Warrior Nation is an exceptionally good book. It is a good book on a number of levels and in a number of ways.
First, it deals with an issue of enduring political importance, but also one that will surely be among the sharply defining points of contention as Canadians make ready to decide whether or not to reward Prime Minister Stephen Harper with yet another term in office or to give another leader an opportunity to govern. This is especially important because the current Prime Minister has made a great effort not only to steer current events, but also to reconstruct history in a way that supports his ideology. He has been the most bellicose national figure in memory and his almost desperate desire to engage in military adventures is unprecedented. Reconfiguring the past is an essential step in his plan to redesign the future.
Second, it informs us about what it is to write history, and specifically the history of Canada. In so doing, it dissolves the myth that historical writing either is or can be “objective” and that historians either can or do write disinterestedly and dispassionately about their special interests. It is true that some succeed in burying their biases deep enough that they cannot be easily seen and understood. More often than not, of course, the price for hiding bias is that the result is called “dry” or, worse, “boring. In any case, while it is also true that the best historians rely on empirical evidence, methodical research and thoughtful exposition to support and express their accounts, it is undeniable that they all have a “story” to tell.
Third, it does a fine job of relating ideology (or, if you prefer, philosophy, theory or merely perspective) to both foundational material conditions and secondary contingent events in a manner that will engage many readers; that is to say, it not only explains what ideas propel differing interpretations of history, but also what lies behind or beneath the always present but sometimes opaque agendas of academic writers. By connecting history to specific motivations and interests (and by naming the names of historians – David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein prominent among them – who have been instrumental in advancing those motivations and interests), it gives us a “history” of our history.
While unlikely to become a certified classic, McKay and Swift have written an insightful and informative book that will help future generations to understand the dilemmas facing Canadian decision makers from the origins of the country to the present day and, especially, to take what sense can be found in the current circumstances in which the sitting prime minister seems to have successfully appealed to a revisionist version of past traditions and set the country off in a new and, for some, a deeply disturbing direction.
In 2006, as Noah Richler (2012, May 5) reminds us, Stephen Harper took high office boasting that “you won’t recognize Canada when I’m done with it.” Richler went on to say that “the binding mortar of the new Canada [would be] the cult of the hero and a larger and more prominent military, and a discipline that extended to a terse intolerance of dissent voiced by unruly parts at home.” Despite chronic problems with the acquisition of military hardware (e.g., the sad saga of the multi-billion-dollar F-35 stealth fighters from US supplier Lockheed Martin) and the growing embarrassment of its mistreatment of military veterans, it seems that the consciously personalized “Harper government” has successfully promoted its new “brand” through relentless taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns and incessant (albeit comparatively puny) efforts to swagger around the world making pugnacious speeches against Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generic Palestinians and, of course, the ever-convenient enemies in the seemingly permanent “war on terror.”
In addition to this newly belligerent global posturing, it is also obvious that the repression of dissent has been a hallmark of Harper’s administration. As ill-conceived and ill-informed as the new Canada may appear to people whose comprehension of Canadian history extends back before the last news cycle, it looks as if Mr. Harper’s rebranding process is achieving its aims. The silencing of scientists and public servants, the demonization of environmentalists and peace and the long-standing contempt for parliament and democratic restraints on executive authority, show that Mr. Harper has combined shallow celebrations of past glories with a pervasive contemporary atmosphere of fear. In so doing, he seems to have convinced a solid thirty-five percent of the electorate (pretty much all he needs to prevail under Canada’s system of disproportionate representation) to endorse his image of strong leadership in desperate times. In the event that he manages (for the first time) to obey his own election law and wait until October, 2015 to test his strength among the Canadian people, respected opinion has it that he is well positioned to win a minority and may even repeat with a majority government.
In light of these admittedly early prognostications, Warrior Nation appears at an opportune time. It offers a lively, evidence-based narrative that applies pearls of insight to a tightly written thread. It results in a simultaneously heartening and horrific display that alternates between being a necklace and a noose around our collective neck.
The book begins with a survey of historical events through the prism of four Canadian lives. Illuminating the past using individual personalities to heighten the drama or, worse, to provide “human interest,” is not a tactic of which I normally approve and almost never sanction in a work with even modest academic aspirations. Nonetheless, when used as effectively as it is here, it is a technique that can encapsulate wide swaths of history in comprehensible units without doing horrible damage to the complexities it is meant to reveal. If the price of persuasion is a discounting of scholarly pretensions, I suspect McKay and Swift are content to pay it.
The first of the exemplars is William Grant Stairs (1863-1892). A military man, adventurer, soldier and mercenary, he is remembered for his involvement in two major missions – the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition under the rather hideous Henry Morton Stanley (famous mainly for the greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”) and the bloody Katanga Expedition while in the service of King Léopold of Belgium. Both were infamous for their brutality. Readers not ready for the flagrant displays of racism and genocide (many in Stairs’ own words) will find some of the passages rough going. They deal, after all, with ferocious massacres done in the name of the “blessings of civilization.” Stairs’ accounts of African “savagery, chaos and fanaticism” and, worse, on “more modern and fanatical” Muslims who wished to “preserve the country to its own uses and keep back the white man” are eerily familiar – though a good deal more candid than the rhetoric surrounding Western invasions, occupations and long-distance bombings in contemporary North Africa, the Near and the Middle East.
The second is Lt. General E. L. M. Burns (1897-1985), a soldier and a diplomat who is credited with playing a crucial role in the development of UN peacekeeping, leading the UN Emergency Force in the 1950s and serving as Canada’s principal representative in disarmament negotiations in the 1960s. Throughout the chapter on the “Battles of ‘Tommy’ Burns,” we find a sensitive yet level-headed portrayal not only of Burns, but also of the officers and ideals that surrounded him as a soldier in World War I, World War II and Korea. McKay and Swift demonstrate that Burns “understood Cold War complexity” as he had the darker elements of his earlier service. He was a “realist” who worried that “attitudes of fear and hostility” toward the démon du jour of international communism would translate into a hideous arms race. General Burns, I like to think, must have nodded approvingly as President Eisenhower made his famous warning about the illegitimate power of the “military-industrial complex” in the United States of America. Such concerns are surely needed today.
Next come Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (1897-1972) and his old friend from student days, James Gareth Endicott (1898-1993) a missionary and increasingly strident socialist. A careful reading of the chapter on these two gentlemen may be the most disquieting of all. Prime Minister Pearson has been given inconsistent but generally positive reviews as a Canadian historical figure. His success at the United Nations, his Nobel Peace Prize, his endearing lisp and his mainly affable demeanour have not been enough to elevate him to the stature of a “great” national leader in the manner of Macdonald or Laurier (a relative failure largely guaranteed by the fact that, unlike Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau and even Stephen Harper, his electoral success was limited to winning just two minority governments). Still, he is widely regarded as a scrupulous man of moderation, cautious social progress and international peace who, if nothing else, annoyed President Lyndon Johnson by chiding him as early as 1965 for his merciless bombing of North Vietnam. In McKay and Swift’s telling, however, Pearson was less idealistic and occasionally more culpable as a willing accomplice in the seamier episodes of the Cold War.
Most Canadians will be at least vaguely familiar with Mr. Pearson because his name graces the main International Airport in Toronto. Few recall the name of Jim Endicott. That is because Mr. Endicott was regularly vilified for his political opinions though not enough, in the beginning, to make him ineligible as a “part-time” member of the OSS (forerunner of the American CIA) reporting on events in China and certainly not enough to run afoul of Mr. Pearson during his time as Canadian Deputy Minister of External Affairs when he benefitted from Endicott’s reports from his position as a Christian missionary and an expert on China.
The trouble between them followed Endicott’s growing radicalization as a result of his contacts with and his commitment to the “common people” of China and as a consequence of his ever deepening engagement in the international peace movement. Following World War II, the authors point out, “Endicott was making many of the same arguments” about international weapons control that Pearson had earlier made as Canada’s top diplomat; however, they quote other perceptive analysts who claimed that “Endicott was ... an unwelcome alter ego to the liberal consciences of the policy makers in Ottawa as they were drawn deeper into the military side of the Cold War.”
Endicott went on to become more than an embarrassment. His increasingly critical judgements about Western policy in China, his growing support for Mao’s regime, his rising prominence as an international peace activist and his occasional investigations and revelations of illicit arms development led to his being subjected to relentless attacks from both Liberals and Conservatives and the supposedly neutral print and broadcast media. In the end, Endicott’s story is at least as compelling in its own way as Pearson’s is in its. Together, however, they permit the binocular vision through which the present may be more clearly seen.
The second half of the book assumes a more traditional form. Stairs has been long since buried and Endicott is mentioned no more. Burns and Pearson remain, but are discussed mainly in terms of their direct connection to historical events. It starts with a discussion of “Peacekeeping and the Monster of Imperialism.” Precisely how post-war Canada will be remembered is uncertain. In 1960, for example, CBC newsman James M. Minifie wrote a book called Peacemaker or Powdermonkey: Canada’s Role in a Revolutionary World. It was an early attempt to set the question of whether Canada should, could or would be an honest broker, a successful middle-power and a force for peace and security in the world or, in the alternative, a loyal supporter of Western power and, increasingly, of American efforts to establish global hegemony. Matters have become even more complicated.
Properly put, this was not an either/or question. US President Kennedy (1961) expressed the basic premise well enough in a speech to the Parliament of Canada: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.” No one (certainly not Prime Minister Diefenbaker), however, could mistake the implied and almost Biblical threat that immediately followed: “Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.” It was left to Canadians to determine how the threat might be managed.
Of necessity, Canada’s location in Cold War North America made allegiance to the United States inevitable. Hopes that the British connection – even in the form of the Commonwealth – or a broader vision of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that would (as Pearson had hoped) be an economic and cultural association as well as the forceful military alliance that the US preferred were unfulfilled. Canada in a multilateral community of democratic states rather than in bilateral subservience to the largest, most technologically advanced empire the world had witnessed to date, could plainly hope only for a little “wiggle room,” a faint hint of independence and the capacity to act not merely as an American satellite, but also as a mediator when the USA found itself in or provoked conflict with other nations and alliances.
In retrospect, it is surprising how much the Canadian mouse was able to win space from the American elephant. Canada’s relations with Cuba were apparently an annoyance to successive US administrations. Canada’s refusal to become embroiled in the Vietnam debacle, and Canada’s refusal to join the Organization of American States which was long perceived as an instrument of American foreign policy were just some examples of ways in which Canadian governments were able to exhibit a measure of autonomy. Even Brian Mulroney – famous for singing on stage with Ronald Reagan and subscribing to the same neoliberal ideology as Reagan and his British soul-mate Margaret Thatcher – managed to insist with some consequence that “acid rain” was killing trees and that South African apartheid was irredeemably iniquitous. Of course, none of this altered the fundamental dependence of Canada on the American political economy and the consequent limits on Canadian sovereignty; still, it was (or appeared to be) something.
In McKay and Swift’s rendition, the crucial years following the brief post-Expo popularity of Canadian “nationalism” occasionally conjoined with a progressive social agenda in such groups as the Waffle movement within the New Democratic and the subsequent Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada (see for example, Godfrey & Watkins, 1970, Levitt, 1970, Lumsden, 1970, Teeple, 1972) is a tale of tale of national submission.
The penultimate chapter is entitled “The Decade of Darkness” and provides a compelling interpretation of Canada’s inconsistent and contradictory roles in international affairs. The prideful adoption of the role of peacekeeper had become established and, when the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize was given to United Nations’ Peacekeeping Forces, a large number of Canadians could (forgivably) indulge in the conceit that it had really been given to them – a reaffirmation of Pearson’s diplomatic success and the authentic independence of the “Canadian identity.” Warrior Nation offers a contrary interpretation.
The version of the 1990s offered in Warrior Nation focuses on some of the darker moments in recent Canadian history. The “decade of darkness” involved not only such matters as Canadian soldiers torturing and killing a teenager in Somalia, but the embarrassingly abrupt silencing of the Royal Commission established (under public pressure) to examine the matter – an inquiry that Jack Granatstein predictably and contemptuously labeled a “kangaroo court.” It was also the decade of the Rwanda genocide, the disastrous break-up of Yugoslavia, and the Oka Crisis which pitched Canadian soldiers against Mohawk Warriors on the outskirts of Montréal.
In all of these and other events, it is foolhardy to make moral judgements about ordinary soldiers, many of whom performed in accordance with the highest expectations of military honour. Truly at stake are the attitudes and actions, the beliefs and behaviour of the political overseers and the senior military officers. Issues of all sorts can be debated from the total unfamiliarity of authorities and enlisted soldiers alike with the circumstances into which they were placed to the chronic military complaints about underfunding, understaffing and especially the rusting away of the military hardware – moribund naval vessels, antique helicopters, inadequate armoured vehicles, and so on.
Oddly but accurately, McKay and Swift highlight a divisive debate over a CBC television series, The Valour and the Horror, which infuriated certain Canadian Senators and some veterans’ organizations which apparently felt that criticism of some aspects of Canadian policy and was unpatriotic even fifty years after the fact. The controversy over demythologizing World War II was, ironically, a perfect way to start the mythologizing of the military in the twenty-first century. A possible epitaph for critical inquiry appeared, again oddly but accurately, in the putatively “conservative” national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. When the CBC gave in to its critics, the paper editorialized that the network’s reputation had been “slit wide open and deboned like a fresh-caught trout ... And the spirit of free historical inquiry, especially where the sensitivities of organized pressure groups are concerned, [has] been dealt a further blow. There is enough of the horror in this. But where is the valour?” It was a question left unanswered.
The “decade of darkness,” of course, came at precisely the moment when the Cold War came to a crashing halt with the implosion of the Soviet Union. A promised “peace dividend” was never paid. Instead, Bercuson and others used the opportunity to create a new (for Canada) military myth. The authors write: “Bercuson constructed Somalia ... as a purely deficient place, the exact opposite of the martial sublimity he extolled so ecstatically.” According to the military myth-dreamers, “it takes real war to generate real warriors – no mere training exercises, no matter how realistic, can ever do the trick. Peace corrupts and corrodes martial virtues.” And, of course, no one is as familiar with martial virtue than academic historians with a yen to be real warriors.
Enter Stephen Harper? Well, not quite yet. The events of September 11, 2001 would have to come first, and even then be delayed by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s respectful decline of the invitation to follow the United States “shoulder-to-shoulder” in its ridiculous attack on Iraq which, incidentally, permitted a defeated Taliban to restore its energy in Afghanistan, empowered al-Qaeda and ultimately give rise to IS/ISIS/ISIL (call it what you will). Once let loose, the symbiotic relationship between radical Islamists in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere on the one hand and the blustering Canadian politicians on the other has created a perfect desert storm (so to speak), though not of the sort envisioned by President George H. W. Bush when he launched the war to “liberate” Kuwait and impose “sanctions” on the government of former ally Saddam Hussein.
With each calculated atrocity in the aspirant Islamic caliphate and every (calculated?) reaction from Canadian authorities, the prospects for conflict reduction, never mind resolution, decline. What has been consistent throughout the post-9/11 period, however, has been a growth of what McKay and Swift call a “state-orchestrated cultural revolution” that penetrates domestic civilian life as much as military ambitions. From maudlin ceremonies to the militarization of local police forces, from the escalating criminalization of thought and speech to demands for detention without charge or trial, and from the obsessive idiocy of a Don Cherry hockey commentaries to the serious reality of what Naomi Klein (2007) called “disaster capitalism,” the urge to define and defend a “robust Canadianism” that is utterly at odds with the legacy of our better angels grows like a cancer in the body politic.
Warrior Nation ends with an optimistic message: “Such is the new warrior’s world. It need not be ours.” I can only hope that, in some new iteration of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, we will not find ourselves, as McKay and Swift’s last chapter title suggests, a “military fantasyland” and a “gated peaceable kingdom.” I mainly wish that our degraded democracy will still allow such books to be written and sold.
Godfrey, D. & M. Watkins, eds. (1970). Gordon to Watkins to you, documentary: The battle for control of our economy. Toronto: New Press.
Kennedy, J. (1961). Address before the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. The American Presidency Project. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8136
Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Henry Holt, 2007.
Levitt, K. (1970). Silent surrender: The multinational corporation in Canada. Toronto: Macmillan.
Lumsden, I, ed. (1970). Close the 49th parallel, etc.: The Americanization of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Minifie, J. (1960). Peacemaker or powder-monkey: Canada’s role in a revolutionary world. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Richler, N. (2012, May 5). A nation playing at war. National Post. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com
Teeple, G., ed. (1972). Canada and the national question. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org