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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Marching As to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years, 1899-1953

Reviewed: October 30, 2002
By: Pierre Berton
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
632 Pages, $45.00

Sometimes projects take unexpected turns and end up not quite where you think they are going to go. This book, as it turns out, is the final version of the work that I recall discussing with Pierre Berton when he was last in Dawson. He was going to work on a history of Canada in the 20th century he told me, looking a bit grey and tired after a major bout of illness, but still pushing himself to do his best for the documentary crew which was producing a biography for “Life and Times”.

I don’t know how often Berton has been willing to admit that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, but that was the case here. He finally decided that at least half of the time period he wanted to cover was too new and raw for his particular method, that “evidence I would need for the later decades was not yet available.”

Like a good scholar and journalist, he pared away at the original concept until he could see it working. What he discovered was that the years 1899-1953 had something in common. Canada was either responding to, involved in, or recovering from a call to arms for most of that time, and the nature of that response had clear implications for much of what would happen later on.

The bookends of this period can be seen in the prelude and coda to this history. The Age of Faith still existed at the end of the 19th century. It was still possible to believe in the notions of patriotism at any cost and military service to one’s nation as the highest civic good. By the end of the period, Lester Pearson had seen enough to cause him to begin fashioning the image of Canada as an honest broker and peace keeper, an image which is now under siege by the bellicosity of President Bush to the south of us and the hordes of Al-Qaeda-like terrorists at war against all things Western throughout the world.

Had he been writing just a bit later on Berton might have noted that those wars of that half-century were typically European/Western concoctions, springing from extensions of 19th century social, military and economic philosophies such as imperialism, communism, positivism and their logical or illogical extensions into the real world. Their proponents would claim them to be rational philosophies, for the age of religious faith was already on the wane in the West.  A recent set of articles in the Atlantic Monthly suggests that part of the problem we in the North (Europe and North America) have right now is that we are not equipped to understand the resurgence of faith in the Southern and Eastern nations. We do not understand that martyrs are not motivated by politics.

It is not a startlingly new idea to say that Canada grew up as a result of having deal with four wars in 50 years. There are those who look at our continued celebration of the British monarchy and say that we haven’t managed it yet, but I think that’s a misreading of a bit of harmless nostalgia on our part. 

When the Boer War came along in 1899 we were ready jump up and support the Brits in spite of the fact that it was a nasty little imperialist venture that had no relish of goodness in it. It refined the idea of concentration camps so deftly appropriated by Herr Hitler and Uncle Joe Stalin later on, and led directly to the horrors of apartheid. In spite of all that, we did rather well there and enhanced our image.

The next affair was the so-called Great War, later called World War One and sometimes even as the European Civil War, Part One. It has been better than 60 years since anyone tried to pretend that this war was about anything other than national aggrandisement and “mine’s bigger than yours” thinking. It was a bloody, awful affair, and we acquitted ourselves well in it, though we were ill-prepared and usually ill-led. The big national issue was conscription, which drew an imaginary line down the ethnic middle of central Canada.

Berton sees the Second World War as the only war of the century actually worth fighting, really about good versus evil in a sense that the age of faith might have accepted, but admits that it, too, was unnecessary. It grew out of the backlash against the horrors of WW I and the pettiness of the Treaty of Versailles. The former guaranteed that no one would be tough minded enough to stem the growth of German aggressiveness caused by the latter.

Once again, conscription was the big issue on the home front. Berton insists that Quebecois who saw no point in fighting in Europe were no worse (and perhaps better) than those tens of thousands of Anglos who volunteered for service at home so that they could avoid service overseas. Never mind that. The separatist land ploughed in 1914-18 was seeded in 1939-45 and we are still seeing the crop, though it may seem a bit dry and tired at the moment.

Then there was Korea, the war that everyone thought was going to be like WW II and ended up being more like WW I, thus providing more proof for the adage that the military are always ready for the wrong war, usually the one just before the one we’re fighting.

We could extend that idea into the current fracas, a war in which the old notion of strategic targets seems to have been replaced by targets of opportunity, making it difficult, if not impossible to apply the logic learned during the 35 years of the Cold War to this new hot conflict. But then, this is more like the nihilist/anarchist activity that ignited the powder keg that was Europe in 1914. Serbian anarchists didn’t make the powder keg, mind you, but they helped to set it off, struggling against the hegemony of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in ways that look similar to the struggle some fanatics seem to think they have to wage against the USA.

I could go on here. but I’m running past my column space. I need to mention that this book is just full of references to Dawson City, where Berton lived on and off while he was experiencing some of the changes he has written about here. In particular there is a long section on post WW I war memorials which begins in Victory Gardens and spins out from there until it touches down all over the country. It’s neat that he would use this obscure cenotaph to introduce the whole WW I section of this history. When it comes to Dawson City, Pierre Berton includes it in the national tapestry every chance he gets.

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