Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: Warlords

[Tim Cook. Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars. Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012.]

On a certain level, I enjoyed reading this book. But it also embodies many ways of relating to history that I find quite objectionable.

Written by a well-known Canadian military historian, Warlords tells the story of Canada in the First and Second World Wars through the lens of the two men who were Prime Minister during the respective conflicts, Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Notwithstanding the 85 pages of bibliography and notes at the end, it reads like it was written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly audience -- it is engaging, fairly brisk in pace, and not overburdened with detail, though it does cover a lot of ground and is not a short book. The writing moves easily and effectively back and forth between the leader and the broader social story, and I quite appreciate ways of telling history that make that move between individual life and social world. Despite all that I have to say in the rest of this review, I read the book eagerly, particularly the portion covering the First World War, which is history I'm a bit less familiar with.

That said, my objections to the book, and perhaps more importantly to the many mainstream ways of relating to history that it embodies, are considerable. For one thing, I think the book's focus is a major problem. Of course anyone can write a book about whatever they please, and I'm not arguing otherwise, but I have written quite pointedly before about my objections to the subdiscipline of military history. Not all of what I wrote about the book I was reviewing in that post is quite as acutely applicable to this book, but much of it is still relevant, including my horror at how unremarkable it is for us to write about wars past in ways that show no concern at all about preventing wars future. As well, trying to understand the history of a place or a people by focusing on so-called "great men" and on wars, as this book does, is not only depressingly common in conventional history, particularly conventional history meant to have lay appeal, but also a major political problem that we need to work against. Whether it makes this kind of claim explicitly or not, by the very space it takes up in widespread imaginings of what "history" is and should be, history with this kind of focus depends on and reproduces a spectrum of narrow, specific, inaccurate, and destructive assumptions about self, nation, the motion of history, and the way the social world is put together. (And it does this, I hasten to add, without any requirement for any particular fact that it presents to be inaccurate or wrong.)

Then there's the title. From how he talks about it, the author seems to have a kind of uneasy relationship with the title as well, perhaps because, as the story he tells makes very clear, Borden and (particularly) Mackenzie King bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sorts of figures conjured by the word "warlord," and even for a co-operative reader it takes a little work on the author's part to make it plausible. I can imagine a number of different scenarios leading to this title despite the uneasy fit, some based in marketing imperatives and others based in either actively pursuing or passively riding upon the push in the last decade or two to militarize Canadian history. Regardless of the author's actual intent, it is a particularly egregious example of forcing a foregrounding of war when it doesn't particularly make sense, and certainly feels consistent with an agenda of re-visioning Canadian history in a militarized way.

In reading this book, I also was able to clarify for myself another sort of concern that I have with many conventional approaches to history. My concern is related to the ways in which writing about the past does or does not make judgements about that past. It's a basic tenet of academic history that it is a bad practice to project contemporary standards of evaluation into history. On a certain level, I think this is a valid concern, as there are lots of ways that agendas or preoccupations or ways of judging things that are grounded in the present can be completely inappropriate, even nonsensical or actively harmful, when they are pushed in an uncritical way into evaluating the events of years past. At the same time, this imperative can be one of the many paths that lead in liberal scholarship to hiding the knower that is doing the knowing -- history is always an activity in the present focused on the past, and I think we're better off acknowledging that and recognizing its inevitable embeddedness in the present than pretending we can disconnect ourselves from that fact. In any case, from what I have seen, one way in which this imperative against imposing anachronistic judgement on the past can be enacted is to restrict judgement solely to questions that might be characterized in a technocratic, apolitical sort of way as "accuracy." Or, it can be taken to mean making judgements that are a bit more actively evaluative of what given historical agents have done, but are careful to do so in a way that is entirely context bound (such as evaluating the decisions of battle commanders in military history and declaring them wise or foolish). This book tended towards the latter. Which is not, in and of itself, necessarily a problem. I'm not necessarily against that sort of ground-level evaluation done in context, though I wasn't always comfortable with how it was done in this book. At points it came across as a bit gossipy, in that it was evaluating the men, their decisions, and their characters in ways that seemed unnecessary and a bit beside the point of the overall narrative. And given the book's apparent lay focus and its broad scope, there was often little or no detail about what underlay a given evaluation of Borden or Mackenzie King, so at times judgements appeared to be ungrounded -- I'm not saying they were, but some certainly came across that way.

Worse than those things, though, is that allowing judgement only in such narrow scope gives historians an out for making political decisions whose political character is concealed. For instance, I think it is perfectly possible and reasonable (not to mention desireable) to approach the history of the First World War with clear, contemporary anti-war intent and to do so in a way that is not inappropriately presentist. On the other hand, if you start from the premise of telling the stories of elite men and state institutions in wartime, and you are committed to a methodology that only allows you to make judgements on a very close-to-the-ground level -- was Borden warranted in making decision X, or was it a bad move? etc. -- then you foreclose the possibility of asking deeper questions about the circumstances and social relations that drew a world into war. Not asking those questions is as intensely political a decision as asking them, but you are effectively hiding the political essence of the decision behind disciplinary norms or methodological necessity and pretending that there was nothing political about it at all.

The book seemed to have a bit of an anti-left bias, too. Of course all of the above, from the book's focus to its bland acceptance of norms that silently exclude critical questioning, could be seen as anti-left bias as well, but I mean it in a more specific and content-driven way: There were a number of historical events about which I know a certain amount from other sources that were given summary descriptions in the book that I just don't think were accurate, and they were inaccurate in ways that are unfair to the left. For instance, the characterization of the Spanish Civil War paints it as a struggle between extremists that Canada and the other liberal democracies were wise to ignore, omitting the fact that it began as a fascist uprising against an elected government; implying the entire Republican side was subservient to Moscow instead of being a complicated coalition among Communists, non-Communist socialists of various stripes, labour formations, and anarchists; and making it sound like both sides were equally bad. Similarly, its brief mention of the Canadian federal government's internment of leftists during the Second World War again just assumes that those who were detained were in fact mostly Communists and that Communists were rightly considered to be unsavoury and worth detaining -- never mind that after 1942 the Communist Party was incredibly active in its support of the war effort (including at points opposing autonomous struggles by workers to improve their wages and conditions), and that a significant proportion of those detained were not Communists at all but unaffiliated leftists whose main interest was standing up for workers who were being mistreated and trying to leverage a slightly higher proportion of the war profits from the owners who were getting them and into paycheques that still often amounted to Depression-era wages. And the brief characterization of the Gouzenko affair similarly villainizes the left and says little or nothing critical of the liberal capitalist state.

I'm not sure quite what to recommend re. this book. It's well written and it contains useful information -- I read it with a purpose, and I found the sorts of things I was hoping to find. I also want to stress that most of the the objections I have to what it does are hardly unique to it. Yet the ease with which I'm sure this book gets read as an entertaining and fairly blandly informational text, with its intensely political character made invisible, continues to be upsetting to me, as does my complete confidence that a different book on the same general theme that made equally political but politically very different choices would be dismissed as outrageous, biased, and not worth reading. Such are the politics of relating in the present to the past, I suppose.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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