Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety

By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012.

By Ken Simons (reviewer)

Canadian Forces Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener was killed by a bunker-buster bomb on July 25, 2006. His United Nations observation post in southern Lebanon had been under Israeli artillery fire for six hours leading up to the bombing. Three of his colleagues—from China, Finland, and Austria—also died.

In response to Hess-von Kruedener’s death, Canada’s prime minister speculated that the UN should have withdrawn its observers as soon as the shelling started, an observation that made little military sense—particularly for observers whose job is to stay and observe. Harper had previously described Israel’s actions in the 2006 Lebanon war as “measured,” and he now chose to dismiss the death of a Canadian peacekeeper as somehow the United Nations’ fault rather than the action (deliberate or otherwise) of a favored Canadian ally.

In Warrior Nation, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift show the deep contradictions that become obvious when governments celebrate the act of war as a nation-building experience.

Soldiers have now replaced police officers as symbols of the state at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Remembrance Day, which even ten years ago seemed to be fading into irrelevancy, has been reborn as a quasi-compulsory annual celebration of Our Brave Soldiers, while veterans are denied benefits, military whistleblowers see their personal details leaked to the media, and the dead are blamed for their own deaths.

But there is an ideological underpinning, with its own internal logic. McKay and Swift describe the enduring attraction of the Anglosphere—the cultural theory that the English-speaking nations have a unique civilizing role in the world. It’s a romantic, largely Victorian, fantasy, which flatters the British and takes some of the sting out of American exceptionalism, all the while celebrating the muscular, but always well-intentioned, use of military force abroad.

There is, of course, another potent but countervailing Canadian myth—peacekeeping. The peacekeeping narrative is important enought to have been the focus of sustained attack by the militaristic pundits and politicians whom the authors call “New Warriors.” UN peacekeeping was largely a Canadian invention (thanks to Lester Pearson’s work during the Suez crisis) and dovetailed with Canadian values of compromise and fair play. Canadian peacekeepers were at their most active during the crucial 30-year period that coincided with the Cold War and the end of European colonial rule.

McKay and Swift view Pearson somewhat ambivalently, portraying him as (at least early in his political career) an enthusiastic cold warrior and supporter of the Anglosphere. He was, however, uniquely positioned to shepherd the Suez resolution through the Security Council, given the political capital he enjoyed with the French and British on the one hand and the US on the other.

Once the Cold War ended, the word “peacekeeping” took on a pejorative edge in Canadian militarist circles, and Canada’s commitment to the institution began to flag. By the mid-1990s, less than 2% of Canadian military were attached to classic UN peacekeeping missions—in large part due to demand from NATO’s expanded (and controversial) role in out-of-area operations.

These new “muscular” military interventions from 1991 onwards didn’t just give new life to NATO-they also gave the armchair warriors a more familiar and reassuring style of military intervention, one which was no longer aimed at keeping the peace but at enforcement, with the Gulf War as its first test.

Even so, Canada’s role in the Gulf War wasn’t enough for some of the New Warriors. Military historian Jack Granatstein wrote that “Canada took part … though rather more hesitantly than I would have wished.” Worse still, the Somalia scandal of 1993 raised questions about military leadership and military culture-questions which the New Warriors took as proof that the forces were under attack from liberals.

The phrase “the decade of darkness” was used by military boosters, without the least bit of irony, to describe the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks. During those years, Canada and other Western countries lacked an existential struggle (as the Soviet empire had previously provided and the phantom of militant Islam was to provide).

The local wars of the 1990s were low-tech-even the Bosnian war relied on small arms and a very localized, almost intimate, violence. When Canadian peacekeepers exchanged fire with Croatian forces in the Medak pocket—the first time since the Korean war that Canadians had engaged directly in a battle, though in reality it was little more than a skirmish—the New Warriors were elated by the evidence that our troops had been “bloodied” and outraged that official Ottawa chose not to publicize the incident.

With the election of Stephen Harper as head of a minority Conservative government in 2006, the New Warriors were able fully to craft their message. Thus we were treated to increasingly bullish justifications for Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan—Jack Layton’s 2006 suggestion that the Western allies talk to the Taliban militias earned him the epithet “Taliban Jack” even as other NATO forces unofficially began carrying out that very policy. And on the home front, we not only had soldiers at citizenship ceremonies but also a much-discussed study guide for prospective citizens:

…readers quickly discover that Canada, past and present, is centrally about war. Warriors are the significant Canadians—no one else is in the running. Of thirty images in the section on Canada’s History, twenty depict plainly military events or figures.

It’s quite possible that the New Warriors’ manipulation of language, appropriation of national symbols, and constant stoking of fear could change the country irreparably. McKay and Swift conclude by noting three factors that could stop the headlong rush into 1984 -style permanent war. Two are beyond our immediate control: economic collapse and environmental crisis. That leaves the third factor: that the New Warriors’ own impulses to attack and polarize may alienate enough people that there is once again space for a civil and peace-oriented discourse in Canadian public life.

Reviewed by Ken Simons, managing editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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