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What We Talk About When We Talk About War

by Noah Richler

As Canadian bookshelves bulge with triumphal Afghanistan war memoirs, Noah Richler’s new polemic boldly bucks the prevailing trend by raising provocative questions about our country’s military over the past decade. The tensions marking Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan – reports on complicity in torture, the miserable treatment of veterans, attacks (in Parliament and the media) on those who question this interminable war – are welcome topics for discussion. Richler also takes on the war’s biggest boosters, from General Rick Hillier to hockey commentator Don Cherry to columnist Christie Blatchford.

At its core, What We Talk About When We Talk About War attempts to define our evolving relationship to Canadian militarism. Richler illustrates how Canada’s war experiences are afforded mythical proportions, from the foundational story of Vimy Ridge as the birthplace of our modern identity to the comfortable archetype of Canadian peacekeepers. Richler is disturbed by the increasingly entrenched “warrior nation” ethos that characterized the Afghan war, and provides an effective analysis of the “us vs. them” dynamic that marks so much media coverage and political discourse.

Unfortunately, Richler is guilty of the same self-righteousness as those with whom he disagrees, bushwhacking Stephen Harper and company as the bogeymen who have allegedly hijacked us from a humanistic, idealized military peacekeeping role associated with Lester Pearson. In Richler’s view, Harper-era propagandists rely on the mythical tropes of the heavily armed hero to further their political agenda. However, the author lives in a glass house, suffering as he does from an unexplained adherence to another myth designed to comfort liberal elites: one that sees Canada as a peaceable kingdom, with special “values” to share and a different kind of fighting force marked by a “uniquely empathetic character.”

Richler’s solution to the malady of militarism is unimaginative: the creation of a Peace Operations branch within the military and a national volunteer program. The poverty of his conclusions results from a failure to study texts, social movements, and organizations that confront the roots of militarism and, rather than seeking to dress up armed forces with new names and different uniforms, work instead to create innovative models of violence reduction in conflict zones.

It’s a pity, because the door Richler opens is one most Canadians prefer to keep closed. If only he had ventured further into that uncomfortable territory, he might have achieved the transformational book he clearly hoped to write.