April 24, 2012
What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler
Noah Richler’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About War comes with a warning label of a blurb with Margaret MacMillan’s “You don’t have to agree with everything Noah Richler says — I don’t — but you must take him seriously.” Which is is the first sign that we’re dealing with a polemic that exists to complicate the idea of polemicism. (It is also helpful a helpful blurb if you’re part of the choir Richler is preaching to– to keep an open mind is the very point.) The second sign that we’re dealing with such a polemic is Richler’s explanation of his book’s title, which comes from the Raymond Carver story whose full sentence is, “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about love.” And so it should with war, according to Richler, in particular for those who’ve been in charge of our “strategy” in Afghanistan since 2001 and so clearly didn’t.
Most of my impressions of war were formed from the perspectives of my grandfathers who served in the Canadian Navy during World War Two and never had anything to say about war other than that it was awful. There was also the letters long saved that my father’s father had written home to his wife and children during the many years he had to spend away from them. And a story about the body of a dead German, my grandfather’s long lasting impression that inside that man’s wallet there would have been photos of a family much like his own. Which is not to say that my grandfathers did not take pride in their years of service– I spent many a Remembrance Day watching my grandfather march in parade, his medals displayed. I’ve spent more time than you would imagine at the old Naval Club on Hayden Street. But I mostly remember listening to the lists of the ships that were lost in the fighting. I remember being told over and over that the reason they had fought was so that war could be obliterated. Back when I was learning what I know about war, they kept telling us, “Never again.”
Peacekeeping was invented by men who’d learned too much about war, and forgotten by men who’d never known it at all. In the years since my days at the Naval Club, Remembrance Day has been hijacked, the story of “peacekeeping” has been denigrated, and our country has been at war for a decade. And Richler shows that none of this just came about, but was instead the result of a deliberate campaign to shift public thinking, and build up the Canadian military in order to underline the presence of Canada on the international stage. At heart, the shift was rhetorical– we understand ourselves and our lives in terms of stories, and that story has moved in the last ten years from the complex shape of the novel with humanity at its core, to the simplistic epic tale with easy-to-grasp binaries of good and evil.
Richler outlines the circuity of the rhetorical arrangements– the government, think-tanks, the Canadian military has been successful at militarizing the Canadian mind-set by keeping Canadians so at a remove from war itself (which has not been difficult– Afghanistan is far away). That the media has been complicit in the game because war is news, it makes reporters feel useful and excited. That the liberal hippy-dippy platitudes of peacekeeping and love your brother are as empty as the troop-supporting sentiments expressed by ardent war-mongers like Don Cherry or Christie Blatchford (“The time we take to pay dues to war’s brutality… is an ersatz moral act that excuses actually having to do anything more proactive about a subject that is innately horrific.”) That the Afghanistan mission (which only turned into a “mission” once the war itself had become a little bit stale) became less about “war-making” and more about peacekeeping (and school building!) as the conflict wore on, the very approach that “top soldiers” had resisted in the beginning. That the military and government were able to turn instances of public mourning into public relations opportunities. Richler writes, “Ritual works, brilliantly. What chance does dissidence have when monolithic acclamation is the order of the day?”
Our notions of heroics have been hollowed out to exalt those in uniform to extents that are absurd. Women are exempt from this narrative unless they’re requiring rescue, Richler comparing responses to the deaths of photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang. Our language has been obfuscated, imbued with euphemism– torture is “enhanced interrogation,” a mission is war. The tragic disaster that was the Battle of Vimy Ridge is now a story of glory. People who dare to complicate the dictum of “Support Our Troops” are met with hateful vitriol.
“This is what passes for think-tank work in Canada, which is remarkable but what we have to put up with until others speak up,” writes Richler of a somewhat blathering blog post in which Canadian historian Jack Granatstein once again attempts to lay to rest the myth of the Canadian peacekeeper. In his book, Richler shows how these others have been silenced by rhetoric, and speaks up himself with an erudite text packed with wide-ranging references from Greek myth to modern video games, resisting all accusations of loftiness with a his very constructive final chapter, “What is to be Done?” (and there is plenty).
And while Richler’s message would have been better conveyed in particular to those beyond his choir with a bit more clarity and conciseness (as well as further editing. This text is a mess, though is promised to be cleaned up by next printing), it will be a relief to those of us who feel the same that someone is speaking up finally.