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What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler

Noah Richler


This polemic from Noah Richler is an epic tale in the style of Greek mythology. On one side are the forces of light – liberal, tolerant, humanitarian, enlightened, in a word, Pearsonian. Arrayed against them are the forces of darkness, including the Ivory Tower warlocks David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein, Amazon journalist Christie Blatchford, comedian and closet militarist Rick Mercer, uncloseted militarist Rick Hillier, Canada's "professional imbecile" Don Cherry and the anti-Christ himself, Stephen Harper. To simplify the tale, we might call them The Enemy.

Using bombast, nostalgia and sentimentalism, they hoodwinked Canadians into electing a government of hawks. In the process, Canada turned its back on its true heritage of Pearsonian diplomacy, soft power and peacekeeping in favour of an ideology that valorized the First World War as symbolic justification for sending to Afghanistan an army of war-fighters.

I have intentionally overdrawn the story, but only slightly – this is a book that is short on subtlety, for Richler is not one to wield the scalpel when the chainsaw is to hand. His visceral dislike of The Enemy touches just about every page, as does a petulant resentment that, in the election of the Harper government, democracy produced the wrong result. (Tiresome, isn't it, when the majority of voters cast their ballots incorrectly?) With such hostility, it's ironic that Richler falls into the same rhetorical excesses that he deprecates.

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His story is one of absolutes, of black and white – war fighters vs. peacekeepers, the epic voice vs. the novel voice, the pro-army lobby vs. the peace operations lobby. To paraphrase George W. Bush, you're either on one side or the other. Nuance is sacrificed to sweeping statements that are often wrong-headed.

The notion that Canadians should know their history better, for example, is not the foundation for a more informed society but "a euphemism for greater – and uncontroversial – public acceptance of the country's military past." That the Memory Project might collect the reflections of Korean War veterans merely enlists those men and women into "the service of the nation's myth-making requirement." Much better that Canada remain ignorant of anything in its past that is not connected to Lester Pearson.

It is this wide-eyed adoration of a Pearsonian Golden Age that becomes the book's greatest weakness. Pearson's invention of peacekeeping in the Suez, which birthed the blue-helmeted peacekeeper, is for Richler as unassailable as the Vimy Ridge myth he derides. But The Enemy callously rejected this heritage and turned Canada dramatically to the right.

It's difficult to deny that Canada has undergone a sea change. The problem is that, despite frequent references to 9/11, Richler gives the impression that the rest of the world hasn't. The Taliban suicide bomber of 2012 is essentially the same as the Egyptian Army private of 1956; Osama bin Laden was just a latter-day General Nasser. Pearson's brand of peacekeeping worked fine in the past and, by golly, it will work now. For Richler, it's the one constant, applicable to all times and places.

But if Canada has changed, so too has the world, and Pearsonian peacekeeping is a relic of the past. Its fundamental assumption was that peace is preferable to war. But in the 21st century, there are people who would much rather have war than peace – unless peace involves the complete annihilation of the opposition. Blue helmets can't change that.

Richler's uncritical nostalgia for the Golden Age is a shame, because there are good things in his book. Like American literary scholar Paul Fussell, he criticizes The Enemy for popularizing euphemisms to camouflage war's nastiness (like "neutralize" for "kill").

He is on solid ground here (a senior National Defence official once told me that the new term for clearing a battlefield of corpses was "consequence management"), and might have gone further in arguing that language is losing its power to shock. Television has given us Cupcake Wars, Parking Wars, Car Warriors and countless other militarized premises. We are all familiar with the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty and, thanks to a few creative retailers, the War on High Prices. Hockey players frequently predict "a war on the ice." Anyone with a computer can engage in endless virtual war, snuffing out digital lives eagerly and remorselessly.

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These trends, more than linguistic legerdemain by The Enemy, have made the word "war" much less threatening than it ever has been, or should be.But unlike many people who criticize the direction of Canadian defence policy, Richler at least has some constructive suggestions: a military unit designed specifically for peacekeeping; a peacekeeping university; and a youth volunteer program like the Peace Corps.

One mustn't underestimate the challenges these entail. Training a peacekeeping regiment, for example, would ideally involve significant mission-specific training. A peacekeeping unit going to Somalia should have intensive instruction in the history of the Horn of Africa, but also in local cultural practices, religion, the economy and, especially, the language. Would a contingent with this training on Somalia be of any use in, say, North Korea? Probably not.

But to identify the weaknesses is not to discount the ideas, and these are worth considering. I'm glad Noah Richler wrote this book and, although his shrillness becomes grating, I'm glad to have read it. It won't likely resurrect Pearsonian peacekeeping, but it may help us imagine an alternative more suited to the 21st century.

Jonathan F. Vance is Distinguished University Professor in History at Western University. His latest book is Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars.

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