November 2012 Commentary

Too Much Military History?

by J. L. Granatstein

Does the Canadian national narrative focus on war? That was Elizabeth Payne's claim in her column in The Citizen on November 14. "There are reasons for that," she said. "Conflicts and wars are periods when countries and  individuals take a measure of themselves, they can lead to great hardships and change, and details are often meticulously recorded." And she adds, with a backhand slap at the Harper Tories, "Governments also like to use war history...to promote their own visions."

All this is likely true, but Ms Payne then spins slightly out of control. "Canada's story is much more than a story of heroic servicemen and women," as if someone had ever argued otherwise. To overemphasize war, she writes, "would draw a distorted picture of Canada. It would be a shame if Canadians didn't extend their hunger for history to include other stories of Canadians," stories like those of Canadians' lives during periods of peace.

Now there is no doubt that since the 1990s, Remembrance Week has put the Canadian role in the world wars and other conflicts on the front pages. Even The History Channel slows down its endless sagas of ice road truckers, antique pickers, and storage wars to feature some excellent documentaries and films on Canadian (and other) military events. This is all to the good, in my eyes.

But no one who has ever looked at the provincial school curricula or university history department calendars could ever believe that military history has obliterated all the other varieties of studying the country's past. Ms Payne wants family stories and local history to have their place in our past, and so do I. If she looks at what is being published in academic and other journals, if she sees what books are being issued by both small and large presses, she would have no fear for the future of peacetime Canadian history.

Indeed, if she turned her gaze on the sad status of military history in our universities, she might actually call for more work to be done. Only at the Universities of Victoria, Calgary, Wilfrid Laurier, Western, Ottawa, and New Brunswick does Canadian military history merit a place of real importance. Students tend to flock to military history courses at these universities because some superb teachers offer them, but the faculty at most institutions of higher learning want only to study gender, cultural history, social history, First Nations, the environment, or some variants of these approaches.

There is nothing wrong with such historical work, except when their practitioners squeeze out all the others. And, regrettably, they do. Even political history is all but verboten in our university history departments, which likely explains why, for example, there are no full histories of the Conservative or Liberal Parties and no good detailed biographies of some of our prime ministers. Mackenzie King, for example, or Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Unfortunately, political history, along with military history, is seen by most present-day academic historians as merely the stories of boring old white males. Far better to study hairdressers in north Winnipeg than to write a full biography of General Sir Arthur Currie, the greatest soldier Canada ever produced. More important to talk about some obscure strike in the 1920s than to explain how the Department of Munitions and Supply directed the huge Canadian industrial war effort during the Second World War.

Of course, the stories of peacetime Canada matter enormously as we try to shape our understanding of where this nation came from and how it developed. But let us not out of ignorance try to claim that military history has run roughshod over most of the Canadian past. For one week in November out of fifty-two, our soldiers take precedence. The rest of the year, they tend to be forgotten, even those in battle zones. We have almost a thousand soldiers in Afghanistan training that nation's military, but how much coverage does this receive in the media? Is there a single reporter embedded there today? Yes, some media accompanied the Defence Minister when he recently flew in, and yes, some political figures will likely visit at Christmas, and the press corps will take note. But no one is covering the hard, dangerous work our mission to Kabul has undertaken. Someone should, Ms Payne. More military history and more military reportage, please, not less.

J.L. Granatstein is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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