Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: Warrior Nation

[Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012.]

The idea that the well-funded and aggressively waged campaign by the Harper government, important state institutions like the military, their supposedly-but-not-really independent extensions into the population like the Legion, many elements of the dominant media, the grassroots right-wing, and Don Cherry is not just about its ostensible object -- the military itself -- but about transforming the nation, our imaginations, and our expectations for life is far from new. I think the first time I wrote about it was at least five or six years ago, and I certainly didn't come up with it myself. Nonetheless, there has been curiously little writing, conversation, and action on the broader Canadian left to flesh out this insight and to act against it. I think this lack is connected both to the almost complete inability in the last decade of organizers to turn passive but solidly anti-war public opinion into action that might actually challenge Canadian complicity in war and empire, and to the success of said right-wing campaign in mobilizing a significant chunk of the centre-left into both a deeply felt support for some aspects of it (e.g. "support our troops") and an often willfully held ignorance by such centre-left supporters about the actual political implications of that support. This book, a collaboration between one of Canada's foremost academic left historians and a long-time writer on social justice issues, is a welcome attempt to change that.

The book is both polemic and popular history. It weaves together the broad sweep of events, moments of focus on the biographies of key individuals, and the drama of specific controversies. It extends from the earliest days of what later became a specifically Canadian military (as opposed to an undifferentiated extension of the British imperial military) in the late 19th century and some of its connections to colonial action in Africa, up to the present day. McKay and Swift trace a trajectory from origins in the British empire to the Pearsonian liberalism of the middle and late twentieth century to the project of the "new warriors" and "warrior nation" that is ascendant but still not hegemonic today. The project that the book takes up is important and the authors do some important work towards realizing it, and I hope it stimulates lots of discussion and further action.

In the spirit of such discussion and action, I also have a number of concerns that spring from the book but are very much relevant to the political questions we have to try and answer as we move forward. The first has to do with where the book starts. Its authors would, I'm sure, have no hesitation at all about acknowledging the significance and the horror of colonization on Turtle Island, and indeed I think there are moments where that happens in passing in the book. But I think not starting in a substantive way with that particular piece of militarist and imperial history in this part of the world means that later moments of their account do not centre the colonial past and present as vigorously as they could -- they don't deny it, but it isn't as central as it needs to be when considering Canadian society and its relationship to the military in the middle of the twentieth century and in the early years of the twenty-first. And I think we can't let that drift too far from our field of vision, because it is an important antidote to taking too seriously the myths of Canadian innocence and virtue that have always been so central to how Pearsonian liberalism and its permutations hid the uninterrupted complicity in war and empire in the garb of peacekeeing and supposed benevolence.

Related to that is the fact that it feels that the book never quite finds a rhetorically stable and politically solid way to talk about the phase of Canadian behaviour in the world immediately preceding the Harper right's attempted turn towards hard nationalism and glorified militarism. It's not that it does not talk about the flaws and problems of, for instance, peacekeeping and its role in the progressive Canadian self-image -- it's very clear about Canadian complicity in the U.S.-lead destruction of Vietnam and surrounding countries, for instance. And it's not that it entirely buys into the self-deception necessary for the left-nationalist nostalgia for an independent Canada that never was. Yet in its efforts to illustrate the character and direction of the current shift, it allows far more of those harmful myths that dominate the narratives of progressive Canadians to enter into its accounts than I think it should if it really wants to direct discussion in politically useful ways. Sometimes it makes clear that the "before" was not at all the benevolent glory that contemporary left-liberals deceive themselves into believing, but at other times it does not do nearly enough to make clear that while the "after" is worse than the "before", we really need to remember that it is a transition between "deeply troubling complicity in violence and empire" to "even worse complicity in violence and empire." It's possible that there was some deliberate political calculation in how it talks about it all. I'm skeptical, but I'd be willing to talk about whether deliberate mobilization of centre-left nostalgia for good ol' days that never were is worth mobilizing in an attempt to create a future that is not just better than today but better than the past they mis-remember. But my starting position in those discussions is that anything other than ruthless refusal to romanticize the myth of the peacekeeper or to allow even momentary soft-focus semi-erasure of Canadian complicity in violence and empire is not going to help us get to where we want to go.

It's not really the focus of this book, which is both historical and centred on the military and militarism, but one of the things that I think is most intriguingly lacking in even clearly left-of-centre discourse in the last ten years is detailed examination of how the mobilization of certain sentiments through military symbols and actions abroad is part of a larger program of social transformation. There is some of this in the book, and there are bits and pieces you can find elsewhere -- and I certainly haven't done much to investigate or write about it myself -- but it has always struck me that there is a lot more to be said about exactly how it is all happening, and I think I hoped that more of that would be in this book.

And, finally, I think there is lots more to say and think about deeper questions about how the trajectories described in this book connect to elementary aspects of current social relations. Again, I don't think the authors of this book would need much convincing that these are important questions, and it just wasn't their project here, but I think we need more people doing more work to produce movement-grounded, materialist explorations of how the transition at the centre of this book relates to basic aspects of social organization and socially organized collective identification. I think that effectively working against even the more immediate aspects of the transition to a more overt and celebratory complicity in war and empire requires having those conversations about deeper questions as we do the work.

I think this is a much-needed book and I'm glad to see that it is getting as much discussion as it is among left-inclined folks in Canada. And I hope the discussion that it sparks broadens and expands so that we might inch ourselves towards an approach that will actually begin mobilizing people in a more-than-fringe way to challenge Canadian complicity in war and empire.

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

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