Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rough material -- Canada and war in the 21st century

In his 2012 book What We talk About When We Talk About War, Noah Richler analyzed the re-making of Canada into a “warrior nation.” He described the hyping of the “Vimy Myth,” the idea that Canada was forged on a World War I battlefield when, for the first time, all of the Canadian contingent fought together and took a hill defended by well-entrenched, determined German soldiers. Propaganda from the time doesn’t fit with the Vimy Myth. Canadians, even in the Second World War, were portrayed as junior partners of the British Empire. And it’s arguable that Canada showed its first signs of independence during the Chanak Crisis, when, for the first time, the Canadian government said no to a British request for troops. But no matter. Vimy symbolizes glorious sacrifice, not independence. It’s about strength. And it ascribes some sort of meaning to a war that, especially after the passing of a century, seems like such an utter waste of blood and money.[i] But the Vimy Myth is really an antidote to the Liberal-era worship of peacekeeping and peacemaking.
Richler attributed the phrase to former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, an officer who was never mistaken for a social worker. He coined in 2007 and used before the Conference of Defence Associations and on the speaking circuit. The phrase was so catchy that Hillier used it in his 2010 book Leadership:  50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders. Hillier used Vimy as a sort of magic moment in which Canadian soldiers perform admirably and Canada’s wartime officer corps, so often trashed by the British in both world wars, shone. After Vimy, Canadians had a seat at the big war conferences and got to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which formerly ended that war (and set the stage for the next one). Vimy, Richler said, was used by Hillier to create a model for the new, fighting Canadian Forces that had previously “meandered aimlessly, perceived as essentially just another department of government.” So it really wasn’t independence that Canadians were fighting for. It was international influence. And that influence had to be paid for constantly. Canada had made that payment in the Second World War but in the post-war years had failed to pull its weight in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While liberals liked peacekeeping, being part of international missions to dangerous places like the Balkans in the 1990s made no impression on our allies or enemies. The country needed a fighting force, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Canada went to war in Afghanistan. ( Richler 70-71)
            The Vimy Myth, as Richler points out, was one of the cornerstones of a new “warrior nation” Canadian self-image. One of the best examples of this mythology finding its way into the arts was the 2007 movie Passchendaele, filmed in Alberta in 2007. It was a remarkable film that won several Canadian awards. The film gathered up and re-used First World War mythology, including a variation of the story of “the crucified Canadian,” a story that motivated many Canadian units to stop taking prisoners on the Western Front.  In the culminating scene in the movie Sgt. Michael Dunne (played by writer-producer Paul Gross) dies after saving a man who had been flung by an exploding shell onto a cross of debris erected in No Man’s land. Dunne drags the injured man back to the Canadian lines as German soldiers watch in silence, their rifles and machine guns stilled. (In the wartime myth, a Canadian was spiked to a barn door with bayonets by leering German sadists. The story cropped up in both world wars and was believed by many Canadian soldiers.  The Dominion-Historica Institute used the film as a teaching aid, issuing material to go along with the film as part of its “Passchendaele in the Classroom.” “Of all the Allies, the Canadians were the most feared,” Gross write in it, repeating the popular view that the war represented the country’s “coming of age” and that “our notion of what it means to be Canadian was forged in the crucible of the Western Front.” Gross received an Order of Canada soon after the Passchenaele project. (Richler 86.) The conservative Canadian military clique, with its media boosters like Jack Granatstein and Mark Steyn, is a formidable group, as journalists who have crossed them have learned at great cost and pain. Yet in Britain and Germany, historians abandoned the myth of a heroic First World War long ago and the United States pretty much ignores the entire conflict as a sort of military-political train wreck.
            Canada clings to it because the country’s leaders believe it needs war heroes. After Canadians began fighting in Afghanistan, journalists set out to make two groups of heroes. One group was the journalists themselves, who tried to be as swashbuckling as the great 19th Century colonial correspondents who filed from that same nasty little corner of the world. The other heroes were the dead. Using the same propaganda constructs that Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe used so well for the British in the First World War, the dead were not – as confidential military reports of the First World War called them – “wastage.” And they were not “killed.” They made “sacrifices.” The Highway of Heroes, the stretch of Highway 401 in southern Ontario leading from the big air base at Trenton to the media capital of Toronto, was re-named “the Highway of Heroes,” and people stood on bridges over the highway not to see the triumphant return of the living but to wave to the dead. Richler examined then-Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford’s rephrasing of Capt. Nichola Goddard’s death in Afghanistan as “heroic” rather than “tragic”: “Her death, wrote Batchford  in May 2006 was “not a tragedy at all [but] an  honourable death, a soldier’s death, in the service of her country and of another, Afghanistan, she had come to admire and love.”  There could be no question of this new definition of heroics. (Richler 204-205). There would be no decoration ceremonies to remind the Canadian people of killing. Instead, the government wanted people to see each dead soldier as a sort of payment for our nationhood.
            A new war museum opened in Ottawa, mainly because of the lobbying of Granatstein. The new road built beside it was, of course, called Vimy Place. The museum’s tone was upbeat up-beat about war.  Canada’s peacekeeping, and the idea of peace and loss itself, was kept down to a dull roar. There is little in the museum to suggest war causes actual death and maiming: almost no mention of military medicine, for instance. There’s virtually nothing about displaced people (who made up such a large group of Canadian immigrants) or of domestic opposition to any war.
At the same time, the Vimy Myth crowd went to work to dismantle what was left of the country’s self-image as a peacekeeper. Sean Maloney, a professor at professor at Kingston’s Royal Military attacked Canada’ss “feel goodism” and the “hollow fa├žade” of peacekeeping’s “myth-making exercise.” Canada may have been involved in peacekeeping for years and had even built a now-ignored monument to it within sight of Parliament Hill, but what Canada really needed to do to be a real power was to link itself to the hard power of NATO (Richler 67) The attacks of 9-11 helped move that along. The Canadian Forces began recruiting infantry, changing its ads to focus on combat rather than on peacekeeping and learning trades and leadership.

[i] For the best study of the re-making of war memory, see Vance, Jonathan, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (1997).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Some notes about newspapers

I made these notes after crunching numbers in Martin P. Wattenberg, Is Voting for Young People? (Third Edition). New York: Pearson, 2012. The numbers in brackets are page numbers.

Newspapers were in decline long before the Internet came along. In 1957, 76 per cent of Americans read a newspaper every day. Twenty years later, that number had dropped to 63 per cent.  The number hovered just above 50 per cent through the 1980s and early 1990s. Readership finally, permanently, dropped below half in 1996 – still in the pre-Internet age for most people -- and touched bottom at 37 per cent in 2000, when high speed Internet started becoming fairly easily accessible in cities, but only for desktops and laptops. There was a bit of a dead cat bounce through the 2000s, but the reality is that modern newspapers had lost half their readers before news web sites became available to most people. Smart phones, iPads, facebook, twitter and easily accessible free wireless didn’t kill newspapers. They were already dead. (11) The Internet could be blamed by newspaper editors and publishers to cover up years of poor management and disastrous leveraged buyouts that were usually paid for with newsroom jobs and local coverage. In fact, if the Internet hadn’t come along, most newspapers would have had to do some serious soul-searching to determine why their readers had abandoned them, or, to be more accurate, had never acquired the habit of reading them. For example, in the first four years of this century, just 19 per cent of Canadians aged 23 to 31 read a newspaper every day. But older people were still buying them. In the same years, 72 per cent of people in their late 60s and early 70s were regular newspaper readers.(13) People weren’t walking away from newspapers. They had never read them in the first place. And young people had abandoned newspapers before the arrival of the Internet. In the early 1980s, 59 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 read newspapers. That’s 20 per cent more than all of the people who read them now. (And Canadians were always miles behind the Swedes, with 90 per cent of Swedes in the 18-29 age group being regular newspaper readers in the early '80s. (Some 96 percent of Swedish seniors read them). By the early years of the 2000s, the figure for young Swedes was down to 37 per cent.) The problem was not just confined to Canada. The newspaper, throughout the developed world, went into a death spiral when Pierre Trudeau was still working on the Constitution and Gerald Ford was president of the United States.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hanged, drawn and quartered...

Yes, it did happen here. And I spent the morning writing a bit about the Bloody Assizes in Ancaster, Ontario, in 1814 when eight "traitors" -- actually mostly gripers and some criminals, and one actual spy -- were hanged in an execution that was so badly botched that one of the spectators was killed by a falling beam. The convicts were then disemboweled, their bodies were chopped into quarters and their heads were cut off and stuck on stakes.
It's part of a chapter I'm doing in Kill the Messengers on commemoration of the War of 1812 as "Canada's War of Independence."
While I knew the medieval sentence was passed in Canada in colonial times -- the last that I know of was in 1838, and commuted -- I didn't know it had actually been performed.

I suspect there are no plans to commemorate the Bloody Assizes of Ancaster in any forthcoming Heritage Minutes.

Snakes on a plane

At least two of these people should have gone to prison.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Will Harper Quit?

Here are a few reasons why he'll stay:

1. Stephen Harper is in his early 50s. That's awfully young to retire. And what else would Harper do for a living? Unlike most living PMs, he's not a lawyer, so he can't end up as a letterhead partner at a big firm. And he can't be a lobbyist for five years, even if he wanted to. And I'm sure he doesn't.

2. Harper's career, even as Prime Minister, was geared to winning a Conservative majority and crushing the Liberals. Quitting just past the half-way mark of the first majority would be a terrific failure.

3. Every Tory I know believes Justin Trudeau will defeat himself, just by talking. When the going gets tough, they imagine Trudeau being tag-teamed by Harper and Mulcair in the leadership debates, the same way Harper and Jack Layton crushed Michael Ignatieff.

4. The Harper family is happy in Ottawa. It's unlikely they'd stay here if Harper quit, so resigning means moving, taking the kids out of a good high school, and much more disruption in their lives.

5. Harper has never given the slightest hint that he's leaving. While he's always kept his own counsel, it's important to keep in mind that the only people who say he's going are the people who would love to see him gone.

6. Harper seems to actually believe the federal budget will be -- or appear to be -- balanced by election day. The economy should also be a bit better. Some more trade deals might be signed. That should offset some of the problems caused by the Senate scandal, which has now become so intricate that few people understand it anymore, and most of those who try to follow along put the blame on Mike Duffy and the rest of the senators who are under investigation.

I could be wrong. I'm a terrible predictor of this kind of thing. But as I work on Kill the Messengers, I grow more convinced that Harper is among the most stubborn people I've ever seen. To him, politics is applied game theory, and he's not about to walk away from the table.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Blog again?

I might start up the blog again, since it seems to get a steady stream of traffic of people checking back. If I do, it will mainly be a discussion of what's happening on the Hill. I have a spring deadline for my book on Harper's information control, which will be published by HarperCollins as Kill the Messengers. There should be an Amazon page on it soon. 
Here's the Quill and Quire piece on the book deal. And here's the Hill Times story, which is behind a paywall. The newspaper has a rather generous trial offer, so if you don't want to subscribe, you can still read the piece.
This is my first modern political book. In some ways, I had to be talked into doing it, since modern politics is an ugly, dirty business. At the same time, the idea of taking propaganda and censorship concepts and seeing how they are used in modern Ottawa was intriguing, and I think the book has a fair chance of being a commercial success.
So, if people are interested, I'll blog on the topics of politics and political books. I have a stack of new ones by other authors that I'm digging through.The new crop, by authors including Joe Clark (How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change), Susan Delacourt (Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them), Paul Wells (The Longer I’m Prime Minister), Brad Lavigne (Building the Orange Wave), and Chris Turner (Harper's War on Science), are quite good. Don Lenihan's provocative 2012 book Rescuing Public Policy: The Case for Open Engagement, is pretty much out of print but you can download it here for free. We're seeing a trend here toward books that take the juvenalia out of politics and return it to the realm of grown-ups.