I’ve got a statement and a question for you.
First, I got a book signed by Gwynne Dyer this week.
Second, should we just let the Middle East go to hell?
Most of you don’t know who Gwynne Dyer is, and some of you don’t care, but Dyer is a fantastic military historian, journalist, and theorist. He’s been a reservist in three different navies, and he’s ‘old breed’ enough to not care about stating his opinion in a vivid and earthy fashion.
Dyer was speaking at the university I recently graduated from, and, lacking more amusing pursuits, I was in the audience. The subject of Dyer’s talk was ostensibly the effect of the Great War on the Canadian psyche, but it quickly became clear that what he really was discussing was Canada’s predisposition to follow the great powers into foreign conflicts.
After all, in the last 100 years Canada has been involved in two world wars, a half-dozen NATO actions, several ‘peace-keeping’ missions, and Afghanistan. We seem to be more than willing to throw ourselves into military action, which is a rarity among other similarly sized or politically liberal countries. Why is it always Canada that follows the U.S. into combat, and not, say, Argentina or Norway?
In Dyer’s opinion, our national predisposition is a result of a precedent set as early as the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), during which Canada sent a formation of volunteers to assist the British regulars. This action was ultimately viewed on both sides of the ocean as a promise of Canadian assistance in future conflicts involving the empire, and consequently an instant reversal of the previous status quo. After all, through most of the 19th century British troops stationed in Canada protected the country from potential American aggression, while Canadians provided only their loyalty to the Empire.
According to Dyer, 65,000 Canadians died in WWI (many more were injured), and Canadian involvement would have led to an internal war between anglophones and francophones if the greater conflict had continued into 1919. Canada, which had absolutely no reason to involve itself in a war on the European continent, did so almost entirely out of patriotic loyalty. Of course, most thought that the Great War would be another short war in which participants would be “home by Christmas,” but that perspective (of war as recreational pursuit) makes Canada’s involvement even more puzzling.
Dyer didn’t really explore the yellow journalism of the era, or the political manipulations of public opinion in Canada, but his question is an interesting one. As the Great War escalated, Canadians were forced to evaluate why they were fighting in such a conflict, and whether or not they should keep fighting. Unable (in Dyer’s opinion) to cut their losses and escape the conflict without dishonoring those soldiers who had already died in the cause, Canadians instead chose to invest further in what they began to consider a ‘moral’ war. In the 19th century war was still considered an acceptable political strategy, whereas the escalation of total war in the 20th required a similar escalation in the rhetoric and ideology of conflict. As the Canadian casualties mounted, so did the national commitment to a narrative of absolute struggle. The vengeful Treaty of Versaille was the end result of this narrative, as it sought to burden Germany with the entire responsibility for the war, as well as the financial and economic cost of the conflict.
Dyer claimed that Versaille was directly responsible for the Second World War. As well, Canada’s involvement in that war was the result of a subconscious obligation to our Great War sacrifices. “We went into the Second World War because to not have gone would have been to shame the dead of the First World War,” said Dyer.
He further proposed that most of Canada’s military involvements in the last century can be tied back to our obligation to our war dead, and, by proxy, our obligation to fighting for freedom, democracy, and ‘peace’ around the world. It’s a strange role for a country that was neither a great power, nor directly threatened by any of the conflicts (as Dyer quips “nobody was casting lascivious eyes on Winnipeg”), but one Canadians shouldered willingly.
Is Canada’s military policy still based in a kind of collective guilt? Are we simply unable to face the idea that we sacrificed thousands during the Great War because of an essential British manipulation of our politics? And if so, why the hell are we still involved in perpetuating this untruth?
Dyer admitted that he wonders why both Canada and the U.S. are still fighting in the Middle East, when the territory held by ISIS is strategically worthless and the movement is probably too extreme to establish any longevity. As Canadians begin to admit that war is often not the noble crusade we have spoken of it as since the Great War, Dyer hopes that we can also admit that our best interest is not greater levels of involvement. There are times, in his opinion, that atrocities committed half a world away are not our concern, and should not require Canadian boots and blood.
It’s brutal pragmatism from a man who is known for making blunt statements, but also an argument that requires a rebuttal (if there is one). In an increasingly globalized world the interconnectedness of conflicts is becoming easier to see, but so are the detrimental effects of this continuous state of war upon the western democracies. Is it our place to fight ISIS as the ‘champions’ of freedom and democracy? Or are we lying to ourselves about the positive effects of our military involvement?
Considering that western powers have been involved in the Middle East for generations, and the conflict has only worsened, it doesn’t seem that the ‘champions’ are accomplishing much good. Then again, every photo spread documenting Syrian refugee camps, Israeli-Palestinian war dead, or brutalized Iraqi Christians, is a compelling argument for intervention. Allowing Taliban extremists to throw acid in the faces of school girls in Afghanistan is heartbreaking, but (considering the sacred nature of national autonomy), it doesn’t seem like Canada’s role is to stop such incidents through military action. As well, a suspicious mind might think that organizations like Al Qaida and ISIS need a foreign antagonist on the ground to help bolster recruiting and support their ideological propaganda. Fighting the Americans or Canadians is a much more potent way to rally comrades to the rhetorical flag than waging a civil war against fellow Arabs.
As we continue to follow the developing situation in the Middle East, we should remember that the instantaneous access to the situation that we have come to expect through social and professional media does not translate into an equally potent influence on the ground. Dyer argued that, if Canadians were to actually face the ideological dissonance in their own relationship to war, we would immediately back out of foreign involvements that have little to no impact on Canada. Until that time, we will continue to struggle in our attempts to ‘fix’ conflicts through methods that bleed us of resources and soldiers with (at best) mixed results.
But can we live with ourselves if we don’t get involved? If we simply watch and do nothing as other people are killed and persecuted on this increasingly more connected planet?