Q&A with Noah Richler: What we talk about when we talk about war

Noah Richler is the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane, 2012), a Governor-General’s Award non-fiction finalist. On November 5, 2012, Richler will join Jack Granatstein in Vancouver for a debate about whether or not Canada is a “warrior nation.” This magazine news columns editor andrea bennett interviewed Richler in late September 2012.

What prompted you to write What We Talk About When We Talk About War?

I remember the moment when it started. I was sitting in my kitchen listening to Shelagh Rogers talk to Master Corporal Paul Franklin about the IED explosion that killed diplomat Glyn Berry in 2006. It was a very spirited conversation and he was a decent fellow. He compared Afghanistan to the Second World War, suggesting basically that it was a “just” war. The conversation basically suggested that if we had pulled out of Afghanistan then, in what was a very tough year of fighting, that Master Corporal Paul Franklin had been wounded for nothing.

I was already, I knew, very disturbed by the changes that were being wrought in Canada’s sense of itself. My first book, This is My Country, What’s Yours?—and this one—are both interested in the power of story. If I was to summarize What We Talk About When We Talk About War, I would say it shows how we narrated ourselves into conflict and through conflict and out of it. That too is very interesting to me. As much as the militarists and right-wing pundits hated that idea, it’s true as well that they really understood the power of story, that they held it in some esteem. They understood that they needed to replace a whole packet of concomitant stories about what it meant to be Canadian with another set of stories. So all the things this gang found objectionable—Canada’s liberal society, its multiculturalism, its attitude to immigrants, this idea of Canada as a land of opportunity, and most of all the ideas that predisposed us to be in favour of soft power and peacekeeping, all these related ideas, needed to be replaced by the story of Canada as a warrior nation.

From what I understood when I read the book, you split the stages of the war in Afghanistan into three. The second stage, for me, was epitomized by the 2008 Manley Report. You quote the part of the Manley Report that says “Canada is a wealthy country. Our good fortune and standing impose on us both authority and obligation in global affairs.” In the first stage of the war you talked about how the Conservative government, media figures like Christie Blatchford and Don Cherry, and even then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff talked about Vimy Ridge and Canada as a warrior nation. In the second stage of the war, though, there seemed to be a return to a more classical appeal to Canadian-ness. And so I was wondering if you could talk about the complicated nature of that second stage in terms of war-making, nation-building, Canadian-ness.

I do divide it into three stages: committing, staying on, and getting out. And this is expressed in all sorts of ways in language. Speaking of the conflict as a war invokes obligations to the Geneva convention that the government was not particularly willing to entertain—the government being Liberal, and then the Harper government. In the second stage, we did call it a war, and we called it a war because it was tough, and we were stuck in it. And then third, it became something else—it became a mission, which was interesting to me. A war is something you win or lose. A mission is something you begin and end, like a shift at the factory.

The fundamental question I brought to the book was “has Canada effectively been changed so quickly, in so short a time?” Perhaps the period in which I grew up in Canada was the aberration, and what I was confronting was right: we had always been a warrior nation. The fifty years of UN operations and relative global peace were the unusual moment.

In those first years, those sorts of arguments about so-called Canadian values were routinely dismissed, and quite pejoratively. And so it was kind of fascinating that in the second period—being stuck in, and staying on, and trying to justify to the Canadian people why we there—that the government itself, through the Manley Report, returned to some of those ideas. The Manley Report was very odd. It was very cowtowing on one hand, and craven, but on the other, affirmed the core ideas of what it means to be Canadian. And those core ideas were summarized in the phrases you just picked out.

On the one hand this has been very frustrating to the advocates of the military project and the warrior nation like Jack Granatstein, who asked “Why won’t this peacekeeping myth ever die?” The idea that perhaps it never died because it has functioning, sustainable roots is anathema to these people. What they present is a Canada that supports an internationalist, multilateral idea.

This is not just a Canadian phenomenon. We live in a time of great retrenchment. People are scared and wary, and not engaging with each other. It’s a very adversarial time. And so the instinct is to retreat. That’s not the Canada that Lester Pearson was trying to build. That’s not the Canada that I grew up in.

It’s very romantic instinct, to my mind, that these people obey—a kind of fearful nostalgia for a time that is passed, a time that these people prefer. And that’s why we’re turning back to the monarchy, and putting Royal back on the title of our armed forces, why we’re putting up portraits of the Queen. It’s a kind of harkening back to a white, monarchist, secure, uncomplicated Canada in the face of a future that is already here. We already live in an international world, where the repercussions of economics, health, and computer viruses, security and terrorism act out internationally. But it takes a much broader mind to be able to operate in that sphere. And the advocates of the warrior nation don’t like that, and they retreat behind simple lines: good and evil.

 

In the book you use different approaches to storytelling—the novel being the complex, broadminded approach, as opposed to the epic and the romance and the myth. You talk about how the dominant narrative has changed with the Conservative takeover of power and even before that. I was wondering if you think that the fundamental nature of Canadians has changed alongside the dominant narrative about war and our participation in war?

I don’t have the definite answer to that. I think that the Harper government drives that depended first on the Vimy Ridge story, and then on the Remembrance Day theatrics, and on the language of “Support Our Troops,” and so on has been remarkably successful. The “Support Our Troops” business is an awful kind of blackmail, and it’s not at all contradictory —as, for instance, Christie Blatchford wrote—to question the war and to support our troops. I’m pretty confident that my book doesn’t come across as an assault on the Canadian Forces. I don’t think it’s that at all.

I think there have been signals that the Canadian remains who he or she is. One of them is what happened around the earthquake in January 2010 in Haiti, when Canadians gave more per capita then any other country in the world. When the idea of helping was suddenly less complicated than the demand that we derive some idea of good out of bombing people, and occupying a territory in a war that quietly we have all understood we cannot win. Harper himself said you cannot win against this insurgency. That’s amazing. That demanded that we start speaking of it as a mission and not a war so that we could leave with our heads held high. But in Haiti we’re suddenly helping in a straightforward way: rebuilding hospitals, mending limbs, creating order, making people better and feeding them.  We may not have continued to do so, but the way in which we approached that mission impressed me. That even Harper actually, to his credit, matched the surge of feeling.

What role did media figures like Christie Blatchford and Don Cherry play in the war-mongering, nation-building rhetoric? How much stock do you think Canadians put into figures like Christie Blatchford and Don Cherry?

Wasn’t Don Cherry a contestant for The Greatest Canadian on that CBC series? Isn’t there a film being made of his life? Don Cherry is a professional buffoon. I’ll defend that. He’s paid to be a clown.

The CBC’s general documentation of the war was lamentable. It was a kind of a ra ra 1940s-era boostering of the war that was unthinking and generally uncritical. It seemed like there was a kind of competition among a number of our news organizations to appear most blandly to support our troops.

It has been suggested that I put too much important into the writings of Christie Blatchford and Rosie DiManno. What they say—they’re paid a great deal to say what they say, and they’re read by a lot of people—and I suppose what I was trying to attack was the absolute banality of the stuff they were proferring.

What was interesting to me was how selective were the mantles of alpha male heroism that these people were collectively bestowing upon soldiers, and critically, that certain soldiers in uniform did not get the heroic treatment. There has been over the last ten years an extraordinary flourishing of the cult of the hero, in which anybody in uniform, virtually just by putting on a uniform, is a hero. The exceptions to that would be two peacekeepers who died in Haiti and the another, Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener, who was killed on the Lebanese-Israeli border, about whom our Prime Minister Harper effectively said, Well, he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That’s outrageous. He was blaming a soldier for his own death. Imagine doing that with a soldier in Kandahar. None of these three were given the huge funereal services of other Canadian Forces soldiers or even the Toronto Police Services Sergeant who was killed in 2011, Ryan Russell.  We’ve reached a point in Canada where we tow the line to such a degree that we accept things that are so outrageous as to be comical in incredibly dutiful fashion.

What has the Harper government gained from refashioning Canada into a warrior nation?

Dividing the world into strict simplistic lines of good and evil is fantastically useful to a government that is not interested in engagement, negotiation, compromise—all the things that Canada used to stand for—but instead understands that it merely needs not even half, but 35 percent or 40 percent of popular support to get its way. Not an issue goes by without them trying to create a conflict along some well-entrenched line. That’s how they got about their business. And Canadians need to ask if that is in fact the Canada they prefer.