Thursday, January 30, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About War /
Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety

For Canadians who fear and distrust the steadily growing militarism suffusing the culture of our country, two recent books are indispensable: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler, and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

Richler's book focuses on the re-writing and re-framing the distant past. And as the title (with its homage to Raymond Carver) suggests, Richler focuses on language. He analyzes how Canada's image of itself, in relation to war-making and the military, has been radically altered, bit by incremental bit.

The book is not a play-by-play of the process; Richler assumes you know the general outline and the major players. It's a deep analysis of the language and symbolism of a right-wing cabal intent on discrediting Canada's history of peacekeeping, and changing its national self-image through revisionist history, from the War of 1812 to Vimy Ridge to Remembrance Day, right on up to the recent "mission" - never a war, merely a mission - in Afghanistan.

The forces behind this movement shouldn't be powerful enough to affect such a massive and wholesale change. But they (a) are unchallenged on a wide scale, (b) are echoed uncritically in the mainstream media, and (c) emanate from government or with the weight of government behind them.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War is a dense book, and not particularly easy to read, but enlightening, and rewarding, and important.

McKay and Swift's book is also dense and veers towards the academic. Where Richler looks to the past of Pearson and peacekeeping with a clear admiration (although with his eyes open, and not uncritically), McKay and Swift see Harper's Canada as exchanging one set of myths for another, more dangerous master narrative.

Both books site the same group of academics, militarists, journalists, and politicians, ubiquitous in the Canadian media to anyone who has followed this shift: Bercuson, Granatstein, Hillier, Blatchford, and so on. McKay and Swift call them "the New Warriors". Both McKay/Swift and Richler decry the same trends. An uncritical view of history, a mass dissemination even of a historical record that has been proven false. A discrediting of the value of discussion, compromise, and peacekeeping. Worship of all things military, coupled with the jingoistic notion that criticism or even questioning is unpatriotic, and that genuine debate about the purpose of a war somehow puts Canadian troops at risk.

Why does any of this matter? This review was originally published during Remembrance Week, when the slogan "Lest We Forget" was everywhere. Yet it might as well have said "Let's Forget". Under Harper and the New Warriors, Remembrance Day has become a collective act of forgetting.

Forgetting that millions upon millions of lives were lost for nothing.

Forgetting veterans and their families suffering from the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Forgetting that war has never solved anything.

Forgetting that war is glorious only for those who stay at home and make speeches.

Forgetting that the peace that Canadians enjoy was not won on a battlefield, but hammered out through compromise.

Forgetting that what made Canada a great country, what gave Canada peace and prosperity, was not war. Never was war.

From What We Talk About When We Talk About War:
We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today's Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into it. . . .

[The over-emphasis on Canadian military history] 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 development, 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 the relationship 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 into Hudsons' 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 M├ętis 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 Hudsons' 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 legitimised in courts and boardrooms as much as, if not more than, through soldiering.

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