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Of wars and warriors

The war of 1812 is being widely commemorated across Canada, aided by $28 million in federal funding to remind us, according to Heritage Minister James Moore, that without that engagement “Canada as we know it would not exist.”

It is difficult for most Canadians to link our sense of modern Canada with this two hundred year old conflict and the encounters between ragtag regiments that took place at that time. Only if the Americans had been able to drive the British completely out of North America, would Canada have not come into being. This has not lessened the zeal of the Harper government to embellish an event that accords nicely with its attempt, according to the authors of a new book, to “rebrand” our image of a peaceful past into that of a nation “created by war, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of military virtues.”

Canada a nation of peacekeepers, a working multicultural example for a fractious world, an accomplished political partnership of two founding races? This is hardly the vision of Canada held by Stephen Harper, the Conservative party, or Canada’s military establishment, as set out in Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.

By exploring Canada’s involvement in  the “Anglosphere” of British-American-Canadian geopolitical partnering from the Boer War at the end of the 19th century to the Afghanistan conflict at the beginning of the 21st, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift present convincing evidence that Canada has always been willing to align itself on the side of military force rather than commit to international conciliation and peace-building. Perhaps, given the litany of examples they unearth, the “rebranding” undertaken by Harper & Co. may not be all that tenuous.

Among the many strengths of the book is the way it has cast Canadian policy-making in a global context. Lester Pearson’s Cold War strategy, according to Warrior Nation, was to be a Cold Warrior par excellence, fighting Communism at home and abroad. The peacekeeping accolades earned by Pearson, this line of reasoning argues, came from more than a wish to stop a nasty colonial-type military incursion. He “saved the British and the French from their own failure to realize that the sun was setting on their geriatric empires.” A decade later, our membership in the International Control Commission, created to facilitate a peaceful settlement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, “had Canada working as an accomplice to U.S. crimes” in our role as an intelligence agent for Washington.

Our involvement in Afghanistan, undertaken as partial recompense for our refusal to join the U.S. attack on Iraq, is seen by McKay and Swift as “an exercise in imperial overreach, a tragic waste of life, a misuse of resources … and, given the history of foreign interventions … doomed to failure.”

Warrior Nation, however, is no mere polemic on a misguided foreign policy. It examines Canada’s record through the personalities that shaped our decisions and fashioned our policies. There is the swashbuckling graduate of Canada’s Royal Military College, William Stairs, who became an accomplice in King Leopold’s rapacious reign over the Belgian Congo; Governor General John Buchan, glorifier of war and designer of the death-dealing concentration camps the British ran in South Africa after the Boer War (and incidentally held out as a leadership example in Canada’s new Citizenship Guide); and First World War veteran Tommy Burns, who rose to become leader of the UN’s first major peacekeeping operation, who thought of imperialism as “the monster of the age.”

This book does not argue that Canada should have no military establishment or that it should never seek to influence global politics. Rather, it signals a warning against a warriors’ world of a North America as a gated community in which “the need for security — and for the armed forces necessary to provide it — becomes a dominant worry.”

In such a world, this book reminds us, there is no room for effective environmental protection but there is room for a military with the capacity to bomb lesser states to freedom.Toward which destiny should Canadians aspire?

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