[Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, Mike Bechtold, editors. Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.]
I recognize that the analysis I am about to present is unlikely to be very popular, and I suspect that its intense dissonance with widely cherished illusions will prevent lots of potential readers from engaging with what I have to say in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, I'm going to say it: Though this book is professional, competent, and thorough, if a bit boring, I find the fact that such a book can exist as an unremarkable and authoritative contribution to a dominant discourse to be a sign of deep and tragic social pathology.
When evaluated uncritically in light of the dominant standards of the institutional locations of which it is a product, this book fares quite well. Vimy Ridge was a battle in France during the First World War in which Canadian troops were able to win a victory where French and British troops had previously failed. From the newspaper reports the morning after the battle to rallying speeches by Stephen Harper today, it has been made into a powerful symbol of (English) Canadian nationalism, and so it has received rather more scholarly attention than it might have otherwise. This book is the combined effort of a new generation of military historians to reexamine and re-think the battle.
The organization of the book is straightforward and methodical. It begins with some immediate context in terms of the fighting to that point that had occurred in that area and on the Western Front more broadly (though essentially no larger context of any kind). It then goes through the lead-up to the battle and the battle itself with an essay on each of the four Canadian divisions involved, and other essays on various specialized components of the army that took part, like the engineers and the medical corps. It looks a little bit at the roles that the Canadian troops took in the months after the battle, and then has a couple of essays examining the legacy of the battle in the Canadian imagination, one that looks at war poetry and the other that looks at the history of the monument later built on the battlefield.
I found the bits that talked about the social organization of the mass violence we call war to be somewhat interesting -- though this was not the intent, the illustration of the continuity between capitalist organization of production and capitalist organization of mass violence was striking. I think the bits talking about Canadian nationalism will be potentially useful to me, given that some vague notions about future critical writing on English Canadian nationalism is what prompted me to read this book in the first place. And the detailed accounts of troop movements and the like I found to be mind numbingly boring.
The "reassessment" promised by the subtitle is not anything approaching the critical endeavour that I had initially hoped for. Still, within the painfully narrow bounds defined by military history, it is not insignificant. In particular, it takes on the elements of the dominant Vimy mythology which paint it as a purely Canadian victory, as a product of Canadian tactical innovation, and as a major contribution to future victories. In fact, there was a much larger British contribution to the event than usually recognized, the tactical innovations that were implemented were neither uniquely Canadian nor explanatory for the victory (given that many British units on the same front fighting with the same tactics at the same time made little headway), and the actual importance of Vimy in terms of the larger Allied war effort was in fact relatively minor and it is only its role in subsequent Canadian nationalisms that has lead to it being treated so reverently.
So. Okay. Those paragraphs you just read? Those are me being tactful and restrained.
I found this book horrifying. The norms expressed in the standards of military history (in tight connection with powerful norms in the broader culture) which make it entirely unremarkable to write bland, factual narratives about deliberate and preventable mass slaughter are a sign of awful social sickness. There all kinds of places that this sort of thing happens, of course -- that it is seen as entirely unremarkable to write or talk about something awful and violent and oppressive in ways that only superficially acknowledge the awfulness, if at all. Military history, as an institutionally legitimated subdiscipline of academic history as well as related popular writings, is a prime example of this phenomenon but one that seldom occasions much comment outside of very limited circles. But what does it say about us that we think nothing of the majority of our academic and popular writing about war being done in such a way that it implies, even as it makes superficial obligatory nods towards horror and death, that what really matters is the nationality of the senior officers involved or the details of a how a certain tactic was propagated or what time of day the Fourth Canadian Division reached its objectives? What does it say that we treat as unremarkable and thoroughly normal writing about the kind of mass, awful, pointless violence that occurred in the First World War that is not primarily oriented around raging against it?
And it isn't just the immediate violence that is the issue, either. Military history, as far as I have observed and as represented in this book, also has no space for recognizing the oppressive character of the British Empire, the Canadian state, or English Canadian nationalism. Vast areas of how the world works are assumed and placed beyond question in ways that are almost invisible simply by what questions are asked and how they are answered. This conceals massive amounts of violence and oppression in which the national "we" at the heart of standard military history (and much other conventional history as well) are implicated. It is writing about the past that allows, even encourages, us to avoid difficult and painful questions about the present.
I find it particularly striking in this book because it is about the First World War. The dominant grounding for ideas about war in the Canadian popular imagination is the Second World War. Now, I think that deserves serious critical reexamination as well, but that is not necessary for this post because the particular circumstances that allow the Second World War to pose as "The Good War" have no relevance to the First World War. The side of the conflict that we are taught was "our side" was an empire -- the most powerful empire in the world. It was acting to preserve its imperial power, which it had used to wreak horrible violence and indignity on indigenous popularions in Africa, Asia, and the Americas over the course of centuries. It's allies were entities like Tsarist Russia, whose social organization was still only a stone's throw past feudalism, and Belgium, whose rulers had massacred millions of Africans only a decade before. There is absolutely no basis for any narrative that poses "our side" as "good" and "the Hun" as "evil" (especially when you factor in the role that the behaviour of "our side" upon victory played in setting the stage for the Nazi horrors of future decades. An aside: did you know that Germany's final payment of the devastating reparations imposed on it by the victors in the First World War is happening tomorrow?!?) Though I'm not yet prepared to make this argument in detail, my sense is that there is much, much more basis for a narrative of the First World War that is about elites in within global colonial patriarchal capitalist social relations killing millions of each other's working-class citizens in a quest for global dominance. How is it appropriate for anyone to write anything about this that does not focus on how awful it was, how unnecessary it was, and how important it is to engage in social change work to make sure that such a thing never happens again?
(And for anyone tempted to write a comment full of indignation about respecting "Canadian heroes" and whatnot, though there is a much larger argument about that which I'm sure I'll write at some point, for the moment I'll just preemptively point you towards a piece by Robert Jensen.)
Finally, there is something about the place that Vimy Ridge holds in the mainstream Canadian imagination that is, for all of these reasons, also horrifying to me. What does it say about us that this moment of violence in a larger orgy of violence organized as part of the competition for colonial and capitalist dominance is praised as some glorious national right of passage by people as various as our current hard-right Prime Minister and left-liberal author Pierre Berton? It doesn't say anything good, I don't think -- understandable, perhaps, given the social relations that have shaped us, but not good.
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