Canada’s new image as a warrior nation, according to author Noah Richler, is a false one. Canada as peacekeeper is a better reflection of our national history, he says. Photo by Sgt. Matthew McGregor, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, courtesy of the Department of National Defence

Taking the glory out of war

By  Deacon Steve Barringer, Catholic Register Special
  • July 2, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler (Goose Lane Editions, 376 pages, $24.95).

Noah Richler, son of novelist Mordecai, product of a liberal upbringing in Montreal and London, has crafted an interesting and aggressive defense of Canada’s history as a peaceful nation.

I was immediately struck by the question, “Who would read this book?” The hawks won’t want to read it since this book clearly implies — from the title to the picture of the haunted face of the Afghani woman on the cover — that war is on trial in these pages. Dedicated doves don’t need to read it, since they are already convinced of Richler’s arguments. Richler says he wrote it for the rest, the undecided, “the vast majority of Canadians … who depend on what they learn from others for the views they take on. “

The author is boldly making a case against the current policies of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and those in the media and public life who have jumped on the war bandwagon. This book is not an attempt at a balanced presentation. Richler feels the current situation is already out of balance from the sheer weight of propaganda on the side of creating a new image of Canada as a warrior nation, an image he rejects. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About War is not an easy read. It seemed I had to stop after every sentence to unpack what was there. Richler wants to make us think and then talk about what we’ve learned. There is a wealth of information here that is designed to wake us up to the dangers of accepting war as a part of the Canadian psyche just because the government says it is so.

The book proves prophetic when seen in the light of current controversy over the new $20 bill design. Richler claims those in power are using Vimy Ridge to try to create a seminal moment where Canada was defined as a nation because men from all over the country died together in common cause at the same place for the first time. The appearance of the Vimy memorial on the new money seems to fulfill his prediction exactly. Richler’s eloquent review of the history of a nation forged in trade, treaty, compromise and peace refutes this presumption that our nation was never really born until we fought together in a war. He goes on to illustrate that the image of Canada the peacekeeper is a better representation of our national history than the warrior nation image the government is now promoting.

I have visited with many war veterans in my ministry. Those who have lived through the reality of war almost never want to talk about what actually happened — the things they saw and the things they had to do. The rest of us, who do talk about war, talk about principles and philosophies. We rarely deal with the reality at all. This is the danger Richler tries to point out. He wants us to realize it is too easy to create a false image of the glory of war which leads to acceptance of its inevitability and appropriateness.

As a Catholic I was stung by one of his arguments. He holds up the efforts of our modern society to condemn war and speak up against it as requiring the same minimal commitment and having about the same lack of effect as “penance in the rites of confession in a Catholic Church.” We rail against the evil of war and then we turn around and build up our arguments to justify it again, and the cycle continues. In a time when our own Church provides moral leadership and speaks out strongly on behalf of life and family in Canada, we seem strangely silent on the issue of war — almost as if being patriotic were more important than rejecting war as a tool of modern Canadian statehood. 

This book is not just criticism, it finishes with some realistic and positive suggestions for establishing an effective peace. It would be a worthwhile read for any concerned Canadian.

(Barringer is a permanent deacon and founding member of Pax Christi — Toronto.)

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