The word “warlord” conjures a charismatic, steely-eyed potentate ruthlessly applying military violence to advance his agenda. It is hard to square the label with the image of a Canadian prime minister, even the two who navigated this country through the world wars of the 20th century. Despite being wartime leaders, Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King are recalled as neither fire breathers nor our most inspiring or visionary prime ministers.
In his engaging new work, acclaimed military historian Tim Cook asks us to believe just that. With confidence, flair, and dry wit – and enough biographical and historical context to give texture to the men and their times – Cook resolves that Borden and King truly were warlords, though of a particularly Canadian kind. Both were confronted with similar overwhelming issues: raising and fielding a military from a pool of civilian recruits, stick-handling the complexities of war finance and production, managing the divisive issue of conscription, and making “the agonizing appraisal of how far the nation could be pushed in the pursuit of victory.” Both were ultimately successful, variously employing restraint, conciliation, manipulation, and diktat to navigate, not steamroll, a very difficult nation through a time of worldwide conflict.
Warlords will be especially useful to general readers of Canadian military history, providing an often overlooked political perspective on Canada’s experiences in two world wars. Cook points out that the two prime ministers and their times were so utterly different that comparing them is a false construct. Borden, the parochial, politico realist, became an idealist prepared to sacrifice unity for victory; King, the self-absorbed, vacillating idealist, became a master political pragmatist intent on holding the country together. Neither Borden nor King may have been steely-eyed warlords, but they were our kind of warlords. To paraphrase Mackenzie King’s most famous equivocation, “Warlords if necessary, but not necessarily warlords.”