Heroes help Canada “punch above its weight”?
Last fall a top public official got a new job in Ottawa. The government made a big deal of it: a lavish ceremony, a 21-gun salute, loud music.
Not for someone as important as, say, the deputy minister of finance. But for the new chief of defence staff.
A year before, Ottawa was the scene of an even more elaborate celebration. The Harper government staged an elaborate ceremony that included a jet fighter fly-past, a choir, a parade and a ceremony in the Senate chamber.
The occasion? Canada had played a small part in bombing Libyans to freedom, and a Canadian officer had overseen the attacks from Italy. The cost to Canadians? $800,000, culminating in that brief spasm of martial glee.
Defence Minister Peter Mackay urged us to welcome back our “military heroes” who, he claimed, had helped Canada “punch above its weight.”
Did the cooks and mechanics who had spent time in Italy see themselves as national heroes? Mackay’s line was picked up. The punching phrase, veteran military-watcher David Pugliese wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, “was soon parroted by generals and defence analysts.”
The victory-in-Libya celebration echoed ancient Rome, when legions paraded before Caesar after putting down the Carthaginians or the Gauls. The US defence secretary was keen on the Canadian commander. “He was tough…he took no prisoners.”
Warrior politicians customarily indulge in high rhetoric when attempting to rally the citizenry round the flag and boost the bloodletting. Or when invoking the glories of past wars. The War of 1812, also glorified by the Harper government this past summer, was no exception.
But those who witness war’s gruesome reality often remember things differently, as do many historians.
“It would be a useful lesson to cold-blooded politicians, who calculate on a war costing so many lives and so many limbs as they would on a horse costing so many pounds,” wrote embittered battlefield surgeon William ‘Tiger’ Dunlop, “to witness such a scene, if only for one hour.”
In his 1847 memoir of Upper Canada, Dunlop recalled treating the wounded, often by amputation. The scene he recommended to callous statesmen unfolded in the withering heat of the ramshackle Butler’s Barracks at Fort George, down the Niagara River from Queenston Heights. Flies lighting on the wounded deposited their eggs so quickly that “maggots were bred in a few hours, producing dreadful irritation…..”
Dunlop worked 48 hours straight before literally falling asleep on his feet. One of the 220 wounded he came upon in a single morning was a gray-haired American farmer whose wife had helped him to struggle across to the enemy side, seeking treatment under a flag of truce. She was “respectable elderly woman,” her husband either a militia man or a camp follower. She held his head in her lap as he slowly expired.
“O that the King and the President were both here this moment to see the misery their quarrels lead to,” Dunlop recalled her moaning. “They surely would never go to war without a cause that they could give as a reason to God on the last day, for thus destroying the creatures he has made in his own image.”
Dunlop, later a prominent politician and magistrate, remembered the poorly planned deployment of medical men like himself as “one of the many blunders of this blundering war.”
Two hundred years later Canada’s prime minister remembers the War of 1812 as “the beginning of a long and proud military history in Canada.” Stephen Harper decided to commemorate the War of 1812 with a $28 million heritage extravaganza, selling to the citizenry what popular historian Pierre Berton called a “bloody and senseless conflict” for the simple reason that it was a war. That’s because Harper and his New Warrior supporters among historians, journalists, and sundry militarists are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of Canadian history.
Military metaphysics, the presentation of war in a pleasing and glorious fashion, are a mere prelude to sure-to-be-much-bigger-and-more-glorious commemorations in the next few years. The centenary of World War I looms large in the minds of war boosters as they prime Canadians to celebrate Vimy and all the rest. Will they romanticize that ghastly spasm of ineptitude in the service of a Birth-of-a-Nation story, all the while airbrushing out its incalculable costs?
The $28 million spent celebrating the War of 1812 could have financed Canada’s recently eliminated Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory for eighteen years. But the New Warrior government has other priorities, among them underlining the historical importance of yet another milestone in the history of barbarity.
According to Stephen Harper (or one of his hirelings), the war helped establish Canada’s “path toward becoming an independent and free country…. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”
This though there was no such thing as Canada at the time. The famously undefended border has become a militarized “security perimeter.” And few Canadians are known to indulge in patriotic displays of flag-saluting.
No matter. Canada is being treated to sanitized glorifications and events designed to attract tourists. In June 2012 the anniversary of the Battle of Stoney Creek brought re-enactors to suburban Hamilton. The affair featured music, costumes, games, readings, tours, and certainly musket fire.
New York historian Douglas DeCroix’s summary of the dust-up at Stoney Creek was sardonic. The battle, he explained, was “in many ways representative of the War of 1812 in microcosm. The American commanders are captured. The British commander gets lost in the woods. The Americans are technically defeated but retain the field. The British are victorious but they retreat.”
Such is not the message being peddled by Ottawa. Nor are Canadians being reminded how profoundly the British double-crossed their crucial allies. Although Tecumseh is celebrated as a hero, the fact that First Nations people were the war’s real losers tends to be downplayed. After 1814, with the Treaty of Ghent in which the British negotiators betrayed the native claims, the First Nations came to be treated as “wards of the state,” not separate entities. And the dream of a native-controlled polity in the heart of North America—to which the British had given their tentative support—was gone for good.
What remains is the war’s curious paradox: reflected New Warrior attempts to commemorate the American invasion and the violence it provoked. This became clear in early 2003 as a surge of protest against the impending American invasion of another country culminated in the largest demonstrations in world history.
Just as American and British troops rolled into Iraq, Niagara region war zealots organized a “Canadians for Bush” rally, picking an odd spot for their modest get-together: Brock’s Monument at Queenston. The irony seemed lost on the prominent politicians who attended. They included Ontario cabinet ministers Jim Flaherty and Tim Hudak as well as former Canadian Alliance leader and prime ministerial candidate Stockwell Day.
Day’s new boss, Stephen Harper, really did want Canada to follow George W. Bush into a war that would, as so many predicted at the time, turn into a murderous and catastrophic blunder.
Harper had told a similar Their-County-Right-Or-Wrong rally in Toronto that he supported “the liberation of the people of Iraq. Let us pledge today, that in the future, when our American and British friends and our friends around the world take on the cause of freedom and democracy….”
Canadians concerned about the martial makeover of their country may be reminded of the concerns raised by Paul Fussell, the American veteran and cultural historian. Fussell, who died just as Ottawa’s War of 1812 publicity blitzkrieg was getting under way this spring, wrote The Great War and Modern Memory, a hugely important book about war and remembrance. He dedicated his masterwork to “Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772 Co. F, 401th Infantry, killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945.”
“War,” Fussell warned, “has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.”
Lest we forget.
Jamie Swift and Ian McKay are co-authors of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Between The Lines, 2012), which explores these themes.