The cenotaph erected outside Old City Hall, on the edge of Toronto's financial district, was completed in 1925 to honour "our glorious dead" who fell during the Great War. "We built all of these memorials after the First World War – this horrible slaughter, 66,000 dead," says Tim Cook, examining it during a recent visit from Ottawa, where he serves as a historian at the Canadian War Museum. "And then the question was, after the Second World War, 'What do we do? Do we build more memorials?' And almost universally everyone said no." Instead, the granite monument adopted the casualties of subsequent conflicts – the Second World War, Korea, Canada's peacekeeping missions.
Cook's career arc as one of the country's foremost popular historians is similarly shaped: He built his name writing about the First World War (At the Sharp End and Shock Troops, winner of the RBC Taylor Prize, are essential reading), but in recent years he has shifted focus elsewhere. "There's not a lot left that I can write about the First World War," he says. His latest book, The Necessary War, is the first in a two-volume series chronicling Canada's role in the Second World War, which began 75 years ago this month.
It was, Cook writes, "the first and last time in Canada's history that the nation fielded an army in battle," and from the narrow streets of Hong Kong to the vast deserts of North Africa, from the black waters of the North Atlantic to the skies above Europe, The Necessary War, like the conflict it covers, is global in scope. These were, Cook writes, "ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances."
"There are some questions that come out in a war against a brutal, fascist state," says Cook, 42, sitting in a café across the street from the cenotaph on a recent weekday afternoon. "How far are you willing to go in the pursuit of victory? We showed that we were pretty much willing to go to the bitter end, to involve bombing women and children, enacting naval blockades, fighting when tens and hundreds of thousands and millions of people were being killed. And the problem in a total war like this is that the other side is willing to do the same thing. And that's industrialized warfare. And that's why you have 60 million dead.
"I'm not interested in writing [a] heroic history, even though I think it is heroic," he adds. "But combat is grim and awful and atrocious and terrifying, and the act of killing another person scars you for life. And I hope that I've written about some of that here."
Cook sees himself as a "hybrid historian." He holds a PhD and can speak the lingua franca of academia, but working for a public institution such as the Canadian War Museum means presenting complex ideas to a general audience; his books are likewise authoritative yet accessible, like a Friday-afternoon lecture from a favourite professor.
"I don't know how I'm viewed in the academy," he admits. The popular histories of the sort he writes – The Necessary War is already a Canadian bestseller – are "seen as being a bit lightweight. A little too interested in the story, not enough interested in the research." He bristles at this suggestion. "I am deeply interested in the research."
The popular histories of the sort he writes are also an endangered species, at least among Canadian authors. "Canadian histories have a limited market," he says. "No one [outside Canada] cares about our history." And those who have found success – Charlotte Gray, Conrad Black – often come from newspapers, not the ivory tower. Cook bridges both worlds.
"Tim, who doesn't work in a university, who's got the credentials of a professional historian – a PhD and all that – Tim can tell a good story," says fellow historian Jack Granatstein. "He brings together what I might call the 'journalistic flair' with the historical training. Most journalists have the flair, if they're lucky, but they don't have the training."
Cook puts this flair to good use – The Necessary War is a genuinely captivating work of historical reportage and analysis. The most moving sections, however, occur when Cook turns from the macro to the micro, illuminating the inner lives of soldiers on the front lines, the pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who went up without knowing if they'd ever come down, and the sailors looking out across the darkness of the ocean, unsure if this would be the night when the U-boats attacked. The Necessary War grapples with the question of how one lives knowing each day might literally be your last.
Perhaps part of the reason Cook was able to capture this turmoil so well is that he was facing his own mortality while writing the book. Not long after turning 40 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, "which is supposed to be the good cancer to get," says Cook. "It is for about 90 per cent of people. It's not for me. I have a kind of resistant strain of it.
"Of course, I was reading hundreds of [war] memoirs at the time, and I took some solace from these young men and women in combat, who were finding their own ways to cope and endure and make sense of it, and who were scared, and who kept going forward, for the most part," he says. "I never sat there thinking I was wearing a tin hat – here I am now on the beaches of Dieppe – but I did take some solace in knowing that other people had been through this."
He had recently begun work on the book, but was advised to put it aside and concentrate on his health. The break was short-lived. The project became a lifeline, he says. For a man who lives to write, he was now, in a way, writing to live.
The Necessary War ends at the Battle of Ortona, with Canadian troops capturing the small Italian town bordering the Adriatic Sea – a bloody campaign that saw some of the costliest casualties of the Mediterranean theatre. That makes it a cliffhanger of sorts, with much of Europe still controlled by Hitler and D-Day still six months away. Readers won't have to wait long to find out how things turned out. Despite the fact that Cook has been "almost continuously" in treatment since his diagnosis, the second volume, Fight to the Finish, is nearly complete. It will be published next year.
"This was an anchor for me," he says. "I remember I kept a little diary, and one of the things I'd written at one point was that I'm going to see this book published."