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Book Reviews

Chiefs of Defence: Government and the Unified Command of the Canadian Armed Forces

by Douglas Bland

No Day Long Enough: Canadian Science in World War Ii

by George Lindsey, ed.

War Without Battles: Canada’s Nato Brigade in Germany, 1951-1993

by Sean Maloney

Deadly Seas: The Duel Between the St Croix and U305 in the Battle of the Atlantic

by David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig

Storms of Controversy: The Secret Arrow Files Revealed, 2nd Ed.

by Palmiro Campagna

If all Gaul, as the Romans had it, was divided in three parts, then all military history is divided into five. There are what we might call the serious studies, the academics’ and the theorists’ books. There are popular histories, books that take deliberate aim at the general reader. There are regimental histories, studies that almost by definition appeal only to old soldiers, their families, and a few public libraries. There are picture books, sometimes superbly illustrated studies of aircraft, weapons, pilots, and the like. Finally, there are books for military buffs, arcane studies of buttons, badges, and military lingo.

All these varieties continue to appear in amazing profusion around the world, and Canada is no exception. Publishers large and small, general and specialized, continue to churn out the books, often to coincide with military anniversaries, but frequently and simply because military history sells.

First, the buffs. Tom Langeste’s Words on the Wing is, as its sub-title describes it fully, Slang, Aphorisms, Catchphrases and Jargon of Canadian Military Aviation Since 1914. Here are definitions from “Acey-Deucey,” the popular term for the old air force’s lowest rank, to “Zwei,” the Anglo shorthand for Zweibrucken, the German air base that Canada’s fighter aircraft flew from 1953 to 1969. Langeste’s work is fun, but pretty arcane for all but die-hards. The same might be said of picture histories such as Betty Page’s Mynarski’s Lanc and R.W. Wylie’s On Watch to Strike. The first is a well-illustrated capsule history of the building of Lancaster bombers in Canada, the Victoria Cross-winning exploits of Andrew Mynarski, and the restoration of a Lanc by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. The other, in effect an illustrated regimental history, is a diary of 400 (City of Toronto) Squadron over its more than 60 years of history. Air Force vets will love both; the average bookstore browser will not likely be tempted.

The serious books range widely. The best – indeed one of the best books of any kind published in Canada this year – is Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, a splendid study of the way Canadians remembered the Great War. Some idealized it as the only way to cope with loss, others, especially soldiers, were furious that their sacrifice changed nothing at home, and there were countless efforts in politics, in prose, and in war memorials to convey the complex mix of emotions that played out after the Armistice. Almost as good is the collection of essays, The Maritime Defence of Canada by the Department of National Defence historian Roger Sarty. Ranging widely through archives and over time, Sarty demonstrates a sure hand in relating the political and military aspects of naval history. Somewhat more specialized is Douglas Bland’s Chiefs of Defence: Government and the Unified Command of the Canadian Armed Forces, a thoroughly researched history of civil-military relations over the last three decades. No subject could be more timely, given the present difficulties of the Canadian Forces, and Bland, a retired lieutenant-colonel, is a tough, forthright critic of government policy – and the absence of it. Yet another book from the same publisher, edited by George Lindsey, is No Day Long Enough: Canadian Science in World War II. This is a collection of brief snippets and longer essays that examines the contribution of Canadian scientific research to the war – and there is more of a contribution than most will realize in the development of radar, explosives, flying suits, and medicine, to name only a few areas. Finally, there is the very good history, War Without Battles: Canada’s NATO Brigade in Germany, 1951-1993 by Sean Maloney. Given full access to the records, Maloney has produced a soldier’s history of the army’s substantial contribution to NATO’s European front, and he deserves a wider readership than just the soldiers who served there (and who put up the money for his book’s publication).

Leading off the “popular” category is a book that deftly blends “serious” history with exciting prose. Authors David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig, in Deadly Seas: The Duel Between the St Croix and U305 in the Battle of the Atlantic, have mangaged to produce a seriously researched history with frankly admitted invented dialogue. The result is a genuine contribution to our understanding of the Battle of the Atlantic and an exciting read – a model popular history, sound, scholarly, and serious in aim. The same cannot be said of Palmiro Campagna’s Storms of Controversy: The Secret Arrow Files Revealed, a book that panders to anti-American conspiracy theorists fantasizing about the Diefenbaker government’s decision to stop producing the CF-105 Arrow. This is one to pass by – pick up the author’s more serious and more recent investigation of aliens and UFOs. Older, but much better, is W.A.B. Douglas and Brereton Greenhous’s Out of the Shadows: Canada in the Second World War, a competent, well-illustrated history covering the battlefields and the homefront.

Arthur Bishop, a well-published author who has mined Canada’s war record wih substantial success, has now produced Salute! Canada’s Most Distinguished Military Leaders from Tecumseh to Dextraze. This book is very similar in content and format to Allen Andrews Brave Soldiers, Proud Regiments: Canada’s Military Heritage; indeed both treat some of the same figures. From reading early galleys of the two, Bishop’s is likely to be both better written and more accurate. The air force version of the Bishop and Andrews volumes is David Bashow’s All the Fine Young Eagles, a history of Canadian Second World War fighter pilots. Based on extensive interviewing, this is what used to be called a cracking good read, and Bashow, a Canadian Forces fighter pilot himself, can understand the emotions and reactions of his forebears. He can also write. So too could the galaxy of authors that Maclean’s published during Canada’s wars from 1914 onward. I picked up this volume, Canada at War from the Archives of Maclean’s, expecting that the pieces would sound dated, even jaded. They don’t. The Great War stories leap off the page, every bit as much as Lionel Shapiro’s Second World War accounts or Pierre Berton’s Korean War reportage. This is a good book and a fascinating popular account.

What then do these books tell us about the state of Canadian military history? Military history is not a very popular subject in our schools and universities. Canadians are peacekeepers, we tell our children in public and high school. History professors look down their very long noses at any academic who dares to believe that the Second World War might have mattered to Canada – except insofar as the way the government behaved badly to Japanese Canadians or Italian Canadians demonstrated the fundamental racism of our leaders. Notwithstanding this bowdlerization of history – this distortion of the Canadian past to suit a misguided reading of the present – there are first-class books aplenty being written in every one of the five categories of Canadian military history. Vance’s book, for example, uses the new social history to add depth to what we thought we knew of the Great War, and Bercuson and Herwig artfully combine history and fiction in their dramatic story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Bashow knows how to reach a wide public, and Bland’s study of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff has direct relevance to current debates before the Somalia Commission in Ottawa. In other words, military history lives. Sometimes stirring, sometimes horrific in their impact, such books, like all good history, have much to teach us about our nation’s past and its present.