In The Media

Harper, historians and the myth of the warrior nation

by David Berlin 

The Globe and Mail
August 20, 2012 

The central thesis of Ian McKay’s and Jamie Swift’s thoroughly researched and surprisingly entertaining book Warrior Nation is that Canada is now entering dark times.

Propelled by a combination of Cold War inertia and the “morally disquieting” and “absurd” assumption that we can hunker down in a gated community capable of sheltering us from global storms, even as we pursue our economic interests in regions that have not been so lucky, we are now circling our wagons in what could prove to be a deadly spire led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Among this government’s blurrily reported campaigns, the authors list scouting trips to Senegal, South Korea, Kenya, Singapore and Kuwait in search of locations for new Canadian bases. The notion, according to a senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, David Bercuson, is to establish “forward supply depots near parts of the world where Canadian Forces may be deployed in the future.” Harper’s government has committed $5.3-billion more to annual defence spending than the former Liberal administration’s $12.8-billion yearly investment.

The New Warriors, which is the way McKay and Swift refer to the politicians, academics, military and business people who form the front lines of a co-ordinated initiative aimed at substituting one myth-symbol complex – “Canada as peaceable kingdom” – with another – “Canada as a warrior nation” – are perhaps no more fabulists than were their predecessors. Except that in advocating for their preferred myth complex, the New Warriors seem to tolerate no resistance, act as though the complex historical process that attends virtually every major event is of no consequence. And so it is that the New Warriors seem only prepared to think about the War of 1812, which was fought between the United States and Britain, as an unabashed victory for Canada won by Canadians.

The same holds for the First World War battle that Pierre Berton called Vimy Ridge. From the viewpoint of the New Warriors, Canadians who fought and finally broke through the German ranks were heroes. End of story. The fact that the battle cost us more than 10,000 casualties and that its accomplishments proved useless to the Allies, who were not prepared to take advantage of the breakthrough, is beside the point.

Swift, a researcher and journalist, and McKay, a history professor at Queen’s University, find the New Warriors’ insistence on a sanitized and simplified history particularly vexing and worrisome. “Many other societies have gone through moments similar to the one through which we are passing,” they write. “Cults of blood and soil: historical arguments privileging the superiority of people from certain background, celebrations of the triumph of the will and virile masculinity, none of these are new devices for instilling anxiety into a population. For decades, 20th-century Europe experimented with various regimes that made free use of such techniques of persuasion. They were not called democracies.”

This last sentence is incorrect. One need only recall the cult of blood-and-soil that permeated British, Spanish, Belgian and Dutch rhetoric used to sustain colonial empires that remained intact for many decades of the last century. In each case, arguments privileging the superiority of people of a certain background, celebrations of the will etc., were the order of the day. But then again, no one knows this better than McKay and Swift, who have graced the pages of this book with dozens of examples of just such excesses sometimes employed by democracies.

What, then, could they have meant when they suggested that democracies don’t do that?

In theory and in spirit, a democracy is the kind of system that grants individuals the conditions and the opportunities to think for themselves. That and perhaps nothing else distinguishes democracy from the pale approximations called liberal or representative democracy. Could it be that these authors believe that neither Canada nor the United States nor any other so-called Western democracy really deserves that description?

A couple of sentences near the end of the book made me think that this is precisely what the authors believe. They write: “In the 1940s, Canada went through a realignment, which turned not in a direction of genuine independence but to an even deeper relationship of inferiority. It is too soon to tell if we are about to experience a similar moment, but the signs of a dramatic shift in world power relations are accumulating. They spell enormous dangers. They also contain great opportunities for a genuine democratic renewal. If so, and more radically, if we live the moment fully, Canadians would experience a genuine moment of independence.” And perhaps bring forth something far closer to a real democracy than the world has ever seen.

David Berlin is the founding editor of the Walrus Magazine. His book The Moral Lives of Israelis: Re-inventing the Dream State, will be pubished in the United States next month.

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