What We Talk About When We Talk About War
- By Noah Richler
- Goose Lane Editions, 378 pages, $26
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Title aside, this densely written commentary is about more than war. While its main focus is the "mythology" built around Canada as "warrior nation," its core relates to identity and what it means to be Canadian. A caution: one must pause from time to time to fully digest its theme.
Noah Richler, notwithstanding his famous namesake (novelist Mordecai was his father), is a man of ideas in his own right. A public intellectual known to provoke a debate (that apple fell close to the tree), Richler is a documentary writer, columnist, editor and award-winning author of This is My Country, What's Yours? Splitting his time between Toronto and Digby Neck, N.S., Richler has established himself as a leading critic and polemicist.
What We Talk About When We Talk About War emerged from his 2010 Antonine Maillet-Northrop Frye Literary Festival lecture. He says that talk was "short," so this book expands considerably on his original thoughts.
Richler's critique strikes at the Canadian historical narrative, specifically the "vigorous trend" of a "war-fighting nation." He doesn't just disagree with this, he feels its "jingoistic schema" has seriously altered Canadian policy and might similarly transform the national identity.
A crude chauvinistic epic has replaced Canada's once complicated "humanism." Now "vile enemies are necessary," and "heroic sacrifices" are venerated. Troublingly, anyone can be a hero now.
Richler has particular disdain for a band of conservatives: various journalists, academics and public figures, including historians David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier, newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford, and (egad!) CBC-TV comedian Rick Mercer (who is depicted in a recurring role as a military propagandist).
These, among others, he suggests, have so effectively pitched Canada's military identity that the true record has been marginalized, while policy has likewise realigned.
This is no small claim. Canada's new military image, Richler contends, "rides roughshod over history," and was a factor in the Conservative Party's "phoenix from the ashes." It has diminished Canada's real identity and peacekeeping tradition.
This tectonic shift in the Canadian "self" occurred between 2001 and 2006 -- from 9/11 to the robust mission in Kandahar. By then, he says, the groundwork was complete for a refurbishment of identity and policy.
Richler makes a good case for the peacekeeping tradition in Canada, but some of his critiques are stale. To wit: Canada's peacekeeping contribution "plummeted" to 33rd internationally by 2001 (then 57th by 2010). True, but not the whole story: after the Cold War, the number of peacekeeping missions grew from around five to more than 40, requiring thousands of new soldiers, and many new players joined the contributing field.
The UN pays peacekeeping soldiers, so heavy contributions came from developing states such as Bangladesh, Pakistan or Ethiopia. Regardless of military cutbacks or a new focus on war fighting, then, Canada's relative contribution inevitably would have dropped.
Richler does not disregard Canada's past military operations. But he says the "Vimy effect" and other presentations of militarism are "propaganda" used as part of a "national purpose" to create a martial identity. On Afghanistan, Richler argues the war was never about improving Afghan lives, or building schools for girls.
Rather, the war is about alliances with the U.S. and a stable environment for global trade. Not exactly shocking, but realistic, when one seriously considers that Canada's policy is actually rooted in self-interest, not global philanthropy. (Richler suggests that Canada's policies may have a compassionate attribute, but are disturbingly narcissistic: "Look what a good and proud nation we are").
Richler's style can be off-putting. His broad sweep may lose readers in poetry, Canadian-American relations, historicism or Ghanaian proverbs. Literary and popular cultural references dot the landscape -- Greek epics, television, film and science fiction. His title riffs off American short story master Raymond Carver's 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
With rich references to ideological theory, religion, literature, academia and journalism, it's nonetheless frustrating for such a thoughtful position undermined by needless name-calling such as "channel for propaganda" (Canadian journalists), "laughable" and "ridiculous" (historians) and "professional imbecile" (Don Cherry).
Richler must have anticipated polarizing his readers. Even so, while his facts are generally solid, there are oversights: for instance, Operation Enduring Freedom was not a "precursor" to the International Security Assistance Force; the JTF 2 weren't fighting "clandestinely" (Canadians were told they were there); and it's the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Moreover, one can't agree with everything in it, but with its challenging ideas and provocative theme, it's worth the effort. If this book does not fire a debate, then it will be because we are not up for it.
George A. MacLean is associate dean in the faculty of graduate studies and professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
What We Talk About When We Talk About War
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