusive, conflict-averse country had to be wholly etiolated if a more conservative idea of national destiny was ever to have the chance of taking hold. Such a change would demand a ruthless and deliberate razing of a whole packet of myths and stories that were being narrated, through the end of the last century, about the reviled Canada “created through discussion, negotiation and compromise.”
This was the job at which Day failed but that the Conservative Party, the phoenix that arose under Stephen Harper out of the ashes of the Canadian Alliance, would manage in a stunningly short time and very well. The change happened speedily between the watershed years of 2001 to 2006 and without the catalyst of a single terrorism-related fatality on Canadian soil. The Conservative Party was able to set about making it happen while in opposition and as its allies in universities, business and its supporters in think-tanks and the media were unhappily in the wilderness. Debates over the meaning of what it is to be Canadian depend upon a knowledge of history and the intrusion of current events as much as nationally binding stories, but this angry cortège was able to effect the transformation because it took the power of foundation myths seriously. To a point, the shift in the public’s perception of Canada’s role in the world and the rapidity of the change implemented in the brief period of just a few years was the result of a sizable portion (though not a majority) of voters feeling their interests and worldviews had been overlooked for far too long — this a defining part of the Canadian condition no matter where the voter is from — and finally casting their ballots cohesively. But what the Conservative Party and its allies in civil society understood is that for the change to be more than passing, for people’s views to be altered more than incrementally, old terms needed to be disgraced and replaced with more expedient others. For fundamental change to occur, there needed to be stories to win not broad consensus but the vitally necessary allegiance of a tactically sufficient number. There needed to be narrative support for governments that deliver troops into battle and afterwards to ensure obeisance toward the politicians and the causes that keep them there. There needed to be an acceptance of mortal threats to soldiers beloved by family and country and an understanding that some of these troops would very likely return injured or that they will make “the ultimate sacrifice” and come home in coffins. There needed to be general agreement that the grief and the loss by soldiers’ families and by the larger community of Canada would not be experienced “in vain.”
And yet is it really possible that, over the course of one decade, the Canadian worldview changed so dramatically? This is the fundamental question raised by the altered discourse of the last decade and posed by this book. Can it be that the character of a nation becomes something else entirely in such a short period of time, or did it never truly veer much from what it was? These are questions that cannot be answered without deciding what was the character of the nation in the first place. Canada today is ostensibly quite different from the country that existed in the second half of the last century. Its days as a leading power at the UN are ended. A rapprochement with the United States and Israel has replaced its traditionally more multilateral stances. Its welcoming of new Canadians is qualified and sometimes adversarial. The attitude of the Canadian government after 2006 even toward its own citizens is one that reflexively relies on enmities and the cultivation of disputes resolved through the vilification of dissenters, the circumvention of Parliament and an imposition of solutions rather than any reconciliation achieved through “discussion, negotiation and compromise.”
In order to understand these changes, we can look for differences or for that which, beneath the surface, has remained the same. For often it is illuminating to see how history puts on different disguises even as the underlying habits of a place are fundamentally unaltered. This is to say either that Canada is today a “warrior nation” — that the peacekeeping version of Canada was a fifty-year aberration and a public that believes otherwise genuinely has ignored Canada’s long military history — or that the Canada with an innate disposition toward “soft power,” “making a difference” and the sort of peacekeeping work that is now so disparaged is the underlying constant and the “warrior nation” is the fiction.
Whatever is the more lasting Canadian truth, a wholesale revision of Canada’s reigning myths of identity has been both the result of and a major factor contributing to the divisive politics of the country during the last decade. Canadians are a healthily skeptical people, and it goes without saying that not everyone bought into the peacekeeping story of the 1990s just as support for today’s “warrior-nation” is far from categorical, either. But Canadians are also a reserved lot, so that myths and the particularly vocal can step into the silence and speak for the nation egregiously. The manner in which Canada’s new myths of identity have been fostered and narrated has allowed Liberal and then Conservative governments to make decisions and to pass laws that have sent the Canadian Forces into Afghanistan, bolstered them, dictated the terms by which they should operate, be withdrawn, and then swiftly deployed to Libya in another proactive military operation, the last a tendentious demonstration of the “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) doctrine that has become the acceptable face of supposedly humanitarian peace operations, today.
Behind the foreground in which politicians, journalists and soldiers provide the theatre, stories provide the means effecting such a turnaround. Not just their vocabulary or content but the various forms of narrative play their part in the way a society secures its position in the world and the terms on which it engages with others. The thinking that is shaped by subtly different forms of story such as the myth, the epic and the novel acts as the guarantor of a society through its encouragement of distinct points of view about security, heroism and the nature of good and evil. In following one or another path, a community is able to replicate itself in the world on terms that allow it to survive and even to thrive.