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Tim Cook balances an overview of the war with accounts of people on the ground.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Title
The Necessary War, Volume One: Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939-43
Author
Tim Cook
Genre
History
Publisher
Allen Lane
Pages
520 pages
Price
$39.95
Year
2014

Jus bellum iustum, the theory of justifiable war, can be evaluated on numerous criteria. Among those criteria is a principle of necessity – in short, what constitutes a necessary war? Is there such a thing in the first place? Constant discussion of contemporary wars the world over is only ever as far away as the television or the newspaper (the Islamic State or Ukraine or any number of other "localized" conflicts), but I find that we rarely ever address the question of necessity. Perhaps we don't even know how to frame it. Into this uncertainty, an unequivocal book like The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting The Second World War 1939-43, by feted historian Tim Cook, may provide us with the tools to broach this difficult conversation.

Around this time last year, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan by Canadian journalist Graeme Smith was published. I had the privilege of reviewing it, and found it an urgent and controversial analysis of our military expedition to Central Asia. With that in mind, it has been an interesting comparison to have read and reviewed Smith's book last year to The Necessary War this time around. Whereas Smith was conflicted, to say the least, about what we as a nation did in Afghanistan, Cook's position (as is his title) is explicit: our contribution to the Second World War was necessary. Cook plainly states that it was "a war of good against evil" – and that in fighting it, we were adhering to the principles of jus bellum iustum.

There are of course vast differences between the fairly limited Afghan campaign of the last decade-plus and the global sweep of the Second World War some 70 years ago, but at the heart of either analysis is that crucial question of necessity. I think a reasonable concern on a reader's behalf, before even getting to the first page of Cook's book, would be that this is a jingoistic, flag-waving retrospective; the term "necessary war" has that kind of undertone to it. But while Cook makes his view clear, his summary of Canada's involvement in the Second World War shows a much more reluctant and fraught progression, from justifiable domestic concerns about getting involved in another European conflict, post-Great War, to the actual deployment of Canadian personnel. We then follow the Canadians through the fall of France to Hong Kong to the North Atlantic to the skies above Europe to the infamous, "multi-sired" defeat at Dieppe.

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Throughout, Cook deftly balances a bird's-eye-view of the tactics, doctrine, strategy, and key players at work (think of the sort of discussion best held over a large map) with the riveting accounts of the people on the ground (or, as it were, in the air or sea). These accounts are accomplished through Cook's outstanding access to letters, journal entries, and interviews with remaining veterans. We are given close-up glimpses of life on a corvette – including the wreckage of "floats, rafts … [and] wildly waving men" in the water following a battle with a U-boat wolfpack. We join airmen in the bombing sorties over Germany, and cannot help but sympathize (even, perhaps, identify) with them even as they themselves contemplate the destruction they are wreaking over the cities below. In short, we are given an opportunity to see that victory was never certain, and that the Canadian personnel never really had the time to consider the philosophic necessity of their efforts. Ultimately, it is this low(er)-level perspective that makes Cook's work accessible, while at the same time contributing to his candid point of view. This is important because The Necessary War is a long, dense book, and as such may be daunting to all but the most historically fascinated readers.

In an interesting departure from common Second World War narratives, Cook's book "climaxes" not with the Normandy landings but with the Canadian component of the Italian Campaign through the summer and latter half of 1943 (a second volume will be published next year). We follow the Canadians from Sicily to their eventual hard-won victory over the German paratroopers in Ortona at Christmastime. Although the Canadians were successful, the cost was steep – not just in casualty figures, as Cook points out, but in what was recognized at the time as "battle fatigue" (shellshock in the First World War, PTSD or "operational stress injury" as it's known today). The Italian Campaign functions well as the book's concluding action; Cook then goes on to liken the "raving madhouse" of Ortona to his preceding examinations of every other significant Canadian contribution.

Tim Cook has presented a strong case, within an engrossing narrative, for the Canadian component in the battle against Germany and the other Axis powers. Likewise, he neatly explains how the interconnectedness and escalations of each of the war's myriad campaigns contributed to the overall necessity (for example, U-boat hunting in the Atlantic was necessary for a land invasion of Europe, while bombing runs against German production centres were necessary to wear down the materiel support of the Nazi war machine) of the war itself. Within the context of jus bellum iustum, Cook's standpoint remains clear throughout: the Second World War, as wars go, was indeed necessary. While the conflict itself may be long past, and we may find ourselves beset by more immediate concerns, in The Necessary War Tim Cook has proven to us how a thorough consideration of our part in the Second World War gives us the intellectual tools to contemplate our turbulent world today.

Matt Lennox's new novel, Knucklehead, will be published in 2015. He is also an officer with The Queen's York Rangers, an Army Reserve unit based out of Toronto and Aurora.

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