Worrying and Love the Great War
By Ian McKay and Jamie
Swift. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016. 372 pages, $22.93.
Canadian identity. McKay, an academic,
and Swift, a journalist, have spent their careers examining Canadian history
and institutions from a left-wing perspective. As their book’s title snarky title suggests,
they reject the idea that Vimy was a foundational moment when a true Canadian
identity and nation were born. This
provocative book is intended for a general audience, and is clearly intended to
challenge a history that we have gotten very comfortable with.
their best when describing the process by which Vimy Ridge became an iconic
battle for Canada. While tactically
successful, Vimy Ridge did not have a strategic result. In fact, Vimy was the sole bright spot in the
failed Anglo-French Arras offensive of April 1917. Other Canadian actions, such as the Hundred
Days in 1918, had far more effect on the outcome of the war. However, Vimy was the first time that the
Canadian Corps had fought together, (albeit with significant British support),
a point of pride to Canadians who took part in the fighting.
war there was disagreement as to whether Vimy should be selected over other
Canadian battlefields (Hill 62 in the Ypres Salient was a candidate) to be the
site of a national memorial. By 1922 Vimy
had been selected, in part because the scenic view, and the contract for the
design of a monument was awarded to Walter Allward, The driving force for the Vimy memorial came
from William Mackenzie King, who first became Prime Minister in 1921. As McKay and Swift note, King was a pacifist,
and saw the Vimy monument as a way to condemn the “futility of war” while
acknowledging the coming together of all Canadians in a great common
cause. Allward, the designer, wanted the
Vimy monument to be a “sermon against the futility of war”.
McKay and Swift’s main
thesis is that this ideal of a monument to peace was hijacked by a
militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian history that ignored the horrors
of World War One. The authors describe
this view as “Vimyism”, meaning a glorification and simplification of war, a
desire to see Canada as always being on the side of right, and to see the
battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation that was in fact far from
unified. This idea of “Vimyism”, which
becomes a long screed against militarism, is where McKay and Swift overplay
their hand while pointing at some important truths.
right to remind us that Canada had no common or romanticised understanding of
war in the decades after 1918. There
was a sizeable peace movement, fueled by trade unions, unemployment, social
issues, pacifist clergy, and antiwar soldier writers such as Charles Yale
Harrison, whose novel Generals Die In Bed
(1928) is often hailed as the Canadian version of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. However, in the late 1930s Canadian pacifism
largely gave way to a grudging belief that a war against Nazi Germany was
necessary. “Vimyism”, claim the
authors, developed in the last fifty years as a whitewashed version of Canada’s
military history, so that Vimy is portrayed by everyone from Pierre Berton to
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a glorification of Canada’s military history
and a celebration of a common Canadian resolve to fight tyranny and win.
the authors argue that for Vimyism to succeed as the myth of Canada’s birth in
fire, much has to be forgotten, from the horrors of war as described by
Harrison, to French Canada’s alienation from the war, the segregation of black
Canadian soldiers in construction units, and the poor treatment of indigenous
soldiers who did not receive proper pensions.
Vimyism for Swift and McKay also means forgetting the injustice of
shooting of twenty-two Canadian soldiers, many of them young and
psychologically wounded, for cowardice.
From the sales of war toys in the gift shop of the Canadian War Museum
to Vimy tours for schoolchildren, the authors cast a wide net in looking for evidence of Vimyism as a
false but “uplifting and sacred story of [Canadian] origins” that betrays the
true horror of war. To prosecute their
case, McKay and Swift often use “what about” arguments, like supposedly noble
Canadian soldiers executing prisoners or employing poison gas, or snide
dismissals such as the comment that military intelligence and martial music are
contradictions in terms. All of these arguments
are intended to expose Vimyism as a lie, though one can ask whether it’s fair
to judge the Canada of 1917 by today’s standards.
It’s hard to imagine
any members of the Canadian Armed Force embracing The Vimy Trap, though I suspect that this would not bother McKay
and Swift, who seem to see militaries as part of the problem. Contrary to McKay and Swift, it is possible
to see Vimy in a way that is free of myth and romanticism while still
recognizing it as an important battle.
Indeed that was how its participants saw it. Sergeant Percy Wilmot of NS, who died of
wounds after the battle, wrote that “Canada may well be proud of [our]
Vimy Trap is nevertheless useful as an opportunity to reflect on how the
CAF uses military history to perpetuate its values. Young NCMs are frequently taken on tours of
Vimy Ridge and other First World War battlefields. In my experience, when our members see cemeteries
full of Canadians as young or even younger than themselves, they are not moved
to militaristic zeal. In fact, quite the
reverse. Older members with combat
experience immediately connect the war dead with their own friends and comrades
lost or wounded in Afghanistan.
Militarism for the CAF is not the problem. Perhaps for our leadership, the challenge
is to use places like Vimy Ridge honestly, as historical moments, stripped of myth
and full of pain and horror, yet still capable of teaching the military ethos
of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical skill, and aggressiveness.