Manitoba History: Book Review: Robert Teigrob, Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian & American History and Memory.
by C. J. Taylor
“War, what is it good for?” Armed conflicts can be appreciated (or not) from three perspectives: they can achieve predetermined goals such as defending or acquiring territory; they can be ennobling, building character and forming social cohesion; and their memory can contribute to nation building through collective recollection of a courageous and triumphant heritage. Some argue the opposite: that their goals are illusory or narrowly imperialistic, the action savage and contemptible, and their memory divisive in a heterogeneous multicultural society.
Recent history—Canada’s military participation in Afghanistan, and the election of the Harper Conservatives —has encouraged the politicizing of these viewpoints. As Robert Teigrob explains: “Of course, public attitudes towards any issue ebb and flow over time, and since the early 1990s, and particularly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party attained power in 2006, Canadians were exposed to a coordinated and well-financed campaign to view themselves first and foremost as ‘courageous warriors’” (p. 5).
Canadian intellectuals have bristled at this perceived militarization of our consciousness. Teigrob cites Michael Fellman’s dissenting voice: “Militarism is seeping into Canadian ideological and institutional life with highly dangerous short-term implications. Yet we hear precious little outcry from the public or in the media, and this relative silence only encourages those controlling the levers of power to continue this development.”  Living With War joins this resistance.
Teigrob is firmly in the camp that is mistrustful of the glory of war, pushing back against jingoistic government programs and conservative writing at the beginning of this century that sought to exalt Canada’s military heritage. Thus, he favourably refers to recent monographs by Ian McKay, Jamie Swift, and Noah Richler that critique what is seen as recent propaganda, while being scornful of historians such as Jack Granatstein, who are portrayed as unabashed boosters of Canada’s military heritage. In his analysis, the author conflates past and present attitudes toward historic military conflicts along with contemporary attitudes toward the military: that is, he argues that a positive view of Canada’s military heritage corresponds with a desire to expand Canada’s present-day military role—a confusion of topics common to the debate that Teigrob has joined.
The book examines Canadian and American attitudes towards war and the military throughout the 20th century. Teigrob compares responses, both contemporary and historiographical, to the American war against Spain at the end of the 19th century with Canada’s participation in the Boer War, and then proceeds to compare national responses to the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The author argues two main points: first, that Canadian historical writing and memory have consistently exaggerated the unifying benefits of military conflict, while underplaying the dissenting views and consequent fracturing of national outlook; and, second, that American historical writing and public memory have been far more critical of that country’s military past than that of Canada.
Living With War engages in a sometimes lively, partisan discussion about the meaning of past wars to present-day Canadian and American societies. It examines the reluctance toward participating in these conflicts by contemporary religious, ethnic, and racial groupings. I struggle, however, with an argument that seeks to compare the two nations on an equal plane. We are the mouse living next to an elephant and the trajectory of our respective histories is radically different. The American republic was born from armed rebellion. Its subsequent history was characterized by a succession of armed conflicts that expanded its national borders south and west, including the war with Mexico that gained Texas and California, and the American Civil War that kept the southern states in the union. Smaller wars against indigenous tribes in the west allowed the accession of other western territories. Beginning in the late 19th century, it asserted its hegemony over the Pacific and Caribbean regions through a succession of armed conflicts, the largest of which was the Spanish-American War but included military incursions in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Military action in Canadian history is of comparatively lesser importance. Thus, discussion of Canadian armed conflicts has usually remained the field of a small group of military historians remaining outside the mainstream of Canadian historiography. The point being, that there is more discussion of the nature of American armed conflicts because it has a greater presence in that country’s history.
The author’s argument that this military tradition spawned a correspondingly strong tradition of dissent seems overly facile. Canada’s participation in the Boer War is not comparable to the United States’ participation in the Spanish-American war, in my opinion, because they occupy distinctly different contexts of meaning. My copy of The Canadian Encyclopedia, for example, does not even have an entry for the Boer War. The First World War, on the other hand, occupies a far greater significance in Canada due to the scale of human loss. So, while monuments to the fallen in that conflict are prominent across Canada, including its capital, monuments to the First World War are relatively scarce in the US, and absent from the Washington Mall, the site of many other memorials.
The book surveys vast amounts of secondary literature, and in the process offers many insights into the formation of multi-stranded historical narratives. It is clear from the way the material is presented that the author is a skeptic on the subject of past military glory. Implicit, too, in his observations is a questioning of unifying nationalist myths. While drawing on a large number of sources gives considerable scope to the study, the use of secondary literature in this way involves liabilities. Sometimes the works are imperfectly synthesized in the text, and the reader finds himself in a sea of eddying opinions and contradictory viewpoints.
Instead of information, we are sometimes presented with a range of opinions, with a bias toward the last-cited authority. Thus, in his discussion of the significance of the 1917 capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps, the author begins by reviewing older, more conventional sources, concluding that, although the importance of Vimy is overstated as a nation-building event, Canada’s participation in the larger war might have some later significance. Then, citing works by John Herd Thompson and Phillip Buckner, he proceeds to debunk the notion of the war as a catalyst for Canadian independence: “But as discussed in Chapter Three of this volume, more recent analysts have disputed the belief that the First World War challenged English Canadians’ self-conception as loyal citizens of the British Empire”(p. 306). He then plonks a quotation from John Herd Thompson as support for this notion.
Using secondary sources in this way leads to overly compressed ideas and vague generalities that are hardly substantiated by the evidence. In the discussion of Vimy, for example, the 1917 battlefield and the 1936 monument are two distinct symbols, and for some the notion of loyalty to the British Empire and Canadian nationalism are not mutually exclusive. But the brevity of the discussion and the wholesale borrowing of ideas from secondary sources makes it difficult to appreciate such nuances. Touching lightly on so many fragments of history risks occasional superficiality, conflation of events, and facile generalizations. As others have noted, although past Conservative governments may have wished to celebrate a past military glory, they have not been willing to fund the present-day military with corresponding enthusiasm.
Teigrob’s synthesis of secondary writing is too narrowly focussed on minority dissent and too partisan in approach to give a rounded impression of the elements of war and remembrance in this country. Military historians are particularly under-represented, and the questions and approaches they have raised are largely ignored. It is emblematic of the author’s approach to the subject that a book with the subtitle “Twentieth-century conflict in Canadian and American History and Memory” does not mention the public recognition of Remembrance Day. And I do not think that many people lie awake at night worrying about Canada’s “creeping militarism.”
1.Michael Fellman, “Let’s Talk about Creeping Canadian Militarism,” The Tyee, 23 May 2007; cited in Teigrob, p. 5.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 13 November 2020