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Quebec Conference, August 16, 1943. Wartime leaders, along with their chiefs of staff, meet in Quebec City to co-ordinate the allied campaigns in Europe. Front row, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Wars in the future will likely look an awful lot like Afghanistan: brutish, open-ended affairs where goals are unclear and difficult to attain. In such fights, keeping public opinion on side will be difficult. Globe reporter Jeremy Torobin talks to Carleton University professor Norman Hillmer, a leading authority on Canada's military and political history.

How different is this period that we're in, in terms of the challenges in selling war to the public, or is it different?

It is different, particularly because of technology. Transparency in the Second World War equaled a black-and-white news reel that was full of propaganda. Now the propaganda game is still played, but it's played with more difficulty. Still, for all the decades that have gone by since events such as the First and Second world wars, there were major challenges then as well in selling.

In 1917, conscription was imposed by the federal government, in a fairly ruthless way. Basically anybody who was likely to vote the opposition had the vote removed from them. And then on the other side, the close women relatives of soldiers overseas were given the vote so they would vote for the government. The point I'm making here is that there was substantial opposition to conscription. So the way [prime minister Robert Borden] decided to sell the war was to impose his views.

The legislation was followed by an election where basically anybody who opposed to government's view was painted in a - and this is a nice way of putting it - a highly unfavourable light. This is the selling of a war in a different sort of a way. It's 'your with us or you're against us.' The Borden government was identifying people who were anti-conscription as being anti-war, anti-Canadian, anti-British, anti-Allied.

This was the most bitter election campaign in Canadian history. It lines francophones against anglophones, it divides the country in a way that no election campaign ever has. The closest comparison would be the referenda in 1980 and 1995. So it's not that easy to sell a war, even when the cause is so obvious.

In the Second World War, [prime minister Mackenzie]King promises no conscription. In 1940, France is overrun and he imposes conscription for home service. Then in 1942, war's not going well, he asks to be released from his promise in a referendum. Eight provinces say yes, Quebec says no.

So he then famously says, "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." King's way of selling the war was to be ambiguous, always. Then in 1944, he did impose conscription, but only after lots of permutations and combinations which assured most moderate Canadians that he'd done everything he could to avoid it.

My point is less the tactics or the strategies of a particular prime minister, but the fact that they had to navigate, even despite having all these tools at their disposal: having the vast, vast majority of Canadians on their side; having a real 'just war.' It was still hard.

So is it harder now, or is your point that it's always hard?

The nature of war has changed, the nature of media coverage and technology has changed. So, I would say yes it is harder, but it was always more challenging than we remember it because we've got all these ideas in our mind of 'just wars.' And, of course, it's harder to make the case for just wars in the current milieu ... when the Web is there, the media are there, and every death and every setback gets sensationalized.

There's much more stress on the propaganda machine.

Exactly. [U.S. president George W.]Bush succeeded and made it work for him, both in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. Note that both Bush and Cheney said after Sept. 11, this is the first time America has been attacked and they were "invulnerable" before that - despite the fact that there were all those Soviet missiles aimed at the United States for decades and decades. It's harder these days to get people to look at things with perspective or proportionality, and in that sense maybe it's easier to sell a war. But only in the short term, because there aren't 3,000 people being killed every day. But these are smaller wars than the ones Canada got formed in, back in 1914 and 1939. Just think: 1.1 million Canadians were in uniform in the Second World War. If that were the case now, we would have an armed force of 3.3 million people. That's what I mean about proportionality.

This interview has been edited and condensed