Saturday, October 02, 2010

Review: Vimy Ridge

[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.

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


thwap said...

Well, you know, for a long time, as a history student, i ignored war history because to me, amateur "war buffs" were militarist geeks. Armchair warriors getting a vicarious thrill reading about battles and imagining they'd liked to have fought in them. It seemed more like a problematic form of entertainment than serious history.

But a couple of years ago it became evident that a lot happens in war. Wars change things and major courses of human history get powerfully diverted by the outcome of a single battle sometimes. Political and technological changes arise out of the hot-house atmosphere of war.

Still and all, military historians tend to be a reactionary lot. Their grasp of military information tends to crowd-out their abilities to note the things you discussed.

There's an apparently respectable book about the huge importance of World War I for English Canada at the time. There were a lot of small towns that made relatively huge sacrifices of young men to the war and then and ever after they told themselves that the conflict HAD to have been "worth it" or else their young men dying in the mud to stop one empire expanding at the expense of another empire was meaningless.

Scott said...

Yes, I agree that histories that talk about war can be important, and that it is a shame (speaking generally) that such history is largely treated in a narrow and reactionary way. I think it is particularly important to think about because the popularized version of military history tends to be one that a relatively sizeable group of non-academics pay attention to...for example, I haven't watched The History Channel in ages, but from what I remember a vastly disproportionate chunk of its programming has to do with war.

Do you happen to know what the name of that book on WWI and English Canada is? I think I might like to read it, again in the service of this vague notion I have of a writing project about English Canadian nationalism. Also, do you know of any left-inflected histories of WWI as a whole?

thwap said...


Sorry, no. I remember reading a review for it as part of my grad studies almost ten years ago.

word verification = "pyrotche"

The pyrotchenics of war.

Doug Nesbitt said...

Thanks for writing this review. When I was in high school I used to read military history all the time, but got over it as I moved to the left with the whole Seattle/Quebec City anti-globalization moment. Now I'm working on a PhD focusing on social movements in the early years of Confederation and I find myself grappling with the connections between the Fenian Raids of 1866-1871 and the Irish underclass in Canadian cities. There's something really interesting going on in terms of muted republican aspirations among Irish workers in Canada expressing themselves in some pretty explosive incidents of urban disorder, especially in the depths of the 1870s depression.

Sadly, the military historians and old school political historians are the only ones to have studied the Fenian Raids. The military historians dismiss them outright because of their bungled and failed campaigns, while the political historians dismiss them as being politically irrelevant because they were militarily weak. As a result, nobody has really bothered to investigate the role of the massive militia mobilizations against the Fenians (the biggest mobilizations since the 1837-38 rebellions) and the role these mobilizations played in suppressing republican/Fenian sympathies in cities like Saint John which were not only hotbeds of anti-Confederation opposition but places with big numbers of immigrant Irish workers (which would later lead a failed general strike in 1875, a strike that nobody has published anything on). This is just an example of how I think military history has to be done, but done in a completely different, integrated way.

I think historians (especially historian-activists) who are sickened, like you are, by current military history should seriously consider doing military history themselves, bridging it with studies of state formation, labor movements, radicalism (including any and all rank-and-file soldiers' dissent against officers and politicians), government abuses of prisoners, citizens, and non-citizens, and war profiteering.

A good step in this direction has been taken by Benjamin Isitt in his recently published book on the soldiers conscripted to fight the Bolsheviks in 1918-19 and how they mutinied before they boarded the ship headed to Vladivostok from Victoria. I also know someone at Carleton who is doing a doctorate on the labor movement's campaign for income tax in World War One as part of a "Conscript Wealth" anti-war movement. I think this is the direction we need to go - exploding foundational Canadian myths is essential.

Anyway, thanks for the great post and great blog.

Scott said...

Thanks Doug!

Your work sounds fascinating, as do both of those pieces of recent work that you mention connected to WWI. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of doing military history in new, critical ways...I mean, I like the idea politically, but am not sure on a personal level that it would be how I would want to focus my attention. Though I suppose the still-vague maybe-project I read this book for could end up looking something like military history...

Anyway, I haven't had a chance yet to do more than glance at it, but I look forward to reading your work over on your site!

emintelligencer said...

This post is included at History Carnival #92.

Scott said...

Thanks for the link, emintelligencer!