This review was first published in University of Toronto Quarterly 83.2 (Spring 2014).
Review of Noah Richler, What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions 2012)
Nations, Benedict Anderson wrote, are “imagined communities”; their social imaginaries persuade people separated by class, dialect, ethnicity, occupation, and gender that they have common characteristics, and are moving with shared purpose from a largely agreed-on past into a future about which there is a similar degree of common feeling.
But the myths that induce us to participate in the rituals of citizenship, even to the point of self-sacrifice, are repeatedly contested and re-shaped. From this perspective, Canadian history offers a rich variety of national re-imaginings. Are we two nations warring in the bosom of a single state (slumping, in moments of respite, into Hugh Maclennan's two solitudes)? A transcontinental nation shaped by the geography of the St. Laurence and the political-technological will memorialized in E. J. Pratt's Towards the Last Spike? Or a people who have grown beyond the garrison-culture coloniality diagnosed by Northrop Frye, moving, as A. R. M. Lower asserted, “from colony to nation”—or perhaps, as Harold Innis sardonically proposed, following a parabolic trajectory “from colony to nation to colony”?
Are we, in different terms, a nation devoted, in opposition to the utopian republicanism of the United States, to a vision of “peace, order and good government” expressed in Tommy Douglas's social programs, Pierre Trudeau's slogan of a Just Society, and the ideology of multiculturalism? Or are we a nation forged in war—in the resistance to American invasion in the War of 1812, and, a century later, in the victories won by the Canadian Corps at Vimy and Amiens? English Canadian history has recently been reconfigured by right-wing scholars and ideologues, who in mustering support for military interventions in Afghanistan and elsewhere re-define Canada as a warrior nation, contemptuous of past investments in peacekeeping missions, multilateralism, and “soft power.”
Noah Richler intervenes vigorously against “the fantasy of a political lobby that, unchecked over the course of the last decade, has seen the country's ability to fight wars as the truest indicator of its maturity.” As he lucidly recognizes, this re-imagining of our collective narrative is linked to Canada's abandonment of multilateralism in foreign affairs and our lock-step alignment with the policies of the United States and Israel, as well as to the wider orientation of a government that “reflexively relies on enmities and the cultivation of disputes resolved through the vilification of dissenters, the circumvention of Parliament and an imposition of solutions rather than any reconciliation achieved through 'discussion, negotiation and compromise'.”
Commenting astutely on the Manichaean self-deceptions involved in an “epic” reinterpretation of Canadian history, Richler highlights the sentimental brutality of a discourse that, through the writings of journalists like Rosie DiManno and Christie Blatchford, “trivially sexualize[s]” the soldiers in Afghanistan, forgetting those whose traumatic disfigurements remove them from the categories of the heroically eroticized and the safely memorialized. Richler also exposes the serial dishonesty of ideologues whose early praise of aggression against “scumbags” and disparagement of humanitarian politics modulated into an apologetics based on defending those same humanitarian values against Taliban monsters, then into a redefinition of the war as a “mission,” whose effective failure could be blamed on the Karzai regime (belatedly recognized as including scumbags as well), and finally into a willingness to contemplate negotiations (for which former NDP leader Jack Layton had been excoriated as “Taliban Jack”).
Richler underlines the central irony that “Despite the argument that a stronger military allows Canada to 'lead,' the country follows” in the steps of “more powerful allies,” and “having abandoned Pearsonian ambitions” has no notion of how to “wield its own, perfectly credible and effective version of power.” As the title borrowed from a famous Raymond Carver story makes clear, Richler wants “to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about [war].”
At times the same stricture applies to himself: Richler is unaware of Canada's role in the overthrow of democracy in Haiti; his treatment of diplomat Richard Colvin's revelations of high complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners of war is inadequate; and his description of Iranian president Ahmadinejad as “one of [the] great allies” of Al Qaeda might have been copied from the war-hawks he criticizes. But despite such lapses, this important book deserves a wide readership.
Professor Emeritus, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph