Changing the narrative on peace: A review of What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Reviewed in this essay: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, Noah Richler, Goose Lane Editions, 2012.

George Grant wrote Lament for a Nation before official multiculturalism, before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, before the liberalization of Canada had begun in earnest. But he understood that his preferred canon of national stories were no longer told, and that new ones were being written. What he lamented back in 1963 was the death of one symbolic order and the birth of another. Grant is the best historical analogy for Noah Richler in What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Grant mourned the passing of the Tory mythology that had decided Canadian identity in its first century. Richler fears its return, after 50 years of dormancy.

Richler argues that in the relatively short time since 9/11 and the arrival of Canadian forces to Afghanistan, the conservative order has exacted a premeditated, measured and satisfying revenge on the liberal one. Long-neglected storytellers have found themselves in unexpected positions of strength, drawing succour from the electoral gains of the Conservative Party. They remade Canada in the image of the “warrior nation.” The old Pearsonian Canada – the one that told stories about peacekeeping, multilateralism, soft power and moral authority – was buried under derision, and made a muddied figure of universal contempt.

The greatest strength of Richler’s book is its probing of the origins of this mythological shift, and the agents behind it. There’s the heritage lobby: self-styled contrarians who’d long protested the neglect of Canada’s “real” history of martial splendour. Post-Afghanistan they’ve been redeployed, and are now busily fighting the War of 1812. There’s journalist Christie Blatchford, whose skilled reportage took a turn for the Edwardian after a term embedded with the troops. Her defenders will insist that she wasn’t just an automated uniform booster, and they’re right.

Richler is on them every step of the way, generally pulling the whole discourse apart.

But there’s a problem: strip away the Don Cherries, strip away the Rick Hilliers and beneath it all remains a fantastically complex moral dilemma, which the so-called anti-war crowd was as loathe to tackle as the people Richler calls “militarists.” It would all have been much simpler were the Taliban solely a figure of Tory mythology. But behind the symbolism hide real, acid-wielding, fascistic theocrats. What to do about them? Or about the Afghan girl who peers fearfully out from the front and back covers of the book?

According to Richler, the militarists advance an “epic” narrative form, while the Pearsonians adopt the fictional mode of the “novel.” The epic imagines the world in striking shades of black and white, good and evil. The novel, on the other hand, is characterized by empathy and humanism. This is, of course, an epic narrative in itself. It rather lacks a novel’s caution, or ambivalence. And it’s totally ill-suited to encapsulating this particular debate – a foreign policy argument between insincere internationalists on one hand, and self-deluding realists on the other. Frankly, either label works for either party.