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Canadians are ignorant about defence/military

It is unlikely that Canadians' ignorance of things military (or our history, for that matter) will be lessened by a new book by Noah Richler, if we are to believe this review which is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from the Ottawa Citizen. For the record, I have not read Richler's book, nor do I plan to, Margaret MacMillan suggests that we ought to take him seriously, and I suppose I agree, if only because he represents a major strain of Canadian history opinion ignorance, but I'm too old and too busy to read rubbish.


‘Warrior nation’
Noah Richler argues that the Harperites have changed how we think of ourselves

By Paul Gessell, The Ottawa Citizen

April 20, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About War
By Noah Richler
Goose Lane, $24.95

Noah Richler presumably does not vote Conservative.

Nevertheless, the Toronto-based author from, yes, that famous literary family, has just written a book that credits Stephen Harper’s government for a truly miraculous — or, should we say, diabolical? — feat.

In just a few short years, the Harperites have manoeuvred Canadians into seeing themselves as a “warrior nation” instead of the “peacekeeping nation” so many of us previously thought we inhabited, Richler says in his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About War.

“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,” claims Richler, also author of the 2007 book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.

Essentially, according to Richler’s thinking, the Conservatives disliked the sentiment that Canada was a product of “discussion, negotiation and compromise.” Such a “founding myth” apparently led people to believe that Canada was a peacekeeping country that should be a big player at the United Nations and should roll out the welcome mat for immigrants and refugees.

All that has changed, according to Richler, and now we see ourselves a “warrior nation,” with notches in our belt for Afghanistan and Libya and an itch to fight yet more wars, possibly next with Iran. That sense of being a warrior nation, the author contends, has affected all political discourse in Canada.

“The attitude of the Canadian government after 2006 even towards 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.’ ”

So, have Canadians really changed their view of their own country? Or was that notion, dating back to the 1950s, of being a “peacekeeping country” really an aberration? Did the Conservatives merely put us back on the war-like path we normally pursue?

A look at our history dating back to the War of 1812, through the Northwest Rebellion, the Boer War, the two world wars and Korea reveals that our soldiers were kept very busy for centuries killing people long before they started to wear Lester Pearson’s UN peacekeeping blue helmets. Yet, we were never an aggressive imperialist power, although Louis Riel and South Africa’s Boers might argue that point.

Clearly, there is considerable room for argument in debating our warrior versus peacekeeper status. And Richler understood that while he was writing this provocative and well-researched book about the shifts he perceives in Canadians’ self-image.

We see that shift orchestrated by the Conservatives in the current 200th anniversary celebrations of the War of 1812 — a founding myth the Tories have basically created — American-style attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan and the attempt to turn John Babcock, the last surviving First World War soldier, into a national hero by offering him a state funeral.

Babcock declined all attempts, in both his life and death, to glorify his exceedingly minimal role as a soldier. Richler has great fun discussing how the 109-year-old Babcock outsmarts the Harperites.

The book offers considerable meat to chew on but it also has faults. Richler spends way too much ink trying to discredit the supposedly jingoistic writings of Postmedia News columnist Christie Blatchford about the military. Does she really matter? As well, Richler is far too touchy-feely and imprecise in stating his own opinions on some of the burning questions he raises. (An interview with Richler did not add much precision).

Does Richler, for example, believe that Canada ever should have gone to war in Afghanistan? Does he believe that Canadian soldiers died in vain in Afghanistan? These are questions raised in this book but not really answered.

In the interview, Richler said he cannot peer into Afghanistan’s future and thus determine whether Canada’s military intervention and the sacrifice of Canadian lives really made a difference.

Richler may find himself increasingly forced to clarify his position as he criss-crosses the country this spring publicizing his book. He will, for example, be a guest of the Ottawa International Writers Festival April 29 and then on May 23 will be in Vancouver sharing a stage with Trevor Greene, a Canadian soldier who sustained a horrific head injury while in Afghanistan and has since, with his wife Debbie, written a book, March Forth, about his experience. Does Greene think his injury was for nothing?

Press material for Richler’s book arrived with several endorsements by high-profile Canadians, including former diplomat and NDP politico Stephen Lewis. There was also more qualified support from others, including one of Canada’s top historians, Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris, 1919.

“Well written and passionate,” says MacMillan, “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.”

I’m with MacMillan. I can’t agree with all of Richler’s analysis but I am grateful he has raised some important issues that have not been, but should have been, fully debated in Parliament and in the rest of the country this past decade.

In Town

Noah Richler appears at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 29 at 2 p.m. at Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar St. Info: writersfestival.org

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Reading between the lines, from Gessell's review, I presume that Richler believes that history didn't happen until after he was born and that, therefore, Canada's wars, big and small, domestic and foreign, the ones that happened before 1956, don't count.
An excerpt from Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War is available on the Walrus' web site. It confirms my intent to give Richler's book a pass.

Edit: spelling  :-[  (But, maybe it was just a typo.  :nod:  :D )
E.R. Campbell said:
An excerpt from Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War is available on the Walrus' web site. It conforms my intent to give Richler's book a pass.

He certainly is not in the same league as his father as a writer, and that goes both for wordsmithing and for development of ideas. The Toronto literati will love it.
E.R. Campbell said:
Suggesting that Canadians' deeply entrenched ignorance of and apathy about military matters is a "danger to democracy" is going a bit overboard; ditto suggesting that in "educating" politicians and senior bureaucrats military officers skew the agenda. But, there is little doubt that politicians and bureaucrats have little appetite for the technical details of modern military matters ~ nor should they, not any more than, say, the Minister of Natural Resources needs to understand the technical complexity of disposing of the waste from pulp and paper plants: it's a problem; we have experts; they recommend a range of options; ministers select the one that can a) be afforded and b) get the job done just well enough.

I do agree with Prof. Bland that we need to strengthen the military's ties to the community ~ restoring the old UNTD and COTC programmes, and helping reserve force members (officers and other ranks) to pay of loans at a higher rate if they stay in reserve units after graduation might be a way to help. Both would require more resources including more paid Class A billets in reserve units.

I have often said, and I firmly believe that Canadians' "support" for the troops is a mile wide but only an inch deep; that is, in large part, a consequence of the ignorance that Profs Sarty and Bland bemoan.

I'm fairly certain that Bland doesn't believe that its a "danger to democracy," at least not in the uprising sense. It is however at times questionable that it serves the public interests (or its own institutional ones) in the most efficient manner. His recent book, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, discusses this fairly well:


And this is not a new occurrence. DND was organized in its current fashion back in the early 1970s because it was thought there was an emerging leadership vacuum at the top of the department and it needed to run itself. Its operated in that fashion since... most of the conflict has  been inside the bureaucracy, between the civil and military sides of the department. Stuff like Amalgamation of CFHQ, Fyffe review and the Vance report in the 1970s and 1980s, the "defence team" concept of the 1990s, Somalia and the 1997 reforms, the Hillier reorganization and reversion in the past decade.
I live in a big city, but you'd never know that Canada has an armed forces.  Occasionally, I see someone driving an army truck, presumeably to get some gas.  But that's about it.  For an urban dweller who does not live in Edmonton or Petewawa, seeing a fully uniformed service person, let alone an army truck, is a BIG deal, even a bit of a shock.  (Canadians look that much scarier in their green uniforms!)  Where I live, there is no Highway of Heroes, no military parades, no yellow ribbons, no Canadian flags, zippo.  Then you wonder why people here feel apathy.

People need to feel a personal connection if they are to care.  The military has that responsibility - to put names and faces on personnel, to tell personal stories of sacrifice and courage, to show the everyday struggles of men and women serving overseas who put in their own words, for instance, how special tanks are going to help save lives or make their jobs easier, and the difference they make at home.  People can identify with real people.  Otherwise, it's just too easy in Canada, for people to live in their own little bubble. 

Jack Granatstein replies to the claims that Canada is being remade into a "warrior nation" in this piece from the Ottawa Citizen's website. It is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provision of the Copyright Act.

Canada always was a warrior nation

By J.L. Granatstein, The Ottawa Citizen September 2, 2012 Comments (1)

Is Canada a peacekeeping nation? Or is it a warrior nation? These questions are the subject of two Spring 2012 books by Noah Richler (What We Talk About When We Talk About War) and Ian McKay and Jamie Swift (Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety). They are notable for the vigour of their arguments and, not least, because both take aim at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and at David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein. Yes, David and me. Ordinarily, I would not respond to attacks of this sort (David can make his own decisions!), but the issue is important and I’ve decided it’s worth a reply.

That Canada was a warrior nation I take as a given. The nation’s 20th-century record speaks for itself, as do the military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya in the first years of this century. This is Canadian history, and the authors may not like this, but they simply must accept it — and by and large they do. What they object to, what they attribute in part to Bercuson and me, is the way military history has been pushed to the forefront of public consciousness, or so they claim, and the way in which the Harper government has used this interpretation of the past and the Afghan war to change the public narrative. In effect, they argue that Canada has become a warrior nation thanks to the current government’s efforts and the writings of a few military historians sheltering under the broad wings of the CDFAI.

There is some truth in this, but mostly it’s a lot of hooey. The government built up the military — and is now rolling back the defence budget. Despite my best efforts, polls demonstrate Canadians know very little of their military past. Moreover, other than in a few universities, Canadian military history is not much taught. But there is substantial publishing in the field, and the public buys and reads these books. More military history sells, I suspect, than McKay’s unreadable tomes on the glories of the Canadian left. But that’s a dispute for another day.

What was the narrative before the warriors “perverted” it? To Richler and McKay-Swift, Canada as peacekeeper is much more realistic, more acceptable to the public, more attuned to what Canada is and should be. Now, there is no doubt that the Canadian Forces has done much good work in peacekeeping since the early 1950s, and there is similarly no debate that the public likes this role. Every opinion poll confirms this. And there is also no gainsaying the fact that governments, Liberal and Conservative, have exploited this, building the grand peacekeeping monument in Ottawa, putting peacekeeping on our coins and bills, and talking it up at every opportunity until recently.

Richler at least understands that this was largely mythmaking, but he prefers the peacekeeping myth to the war-fighting reality. McKay and Swift sometimes seem to accept the myth as fact.

It is, of course, made up of whole cloth. Peacekeeping was never more than a subsidiary role for the C.F. NATO and NORAD commitments absorbed most of the personnel and budgetary resources, while peacekeeping at its peak received at most 10 per cent. But the myth appealed to Canadians, and their governments, eager to cut budgets and looking for a uniquely Canadian role to trumpet, went along with the story.

A personal anecdote, one that Richler uses in his book to slam me. When I went to Ottawa in 1998 to become the director and CEO of the (old) Canadian War Museum, I found the third floor of the cramped museum devoted to peacekeeping. Why? I asked. Because my predecessor had polled visitors and been told they wanted to see more on peacekeeping. The problem was that the CWM’s exhibits almost completely omitted NATO and NORAD, a total bowdlerization of postwar history. So I reduced the peacekeeping exhibits substantially and put in big exhibits on Canada’s two main alliances. To Richler, this was the triumph of the warrior nation idea over the peacekeeping ideal. Maybe, but to me, it was simply getting the history right, the task of a museum just as much as it is (or should be) of historians.

Getting it right matters. So does smashing myths and creating new ones. But surely it is critical to understand the difference between history and myth first.
It never ceases to amaze me that intelligent well educated people can be so ill-informed about their local history and not even realize it.

I live in the stomping grounds of the Stormont, Dundas and Glenngary Highlanders. I moved here approximately 12 years ago. I was surprised to see how many national historic sites there are in the immediate area from Cornwall to Prescott there are so many readily available sites to visit and learn from. From places like Crysler's farm, now underwater as a result of the seaway, the battle of the windmill, Fort Wellington (and there are some very juicy stories about it's building and the Canadian Militia).

I have talked with locals about the history and they just don't know about their region's history, someone really messed up when they were being taught history.  I believe History should be taught out doors and wherever possible on location, to drive home that history is the story of people, local people living in the same area as you, and with the same concerns. Family names show up in records hundreds of years old and they are your family names and the names of families you know. You see the same family names on Militia nominal roles, hundreds of years apart.

In any region of Canada, we find records of battles or military expeditions from Benedict Arnold's attempt to invade and conquer Quebec City by invading overland from Maine, and losing his warchest along the way. There have been a few expeditions mounted to try to find his treasure.

We have so many great historical stories and characters like Inspector Sam Steele of the NWMP, Sir Sandford Flemming and Standard time.  We have a lot of History, both Military and Civil to be aware of and proud of.
Colin P said:
Meanwhile all us westcoasters have to be proud of is a dead pig.  ;D

That is precisely why I propose that those units west of the GTA be allowed to wear the 'Dead Pig Wings' above their 1812 pins.

If you want to do stupid, you might as well go the 'whole hog'  ;D
Colin P said:
Meanwhile all us westcoasters have to be proud of is a dead pig.  ;D
Just goes to show how contentious our ancestors were, and also how old the pork marketing board is.  <bg>
It has always amazed me the overall ignorance of the Canadian public of the military.  It's a shame really, one that within my own circle of friends and family I have tried to overcome and inform them with the hopes it will transfer over to their friends and family as well.

Peacekeeping is an especially tiresome subject that I constantly fight against.  We are not Peacekeepers, that is just a role that we fulfill.  I've filled many a sandbag, doesn't mean I am a sandbagger, it's just in my box of tricks that gets pulled out when I need to do it.
SherH2A said:
It never ceases to amaze me that intelligent well educated people can be so ill-informed about their local history and not even realize it.
Canadian.Trucker said:
It has always amazed me the overall ignorance of the Canadian public of the military.
If it's any comfort, it's not just the military that's off many folks' radar - I'm guessing many calls to city hall, members of provincial parliament and members of parliament involve a response along the lines of "the city/the province/the feds are responsible for that, you'll have to call xxxx".  If a lot of folks don't know how services they get every day work, they probably know even less about a military many don't even come in contact with.  :(
milnews.ca said:
If it's any comfort, it's not just the military that's off many folks' radar - I'm guessing many calls to city hall, members of provincial parliament and members of parliament involve a response along the lines of "the city/the province/the feds are responsible for that, you'll have to call xxxx".  If a lot of folks don't know how services they get every day work, they probably know even less about a military many don't even come in contact with.  :(
Touche salesman, touche.
Hell most people don't even know where their poop goes, main source of electrical power or where their water comes from. Most don't even realize that pipes run under the streets.
I've been quite encouraged to notice that, regardless whether or not they understand what we do, most Canadians I come across are very supportive of their military members in general.

Warrior schmorrior... For I am a soldier, and unapt to weep, or to exclaim upon fortune's fickleness! ;D
Hell Canada sounds just like Australia...Pollies love messing around with budgets...flying  our wounded into Richmond late at night,giving them the gag forms to them and their partners and telling them that they could be jailed if they spoke about what they did....and that's just the "normal" guys...hate to see what the "secret squirrels " go through if they get (heaven forbid) wounded and have to be pensioned off  :salute:
In Australia cadet units aren't part of our schooling system...been like that since just after Vietnam war when the Greens Party started to take a more political role in our government  :facepalm:
I was a naval cadet and most of my Training Ship (Unit) were guys that were either there for "Juvie" community service...or had dads that wanted their boys "to become men" AKA gay.
I have been called everything from "Baby killer" to "Wow! its a navy looser Joan.....you know those guys that sink the boat seekers " (heard it from a  woman on the phone at a very icky rail station in Sydney)....though what takes the cake was a lovely Greenpeace group that threw pig's bits over the fence at Garden Island....thank god it was July so we had our black winter uniforms on and not the summer whites :blotto: