Noah Richler on Myth Making, War Making, and the Link Between the Two

Noah Richler on Myth Making, War Making, and the Link Between the Two.
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September 20, 2012

In your book, your argument seems to be that Canada’s creation myth is changing – from Canadians as a nation of peacekeepers to a more warrior-like nation. You claim that this change has been orchestrated by certain individuals and groups, as well as  facilitated by longer-term trends and events.

I’d like to talk about the substance of the peacekeeper and warrior "myths," as well as the factors that have led the latter to gain traction at the expense of the former.

First of all, I’m not suggesting that there was an overt conspiracy in the gathering of the various parties I identify, though I do believe they without question acted as catalysts in concert, in sometimes inadvertent ways.

I also go to some length, successfully or not, to explain why I don’t favour the use of the word peacekeeping anymore, because I think that the term "peacekeeping" has been reduced, as I explained in the book, very successfully to a kind of caricature - to an idea of the Canadian soldier in blue helmet unable to shoot back unless fired upon, and put in between two hostile forces. This may have been true to a particular moment of what I prefer to call "peace operations," but I resist using the term peacekeeping because I think peace operations can entail many more things than that.

You point to a number of different actors in terms of their responsibility for the shift in narrative that’s taken place. To what actors or factors do you assign the most importance? Do you prioritize events – 9/11 being an obvious one – individual political leaders, or some combination?

I think there was a tremendous dissatisfaction in some quarters before 9/11 – a lot of bitter unhappiness with what were the prevalent myths, called the Pearsonian ideas or the Pearsonian idea of Canada. I do think that after 9/11 the advocates of a more militaristic Canada and then, once in power, the Harper government – his term, not mine – fixed the peacekeeping myth and the Pearsonian idea of Canada in its sights. The way that this is interesting to me is that it shows quite a respect for the power of story and the power of myth. The only way to undo the dominant idea of what it meant to be Canadian was to propose another. And the shorter and easier this is to remember the better. So a tremendous amount of energy was, I think, put in by government, and by certain historians – Jack Granatstein, David Bercuson, and others not of that calibre – to disparage the peacekeeping idea. This happened at the same time that a bunch of journalists essentially, as it happens with media of all kinds stuck in a monotonous beat, were delighted by the [post-9/11] turn of events and the chance of a new take and new material.

We continue to see evidence of this confidence in the ability of myth to ease political outcomes presently. While I was writing the book, I spent a great deal of time on the Vimy myth, which was one of the principal tools in the arsenal of changing the story. The idea is that in the trenches of Vimy, Canadians from one end of the country to the other first met each other and that it was while fighting in the trenches, in the fulcrum of war, that the character of the nation was forged. That story was already being bandied about – and by Liberals too as it’s a popular idea. It’s one that is constantly revisited in Canadian literature, which is actually the kind of domain I came from in approaching this idea about language and rhetoric and its easing our way into, through and out of the war.

But what’s been especially interesting to me in the course of the last 10 years is that we see this persistent effort to uphold the same idea. So suddenly, the point of Vimy established, people were talking about Canadians’ participation in the Boer War of 1899-1902. It’s puzzling to me that this should be an adventure that today I should take pride in: Canadians fighting with the British against the Boers in the corner of the empire where Africans have suffered so much.

But then, in 2012, the bicentennial year celebrations of the War of 1812 have been used to extend the idea of Canadians as formidable warriors ever further. What’s amusing to me about this phenomenon, one that proves again the power of myth, is that now, further back in history, the very same story is being applied. Partly because Canada was not yet formed, a sort of abject story had to be proposed. The story that the politicians have been putting forward – and to explain why we are celebrating a war that took place prior to Canada’s modern existence – is that 1812 is the moment in which Canadians of all character – settler Canadians, natives, and Brits – got together and in the fulcrum of battle (fought brilliantly, of  course), the character of the nation was forged. Well, that story can really only be true of one or the other moment. If it’s true in both, then what’s more interesting is why people persist in applying it. I think they need to tell it because they need to grease the wheels of this idea of a warrior nation.

Does the persistent effort we’ve seen over the last decade to bolster the warrior nation ideas show any sign of letting up?

Absolutely not, but I'd say it’s reached a sort of farcical point. The prevalent idea right now is that Canadians are a gung-ho bunch that can hold their own in the corners. If you look at the news recently, you will find that Maj-General Lewis MacKenzie (retired) was endorsing the idea that the Avro Arrow be reinvented. This is preposterous! Sure, the Avro Arrow was a jet “fifty years ahead of its time,” but that was true in 1953, i.e. close to 65 years ago. So, why are we even entertaining this ludicrous idea? Well, partly because the reinvention of the Canadian character has been so successful that we are now seeing ourselves in the aggrandized terms that I desist from using and all things military are all things good.

We’re thinking of ourselves as glorious, and as our allies’ best friend – but forgetting diplomatic tools… or that the way we’ve chosen to participate in wars over the course of a century has a lot to do with our geographical position, on the fringes, our small population, our never having to defend against an enemy on our own soil and our inexplicable good fortune. We understand the historical accident of our good fortune and that there’s nothing in particular we have done to deserve it. Fundamentally, I believe that Canadians at their best understand their good fortune, and that it’s incumbent upon us to do what we can to help others who do not share it. You can look back at Canada’s century of wars and see in them some fantastically able bellicose nation (if you wish), or citizens who have constantly gone to bat in the service of some idea about democracy or freedom or the fair society and not for some narrow idea of the nation or property. That greater idea was empire for a while, then the Allies and for fifty years afterwards, the UN and the internationalist ideals it symbolized, ones close to innately outward-looking Canadians’ hearts. But military advocates and wary nationalists guarding a narrower idea of sovereignty hate the UN – hence our poor standing and disinterest in the institution at the moment – and have decided that it is inherently dysfunctional, gathering instead under the umbrage of the smaller alliance of NATO. Now, interestingly, NATO is not gold enough either, and the militarists are beginning to speak more and more about the “interoperability” of an even smaller alliance of, effectively, the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and Australia. This is not internationalism. This is retrenchment and a departure from what has traditionally been the Canadian foreign policy disposition.

Is the pull of the myth, or the epic versus the novel, as you refer to it, unique to Canada?

Nations have always needed to put populace in a kind of epic frame of mind, and by that I mean thinking in terms of absolute good and absolute evil in order to mobilize and then discover and calculate the benefits that accrue to home. The discussion about law and order and good and all the divisiveness it has brought to the domestic front has been very advantageous to the government that just believes it needs 35-40 per cent of the population to get by. And we see it all over the place – we see it in the lexicon they use to describe the environmentally concerned as “eco-activists,” migrants as “terrorists jumping the queue,” opponents of unfettered police surveillance of the internet as “standing with the child molesters,” but also in, for instance, the Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay’s persistent acclaim of soldiers as “best” Canadians. This is the cult of the hero at work – absolute evil on one side, absolute good on the other. People in uniform are not de facto heroes, and in a sophisticated society such as Canada is, it is to be understood that heroes come from all walks of life and are as likely to be civilians.

But it’s much easier to rally people around simplistic ideas such as epic thinking and wars promote. I would go further and suggest that this phenomenon is not just true to Canada. We’re living in a particularly tense time and all nations are fighting the same currents. This retraction and wariness – it’s an insecure time. Security is actually a very interesting word. The more secure one feels, the more generous one feels, the more inquisitive one also feels. At the moment, we’re not feeling that way, so that division and fear and blame and regarding others as lesser crop up all over the place – as, for instance, it has done in the United States, where Republican Mitt Romney can decide that 47 per cent of the population are undeserving and essentially not like the better him and therefore not worthy of attention or aid.

I would say that the people who are supporting the idea of the warrior nation are also, by and large, the people who don’t want to give up an iota of that notion of sovereignty, defined narrowly, and who are also putting a terrified foot in the sand against a future that is already here. This is already an international age. This is already an age in which economic shocks, computer viruses and biological ones and authentic terrorist threats all operate across borders. So what I’m about to say is the thing that is really obnoxious in this camp, which is that it’s inevitable that there will be some kind of greater international order. That’s the only possible civilized way we can move forward. But as soon as you say that then you’re seen to be tumbling into becoming a character in right-wing Christian fantasy films on American TV, that are actually very funny and very telling, in which the UN, harbinger of the new world order, is the detested enemy.

I suggested at one point in the book that a new Canadian Forces peace operations regiment be founded in order to be true to a commitment that I go to some lengths to explain as inherently Canadian, and partly as a challenge to other countries to match it, because policing law and order internationally – and that is the essential point of peace operations, whether under the umbrella of the UN or NATO or ECOMOG or associations not yet invented – is certainly not something we can do on our own. But such a plan looks forward to some sort of international force in which the central difference between that peace operations force and conventional militaries is not one of capability or training, or of readiness to kill, but that one serves issues of, call it "national security," the other is actually a police force. Eventually the kind of order and justice that Steven Pinker, in his study of decreasing violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, suggests was unimaginable to contemplate ever occurring at home is going to occur across frontiers, and there will be some sort of permanent force to defend the UN Charter of human rights that is, at the moment, one of the first achievements of that international order.

Do you see the ICC as a potential focal point for that?

I think these institutions are all in their nascent state and going through tremendous teething problems, often flawed, sometimes catastrophically so, and their progress tremendously frustrating. I mean, how many people has the ICC detained yet? Six? Four? Two? But, still, the court is born out of a principle that is valid and worth defending. Of the many criticisms that are thrown against Canada’s peacekeeping missions and ordinary Canadians’ commitment to the idea of peacekeeping, the one that has the most weight is that we have failed to put sufficient resources their way. A leading role is still ours to play.

Is there a myth that we need as Canadians? Must we choose between an epic warrior nation myth and the "golden era" of Pearsonian diplomacy?

I think at the very least we should be fantastically wary of this warrior nation idea and of John Baird and Harper and Jason Kenney throwing their weight around and doing whatever they can to promote the epic’s good and evil, us and them mindset. What I am afraid of most is that some of them would be quite delighted by some sort of terrorist act occurring at home and appearing upon the surface vindicate everything they’ve done so far. In Rudyard Griffiths’ anthology Canada in 2020, a set of essays imagining Canada’s future, I have an essay in that describes just that – people thrilled that finally we can join the big boys’ table because there’s been an attack on us. When I say that, it doesn’t mean that I’m trying to avoid the responsibility of being an international citizen or shying away from conflict when it’s necessary and so on. But given that I believe this was a country founded on negotiation and, by and large, the peaceful resolution of differences – we’re not sitting on a map of genocides perpetrated to vacate the territory and make it ready for us – I see it as a part of our national disposition to seek to achieve as much in our foreign policy. It’s an effect of the land that we look to others for lessons on how best to share the territory. Figuring out how to share the territory is a naturally Canadian disposition. We (and by “we,” I mean settler Canadians and their progeny) sure as hell didn’t know how and when we arrived – a fact, by the way, that makes Harper’s drive to find the 19th century English explorer Franklin’s ships lost in the Arctic somewhat ironic, as you can feel him imagining their discovery as some sort of proof of sovereignty, which they are not. Figuring out how to share the territory is also the question of the novel – and, above all, of what it means to be a good citizen in this country or any other in the world. How do you and I get on, together? Asking that question led to that other brilliant, but presently unpopular document, our own Charter of Canadian Rights and Freedoms.

And I suppose that really what I’m fighting against, constantly, is this idea that’s more and more popular that war is a constant, no more than a necessary outcome that we need to prepare for unreflectively because it is simply a fact of “human nature” that it erupts from time to time. We might have believed that of rape, domestic violence, assault in the streets, and all sorts of things. But I just can’t hop into that camp. It may be true. Wars may have to be fought from time to time, though when they do we should do so with gravity and lament rather than the stupid sports team mentality with which we seem to be embarking upon wars, presently. It is a problem that the West’s memory of its last awful conflagration, the Second World War, is dying with those who retained it. I desperately hope that it will not take such idiocy and violence happening again to make us remember the commitment to at least trying, trying our hardest and then some more, to find other defensible solutions to differences – an effort, I believe, that comes out of an inherently and honourable Canadian disposition.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.