Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About War

[Noah Richler. What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2012.]

I have some major disagreements with some of this book's political premises, as well as significant reservations about its framework. But somehow, despite all of that, I think it does important work and I know it will be very useful to me in some writing I may end up doing in the future.

The basic goal of the book is to trace shifts in public discourse in Canada as it relates to war and militarism, particularly leading up to and during the Canadian involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. In doing so, it documents more thoroughly than anything else I've yet found some of the important elements of what I have come to think of as the militarist cultural offensive through which the political right and elements of the state have been trying to transform Canadian political culture when it comes to war and peace, and perhaps far beyond that. It documents the ferocious, multi-pronged attack on the previously dominant tradition of liberal internationalism by generals, academics, politicians, and pundits, and by co-ordinated efforts by bodies such as the armed forces themselves and the Prime Minister's Office under Harper. Of particular interest to me, it spends quite a bit of time examining how those efforts mobilized the myth of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as well as other imagery and raw material for constructing Canada as what is called here and elsewhere a "warrior nation."

One aspect of the book that was emotionally challenging but probably good for me was its extensive engagement with writing and speechifying from the Canadian right. It made me very aware how little I usually read that kind of material. I mean, I've seen some of the key quotes from key figures. And it's not that I don't engage with material I disagree with -- I do all the time, it's just that when I read things I disagree with, usually they are liberal or left things I disagree with. But this book quotes very extensively from vile figures like General Rick Hillier, columnist Christie Blatchford, historian Jack Granatstein, and many others, and I think it was probably good for me to face in a more sustained way the kinds of odious and ridiculous things that crowd gets away with saying -- their bloody celebration of violence, their delight in empire, and so on. Lots of people take that nonsense seriously, so it's important to be familiar with it.

I was also interested by the author's insistent documentation not only of the explicit rejection of liberal internationalism by the state and elite media figures during the early part of the campaign in Afghanistan, but also liberal internationalism's persistence in the popular imagination in Canada despite that. The book shows that official and elite discourse around Afghanistan later in the war had been pushed to retreat from its outright rejection of liberal internationalism and into a sort of discursive appropriation of it.

One of the key frames for the book is the connection it constantly draws between narrative modes and political sensibilities. It associates liberal internationalism (and post-war social liberalism more generally) with the enlightenment, with a willingness to admit nuance and complexity, and with the novel form. On the other hand, it associates the celebratory militarism and harsh social policies of the Harper gang and their media sponsors with a refusal of complexity, a cultish devotion to a very narrow understanding of the hero, and with the epic story form. On the one hand, I kind of like this. It is an effective metaphor. It captures something important about the way the right in Canada in the last 15 years is distinct from how politics had been done for some decades before that, and it ties it to key elements of rhetorical practice and of distinct ways of narrating the world. On the other hand, I think the book makes rather too much of the novel vs. epic distinction, and it ends up substituting for more grounded, material analysis of what's going on.

Which of course leads to the ways that, despite how useful and compelling I find this book, I also disagree with a lot of its premises. It clearly comes from a place of enthusiastic support for liberal internationalism -- not just a kind of tactical, rhetorical support for it that clearly overlays a more fundamentally critical stance, as in McKay and Swift's Warrior Nation, but an unambiguous identification with it. That is just one element of its fairly standard (though of course eloquently and thoughtfully articulated) liberal romantic understanding of Canada, where things like the fact that colonial settlement in northern Turtle Island more often proceeded by negotiation than by massacre is taken as a sign of not-domination (compared of course to the United States) rather than a sign of domination accomplished by somewhat different means. I do think there are ways in which the distinction between modes of domination matters, but let's not pretend it's something other than it is. And despite quoting a couple of times from people with much more left-wing anti-war politics than the author's, it largely ignores the existence or relevance of that collection of political traditions, and in fact snidely dismisses us in an aside at one point. And in a way you can't blame him, since we have been rather spectacularly ineffective in making our presence unignorable, particularly around the recolonization of Afghanistan. But the fact that this book does so means, conveniently for the author, not having to even bother arguing against left, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist objections to liberal internationalism, the long history of liberal imperialism clothed in humanitarian garb, the inherently colonial character of peacekeeping (a la Sherene Razack's analysis), or the Canadian settler nation and settler state themselves.

And I think its analysis of war is lacking as well. It presents a very dehistoricized understanding, or perhaps more accurately transhistorical understanding, of what war is. I'm sure the author would argue that such an idealized understanding is warranted by looking at the history of war and militarism across different times and places, but I just don't buy it. I think we need to think about war and militarism in ways that keep material, historical circumstances much more closely in mind, and only through doing that will we be able to devise ways to challenge its root causes -- something the author seems to regard as impossible and futile.

Tying both of these criticisms together -- the embrace of liberalism and the dehistoricized analysis of war -- is the failure to recognize how central colonialism (and its legacy in the social organization of contemporary capitalism) are in any and everything that Western states do in terms of war and militarism.

So. If you're looking to understand some of the key events in Canada with respect to Afghanistan and with respect to war and militarism more generally in the last dozen years, this book will be useful to you. If you are looking to develop a broader understanding of war, militarism, and (especially) empire, be sure to read critically, and definitely read far more broadly than just this book.

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

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