A few years ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I went to see Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, the film that won the Golden Lion at the 2009 film festival in Venice. The movie is set during the invasion of Lebanon in the days before the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila and is shot almost entirely from within a tank that a group of Israeli conscripts is anxiously leading.
The word that is typically used to describe such a film is "harrowing." The tank crew is young, panicked and inchoate. The tight frame of the tank gunner's periscope, through which most of the film is seen, serves the director's story well. We live in the tank's world of dripping fuel, and gathering piss, blood and excrement inside and its paranoid and very limited view of the world.
Leaving the cinema, my wife and I were quiet and affected by the film's message of horrid violence randomly visited upon men and women, many of them innocent. Lebanon was a powerful movie and it certainly affirmed my own views about the futility, inhumanity, devastation and pity of war. I'd nothing to say. But my wife Sarah did.
"How many times do we have to see this movie?" she asked. "Don't we get its message by now?"
A book has many incipient moments, and this was certainly one for mine. It should be clear, from my new book's title, that I spend a good deal of time examining terms and phrases such as "hero," "making a difference," "dying in vain" and "support our troops." The censorious climate oppressing any meaningful debate about Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan that was the order of the day for the last decade (so comically reiterated on the floor of the House of Commons, last week, by the Prime Minister invoking the spectre of Hitler in his condemnation of the NDP), was disturbing, but so too was the plethora of everyday scenes in which it appeared that Canadians were not actually much affected by the war at all.
In time, we may learn differently, art the avenue. After the eye-witness accounts that have been surfacing these last few years, and then the polemics and the tide of analyses to which my own book can be said to belong, novels and movies will arise out of the country's experience. If we are fortunate, their shocking quality will match, say, the extraordinary documentary work of the Canadian photographer Louie Palu, or the impact of that superb though, today, less read novel of the First World War – Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die in Bed. Still, experience of war's repeated cycle makes it difficult to be convinced of their lasting effects.
Certainly it is hard, in the cities that we are repeatedly told house some 80 per cent of Canada's population, to look about their undisturbed streets or the busy tables of jostling restaurants unaltered in atmosphere for 10 years and to conclude that the war in Afghanistan ever truly affected Canadians' lives much. (In smaller towns and communities, such as the Nova Scotian village in which I spend a good part of the year writing, the story is of course different.) This is not to say that the country was not preoccupied by the war, but that what it means for Canada to have been a nation "at war" is no longer an idea that is terribly clear.
Perhaps, as was suggested to me by a bright student at Bolton, Ont.'s Humberview Secondary School recently, the meaning of being a "warrior nation" has simply changed, and just as modern armies are smaller, so is their reach. Perhaps it is an unreasonable requirement to think that a nation "at war" needs to be one with bombed-out buildings, in which the death of friends and loved ones or simply strangers in a market bread line is arbitrary, and a significant portion of the population is engaged in combat. Perhaps the corollary of today's reduced forces and their smaller numbers fighting in distant places (or guiding drones) is that being a nation at war now means no more than being a little bit more vigilant about untended packets on a bus, or that its citizens be engaged in talk about war. It could be that the truth of 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan is that we were, in fact, winning, at least at home, so that the majority of us could go about our daily lives unchanged in their ordinary details – unquestionably, this is what the advocates of Canada the "warrior nation" would like the country to think.
Or the truth of the last 10 years could be that, aside from its 162 worst moments (four civilians having died along with 158 members of the Canadian Forces), we have mostly lived the war as Hollywood would have us imagine it, and that the excesses of such entertainment have rendered us immune not only to the shock of war's violence, but also to the sum of regret and horror and anger and shame that is its aftermath.
Ever more graphic scenes in films and television are typically blamed for North American audiences being inured to the true nature of war – and with good reason. Quentin Tarantino's films, or television series such as Spartacus or even Game of Thrones, for example, rely on cartoon exaggerations of the hacking of a human body – the metre-long sword vertically piercing the body at the neck and sunk the length of the spine and then exerted easily, the neck or arm hacked off and a fountain of blood streaking across the screen and suspended in the air for an extra moment – because the still awful but comparatively restrained scenes of gore such as were shocking for 10 minutes in, say, Steven Spielberg's 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan (a stunned soldier, missing an arm, walking about the D-Day beach without it) are no longer enough. Documentary reality is no longer enough. We have been shown these scenes too many times. We require more, so that now only hyperbole will do.
The same thing has happened in the arena of war's last stage, in which – after entering the fight with gusto, and then suffering it for as long as we (or a very small part of we) are able – we indulge in rituals of lament. Yet to this rite of passage, too, we have become effectively inured. The panoply of scenes that are used, time and again, to relay war's torment are now stock moments of its familiar story: the funeral of a man in uniform (though less so, the soldier who returns a paraplegic or with post-traumatic stress disorder); the bereaved lover, parent, child or fellow combatant. We think we understand what it means to understand, and go through the motions. We stand at a hockey game for less than a minute to pay tribute to the local hero before returning to the circus action and our iPhone apps.
Is it arrogant to feel this way? To want, in one of these moments, the hockey crowd with their plastic mugs of beer and their popcorn standing for the troops, the families in attendance along the "Highway of Heroes" or others at a policeman's funeral not to stand, in silence, hands over their hearts in postures received from the movies, to wail inconsolably and furiously – and to riot, damn it, for lost lives rather than a sports result? That would bust the cliché – once, at least, before that scene, too, of thousands outraged at war's stupidity became a standard part of the war story's tired repertoire and was repeated, again.
"How many times do we need to see the movie? Don't we get its message by now?"
Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions) is in stores now.