Wayne Grady on “The Vimy Trap”

On October 12th, Wayne Grady’s piece on Swift & McKay’s The Vimy Trap was published in the Kingston Whig Standard which we have shared with you below. Click here to see the article on the Whig Standard website.

PeaceQuest will be hosting a launch event in Kingston for The Vimy Trap on Monday November 28th, 2016, 7PM at the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning. Stay tuned for launch event announcements across the country!

For added depth and context, we invite you to have a look at the Veterans Affairs Canada Fact Sheet on Vimy Ridge, Spirit of Remembrance Battlefield Tours, and the UK-based project Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace

Canadians consolidating their positions on Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

Canadians consolidating their positions on Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

KINGSTON – Living in Mexico in the days leading up the American presidential election, as Merilyn and I are, gives us a curious perspective on Canada’s and Mexico’s common neighbour, the United States. Down here we see the States from the bottom, as it were, looking up, instead of from the top looking down. The history of American–Mexican relations from 1848, when the U.S. annexed almost a million square miles of Mexican territory, is still fresh in the minds of both countries. Here, we feel more strongly than in Canada what it means to be neighbour to a warrior nation.

For example, we recently attended a documentary about the life of Pancho Villa, one of Mexico’s heroes of the 1910 Mexican revolution. We already knew something about Villa — how, as a general in Mexico’s Revolutionary Army in 1914, he won a number of decisive battles against Mexican president Victoriana Huerta’s troops, in an attempt to bring democracy and land reform to a nation essentially run by a cartel of wealthy hacienderos. In Mexico, Villa is celebrated, almost revered, in much the same way that Che Guevera is in Cuba, and for much the same reasons.

But the documentary, produced by the American History television channel, reflected almost nothing of Villa’s stature as a Mexican hero. Instead, it concentrated on a single year in Villa’s career: 1916, the year Villa’s army conducted a raid against the U.S. 13 Cavalry Regiment, stationed near the city of Columbus in New Mexico. The raid was in response to the American expropriation of Mexican oil wells and their material support of enemy troops. It may have been ill-advised, but hardly apocalyptic: Pancho Villa’s army killed 18 soldiers (and lost 80), stole 100 horses and burned the town.

In retaliation, as if the Columbus raid were a kind of early September 11, the Americans sent a Punitive Expeditionary Force into Mexico consisting of 5,000 troops, under Gen. John Pershing, to find and destroy Villa. The force spent an entire year in Mexico wandering about the Chihuahua Desert, without managing to find a trace of Villa or his army. The troops were only withdrawn when the U.S. entered the First World War.

What was interesting to us, as we sat in the darkened theatre, was that the documentary depicted Villa not as the revolutionary hero for which he is remembered in Mexico, but as a bloodthirsty criminal madman who, as a matter of policy, murdered, pillaged, raped, tortured and robbed innocent citizens at random. Not once in 90 minutes was there the slightest suggestion that sending 5,000 armed soldiers into a foreign country in order to find and kill a citizen of that country could be construed as an act of war. Apparently, to the documentarians, the U.S. has a perfect right to deploy its army anywhere it wants when its own interests are concerned, as has since been the case in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to The Vimy Trap, a new book by Kingston writers Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, contemporary Canadian politicians and historians come dangerously close to exhibiting a similar, American-style boosterism when it comes to Canada’s role in the First World War. We are particularly deceived, the authors argue, about our participation in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The authors argue that Canadians have been subjected to large doses of what they call “Vimyism,” the notion that Vimy Ridge was the decisive battle of the war, and the precise moment at which Canada became a nation independent of Britain. Vimy was, the story goes, a turning point, a defining moment, in Canadian history. They cite dozens of examples, including that of Pierre Berton, who wrote that “the victory at Vimy would confirm the growing realization that Canada had, at last, come of age.”

Stuff and nonsense, say the authors, who in Warrior Nation argued that the notion that Canada’s identity was forged on the field of battle was perpetrated by former prime minister Stephen Harper as a way of justifying his own fascination with American militarism.

Canadian machine gunners dig themselves in shell holes at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (Department Of National Defence/National Archives of Canada)

“This standard version of Vimy,” they write, “is a highly dubious, mythologized narrative … akin to a fairy tale for overaged boys who want their history to be as heart-thumping and simplistic as a video game.”

The truth about Vimy, they say, is closer to the image painted by war artist and later Group of Seven member Fred Varley, who witnessed the battle. In a letter to his wife, Varley describes the scene not as a glorious field of battle but as demoralizing desolation:

“You must see the barren deserts war has made of once fertile country,” Varley writes, “see the turned up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated — headless, legless, stomachless, a perfect body and a passive face and a broken, empty skull — see your own countrymen, unidentified, thrown into a cart, their coats over them, boys digging a grave in a land of yellow green slimy mud and green pools of water under a weeping sky.”

That is the scene Varley painted from memory when he returned to England, a portrait of the reality of war to which he gave the title: “For What?”

Frederick Varley - For What?

Frederick Varley – For What?

In 1934, with storm clouds gathering for the Second World War, Ottawa released thousands of photographs of the First. The Toronto Star published many of them, eliciting responses from hundreds of readers. Far from echoing the romantic notion of war as nation-affirming, most of the letters evoked the war’s devastating effect on its victims. One correspondent wrote that the photos revealed “the ugly, brutal side of war. They rear away the veil of romance and paint war as it really is — a futile, cruel and meaningless business.”

This, argue McKay and Swift, is what we should be taught about war. It is neither a bloodless traipse around the Mexican desert looking for a mustachioed villain who stole a few horses, nor is it a glorifying moment for the valiant defenders of freedom and democracy. It is, as historian Steve Hewitt has written on the back of this book, “a bloody, devastating, and pointless conflict.”

Wayne Grady will be observing Remembrance Day, the World Series, and the Trump vs. Clinton match from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.