Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Recommended Read: Warrior Nation

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety - Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Anyone who has visited Canada recently will have seen the heightened profile of the Canadian Forces in all walks of life.  From the "Support Our Troops" ribbons on cars, houses, people, fire engines, ambulances, public buildings etc., to the "Highway of Heroes" and the "Route of Heroes", to the presence of more military personnel at Remembrance Day services or during citizenship ceremonies.  The list of examples is endless and fits with an increasingly militarised Canada where police brutality (I speak specifically about the G20 in Toronto) and hockey violence are to be praised and Don Cherry is a national icon.  For left-wing and free thinking Canadians, the blame falls immediately at the feet of Stephen Harper, our unlikely three-term prime minister and warmonger.  I had expected Warrior Nation to follow this train of thought - I was wrong.

In a sense, it does.  It is clear that no previous leader has put so much into the Canadian Forces or has spent so much money and effort into rebranding Canada into a military power.  Under Harper, the military has been raised to demi-god status, the root of all Canada's history (we weren't a country until the Battle of Vimy Ridge apparently) and the saviour for unfree people everywhere.  In this new Canada, where all historical facts are twisted to conform to military ideals, we are nothing without the military to show us how to be real Canadians, heroes.

However, the root of militarisation in Canada can be traced back to the earliest days of the country's existence.  Canada gained independence from the British Empire, but retained romantic visions of civilisation as embodied in the works of Rudyard Kipling and alike, where the British (and by extension anglophones of the world) brought civilisation to all sorts of backwards, barbarous places.  The Boer War is the first example of Canada intervening in a foreign conflict while broadcasting ideals of anglo perfection.  Naturally, much 'warrior' propaganda also accompanied both World Wars.

It is during the analysis of the Cold War years that this book really gets interesting, unpicking the myth of Canadian peacekeeping from the reality.  Pearson was in fact a conflicted man who sided with both peaceful diplomacy and armed force depending on the situation.  Trudeau was also not averse to using force when the situation warranted it, especially during the October Crisis.  Peacekeeping might have been motivated by fears of a nuclear war, but Canada's involvement in the first few decades of the UN missions was real and sincere.  This began to unravel in the 1990s as the scope of the missions extended into areas where no there was no ceasefire in force and NATO (read the United States), not the UN, began to take charge.  Today, Canada has fewer than 300 peacekeepers and the concept's legacy is being erased from official Canadian history or distorted to suit a more aggressive interpretation.

As is clearly shown, the entire blame for militarising Canada cannot be attributed to Harper alone, but this new urgency and zeal can be.  His policies of eroding social welfare spending while bolstering military expenditure pave a way for a Canada in a constant state of readiness for conflict while resurrecting Kipling's imperial ideals of a hundred years ago. 

Harper's ideology does not simply influence politics.  A walk around a major bookstore this morning highlighted how many books on warfare and the military are currently available - they occupy most of the history and politics sections.  Even the aforementioned Highway of Heroes has its own book.  Academia is also influenced as right-wing historians in favour of a 'warrior' past receive government funding.  Even Canada's game, hockey, has been militarised through the rantings of Don Cherry and praising of violence on the ice.

In all, McKay and Swift have told the story of how Canada has followed an American military ideal, and perhaps even surpassed it, in this well-researched history of Canada's military side.  Anyone looking for an indictment of Harper will find one, but they might find some of their own political heroes chastised as well.