Tuesday, 21 August 2012


What we talk about when we talk about War
By Noah Richler
Goose Lane Editions,
Copyright 2012 by Noah Richler
370 pages

I did not expect to be disappointed by Noah Richler's book “What we talk about when we talk about War”. I expected to be challenged, aggravated, and possibly even infuriated by finding myself in disagreement with someone obviously more knowledgeable then myself. (A not uncommon occurrence)

I expected to find myself forced to look at events from a new and enlightening point of view. I did not expect to be told the Conservative government was the source of all our contemporary ills. I did not expect to learn that under Liberal governments Canada had been approaching some form of earthly paradise.

Amazon.com describes the book as:

 “A provocative examination of how communications has shaped the language of the media, and vice versa, and how rhetoric shapes how Canadians thinks of themselves as a nation and Canada’s engagement in peacekeeping, war, and on the international stage. According to Richler, each phase of engagement in Afghanistan has been shaped not only by rhetoric but an overarching narrative structure. This topic is very much in discussion at the moment. With the withdrawal of Canadian troops (at least in part) from Afghanistan, it becomes clear there had been a rhetorical cycle. Where once Canada wielded the myth of itself as a peacekeeping nation, the past decade has seen a marked shift away from this, emphasizing the Canadian soldier as warrior. Yet now, as the country withdraws, the oratorical language we use steps away from heroes, able warriors, and sacrifice and back towards a more comfortable vision of Canada in a peacekeeping/training role. In recent years, Canada has made large financial investments in the apparatus of war — in a manner it hasn’t in a very long time — and as the realities of war are brought home (the losses, the tragedies, the atrocities, the lasting repercussions that come home with the soldiers who were on the front lines), Richler contends that it’s crucial we understand our national perspective on war — how we have framed it, how we continue to frame it. Using recent events to bolster his arguments, including the shooting of American congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the earthquake in Haiti, Richler argues that very possibly the epic narrative of Canada is winding back down to that of the novel as we slowly regain our peacekeeping agenda”.

Using a variety of devices, for example the concept of the national binding myth story called “foundation” or “creation” myths, or distinguishing between the concepts of epic behavior and “the lofty, empathetic assumptions of the novel” Richler suggests that much of what he finds disreputable in current Canadian life is all the fault of the “Harper Conservative Government”

At the same time as he criticizes the ‘Harper Government’ for using these techniques to shape the discussion on our participation in the Afghan war, Richler uses them to make his points. He can not seem to bring himself to look at why the creation myths that Canadians tell themselves were not enough for all Canadians, apparently they were enough for him. He sees the conflict between those who supported the war and those who didn’t in epic terms. Needless to say, subtleties of difference and motivation are not necessary to investigate when one is battling for truth, justice and the Canadian way (of peacekeeping).

Richler does suggest alternatives. Unfortunately they aren’t very good ones. The idea of a Peace Operations Regiment is not a practical one. I’m not sure if the author knows what a regiment actually is (although to be fair even the lengthy definition to be found in Donald E. Grave’s “Century of Service: The History of the South Alberta Light Horse” is admitted by the author to be incomplete) but I am sure that he doesn’t understand the consequences of having a military unit that is not equipped, at least mentally, for war. Sure to be misused either be politicians or by Generals, it would eventually be sacrificed on the twin alters of expediency and need. As he appears to understand the constabulary nature of these duties it is not clear why he didn’t recommend a dedicated RCMP unit of some kind. His suggestions for University level peace studies and a Canadian Peace Corps are not accompanied by any kind of recommendations for funding. Somehow, as with all utopian schemes it seems that the money will just appear.

Perhaps Richler is right, perhaps the Conservatives have been so successful at shaping the conversation that even their opponents are forced to use the same terms and devices. If so it is a loss as I think there is a need for a nuanced view of Canada’s role in Afghanistan. We already have enough polemics.