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Bookends: Why do we keep fighting in foreign lands? February 19, 2015

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Why do we keep fighting in foreign lands?Great Power Game

By Dan Davidson

December 10, 2014

– 945 words –


Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014

By Gwynne Dyer

Random House Canada.

423 pages



I started reading this book about a week before Remembrance Day, that annual memorial to the people who fought to maintain our freedoms and way of life. By that time I had already listened to the Canadian War Museum’s Dr. Dean Oliver deliver an interesting lecture on the causes behind World War One and the various versions of our involvement in that conflict.

The soundtrack to either the lecture or the book might be repeated variations on Gershwins’ classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

The constant theme running through Dyer’s book is that Canada is, in fact, fighting other peoples’ wars and nearly all the time there has been no actual threat to our land, liberty or way of life. We have been engaged in what the British Imperialists used to call the Great Game, spending most of our national existence up to the end of the Second World War working along with the British, and much of the time since in sync with the Americans.

Some people may find this offensive. In fact, the Canadian military establishment found this thesis downright scary back in the mid 1980s, when Dyer and his producer partner Tina Viljoen, put together a three part television series called The Defence of Canada for the CBC.

It was well received by the public, as was his series called War earlier, but persons in authority made sure that it was not aired a second time, a rare thing for an expensively made Canadian documentary. Indeed, a chap named Alan Bonner revealed to Dyer many years later that his entire public relations career with the military was spent doing things to counter the Dyer thesis, which was considered rather dire (sorry – couldn’t help myself) in military circles.

Dyer sets his argument within the context of war in general, which he insists is pretty much the way that major nations have always dealt with each other, reshuffling the power and influence deck about every half century by having a real good donnybrook. After that, it was business as usual, with no one accused of being more responsible than anyone else, until the next go round.

By his count, the First World War would actually have been the fifth such round of conflicts where nation-states that had overseas empires to be involved were set against each other. Our own much ballyhooed War of 1812-14 was a mere sideshow in the Napoleonic mess over in Europe, for instance.

The Great War, as it was originally called, changed all that. Suddenly war was no longer the province of professional soldiers, war was no longer quickly done, and war was now total. War suddenly demanded so much of a national effort that it was necessary to demonize the other side and elevate the moral outrage in order to, first, get volunteers and later, justify conscription.

By that time Canada had already be tricked into sending troops to that nasty bit of imperial bullying called the Boer War, but Sir Wilfrid Laurier had limited our participation to financing any volunteers who wanted to go.

In the subsequent wars, numbers One and Two, both Prime Minister Borden and Prime Minister MacKenzie King would have liked to have been able to do the same, but the stakes were raised too high. In between those conflicts, in 1922, Canada turned down an invitation to participate in the Chanak Affair, in which Britain wanted help from the Empire in a little matter of putting Turkey in its place.

A good third of the book deals with WWI and its implications, but ties it in well with what came later and it is true that WWII is pretty much WWI Part Two, while the Korean War was essentially a failure and helped to create the North Korea we all know and love today.

In structure this book contains Dyer’s observations – which are more about why we war than how – interrupted by what he calls “excurisons” into “what if” territory, and buttressed by scads of quotations from diaries, journals, newspaper reports and documents. These personalize the narrative and the argument and go well beyond the sort of material that we are used to seeing.

Our national leaders are not consistent in dealing with the issues of war. He lays some of the blame for the failure of the League of Nations on a Canadian amendment to the charter, though the absence of the United States was probably a greater factor. Likewise the creation and militarization of NATO and other alliances with the Americans related to the Cold War helped to keep the United Nations from becoming as effective as it might have been. Certainly our participation in NORAD mainly served to ensure that, if those Soviet ICBMs ever came over the North Pole, the American anti-missiles would have exploded them to devastating effect over the Prairies.

The book skimps a bit when it reaches the turn of the 21st century, covered briefly in the final chapter, “Going with the Flow”, but Dyer produced three or four insightful collections of his newspaper columns on the events that followed the 9-11 attacks on America, so you can read about that it detail elsewhere.

This book only has one photo insert, but if you want to see an illustrated version of part of the text, the three parts of The Defence of Canada are available on You Tube. Titled ‘A Long Way from Home,” “Keeping the Elephants Away” and “The Space Between”, they are worth a listen.








1. David Neufeld - February 21, 2015

Nice review Dan. Hadn’t heard much from Dyer lately so nice to see his book covered. Thanks

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