Bernard Smyth reviews Warrior Nation

Cover of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an age of anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift“I will tell you something about stories …

They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.

You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories

Their evil is mighty but it can’t stand up to our stories.

So they try to destroy the stories let the stories be confused or forgotten . . .

Because we would be defenseless then.”

 Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

In Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift explore the attempts by a determined right wing elite in Canada to distort the past to destroy the stories of Canadian resistance to war, to obliterate the historical memories of Canada’s pioneer work in peacekeeping, and to replace commitments to the common good with a rapacious neoliberal capitalism. The goal is to change the very definition of Canada and reshape the country into the “Warrior Nation.” The main prism through which the authors study these issues are the stories of four Canadians: Bill Stairs, Tommy Burns, Lester Pearson, and James Endicott.

McKay and Swift argue that the “new warriors” aim to shift the public’s understanding by re-making history to make it seem as if Canada “was created by wars, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of military virtues.” The implementation of this revolution proceeds on many fronts: “redefining” the meaning of peace, creating a climate of fear, promoting yellow ribbon campaigns, designating highways of heroes, restructuring the education curriculum, linking professional sports with militarism, rescripting the history of Vimy, reshaping the meaning of Remembrance Day, airbrushing Canada’s peacekeeping tradition, implementing military-funded public relations campaigns, criminalizing dissent, and manufacturing a phony connection between democracy and militarism. The authors show how privileged Western academic historians such as Jack Granatstein, David Bercuson, and Barry Cooper work with the state’s propaganda apparatus to play a key role in constructing the new Canadian imaginary. McKay and Swift note that many who are promoting the Warrior Nation are middle aged white men with no experience of war.

In this new imaginary to be Canadian is to recognize that the Canadian past is constituted by war. The Warrior Nation historians insist that Canada’s dominant cultural pattern in made up of select Judeo-Christian values, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment, the institutions and values of the dominant British political culture, and the free market economy. They believe Canada took a wrong turn at the end of the 50s with the adoption of the welfare state, the advent of feminism, the rise of Quebec nationalism, the promotion of soft power, a trust in the fledgling United Nations, and the inauguration of a distinctive peace-keeping role in the world. In the Warrior Nation, to cling to this earlier historical understanding is either ignorant or unpatriotic. Birthed at Vimy Ridge, Canadians must be ready to join the Anglo-American alliance to defend Western Civilization against the less-evolved Other. War is a permanent, unchanging, and essential dimension of humanity. Canada has entered a permanent “state of exception.”

Cover image of "Discover Cabada: the rights and responsibilities of citizenship" showing an image of a veteran and a war memorial, underneath two people, a man and a woman, canoeing in Ottawa with parliament visible in teh background. McKay and Swift point us to two chilling official documents which have integrated the new warriors’ vision. The first is the widely circulated 2009 Study Guide for Prospective Canadians, Discover Canada: the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship. Here Canada’s past and present are essentially about war. World War I has shaped the entire Canadian 20th century. The images of war are romantic and sanitized. Canadian peacekeeping merits a half sentence. Leaders like Lester Pearson and Tommy Douglas are not included. Warriors are the significant Canadians. Canadians have become Anglo-American colonials. The representative Canadian statesman is Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada from 1935-1940, who administered British concentration camps in South Africa, and whom McKay and Swift show was an orientalist, racist, and social imperialist. The second document, Crisis in Zefra written in 2005, is a novel that has its genesis in the Department of National Defence and gives us a glimpse into the new warriors’ imagined future. Zefra is a failed state in North Africa whose inhabitants represent the nonwestern Other. Its people are susceptible to Islam, socialist doctrines, and fanatics who hate the West for its freedoms. The book’s illustrations depict Zefra’s citizens like the stereotypical Arab villains in Hollywood films. The document plays on Orientalist clichés and racist stereotypes, and functions as a “state-orchestrated pedagogical novel” to help young soldiers function in a world of perpetual war. Particularly odious is that the enemy revolutionaries are called “Fanonists” after the influential psychiatrist and postcolonial intellectual Franz Fanon.

There are many reasons why Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety is important for those who are concerned about global peace. I will highlight three. First, McKay and Swift show how the dominant liberal view of history in the West has influenced particular Canadians in our history – from William Stairs’ expedition to relieve Emin Pasha in Africa, to Stephen Harper’s campaign to liberate women and girls in Afghanistan, – and how this perspective has led to loss of life and disaster. The liberal view sees history in evolutionary, linear, scientific, progressive and Eurocentric categories. It operates hand in hand with orientalist assumptions. Implicit in this understanding is that there is one human history which of necessity culminates in the modern Western state.  McKay and Swift identify events in our past where this view of history has been used to justify colonialism and imperialism, and has legitimated the sacrifice of the lives of millions to spurious narratives of development, modernization, human rights, freedom, and democracy.

Second, peace activists can learn from this book. McKay and Swift show how the implementation of the new warriors’ vision is multifaceted. It proceeds on many fronts and consequently needs to be challenged on these fronts. Further, the authors identify patterns in history through which the peace movement has been marginalized and continues to be obstructed. This is especially clear in the section on James Endicott. These patterns demand responses. Finally, there is a superb section in the last Chapter which outlines the contradictions -economic, military and ideological – in the militaristic project. These provide possibilities and spaces for action. This section deserves careful study for planning particular strategies of resistance.

Third, McKay and Swift ground hope by expanding the past to open to multiple possibilities for the future. The authors show that the manipulation of history is a prime resource in the hands of dominant groups for the maintenance of their power. The new warriors conscript the past to reshape the future. They erase important struggles from the historical record and separate Canadians from their past by eliminating the memories of a different democratic Canada. The authors challenge the determinism and inevitability in this perspective. They expand the past to recover histories outside the dominant Euro-American versions. They help Canadians reconnect with their cultures, communities and traditions. They call us to recognize and learn about Indigenous histories. They encourage the exploration of Canadian social histories, e.g., women’s, black, ethnic, labour and working class histories. They heighten awareness of evil in our past, including the darker sides of our military history. By expanding the past, the authors encourage Canadians to envision a different Canadian future from that of the new warriors.

Thomas King poses beside a stereotypical caricature of an indigenous person in a screenshot from "I am not the Indian you had in mind". Source: National Screen Institute. (You can watch the full video here)

Thomas King poses beside a stereotypical caricature of an indigenous man in a screenshot from I am not the Indian you had in mind. Source: National Screen Institute. (You can watch the full video here)

In his Massey Lectures Thomas King tells us that “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” King warns us to “be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” These lines resonate powerfully with McKay and Swift’s sobering, learned, and provocative work. The authors invite Canadians to think carefully about the stories of their past. They challenge the new warriors’ perspective. They uncover important fault lines. They reject a Western totalizing vision which seeks to impose a particular form of capitalist universalism throughout the world. They show us that “there never was a Great War” and that continuous warfare does not have to be the new reality. They counsel that we might be at a unique moment in our history where, given the real possibility of the decline of U.S. hegemony, another Canada is possible.

Review by Bernard Smyth

Bernard Smyth holds a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Michael’s College. He is a long time social justice advocate and a retired educator.

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety

Published by Between the Lines, May 2012

John W. Dafoe Prize, 2012 (Short-listed)

Independent Publisher Book Award for Current Events (Foreign Affairs/Military), 2013 (Runner-up)

Paperback / softback, 304 pages

ISBN 9781926662770


ISBN 9781771130004