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Five lessons we learned about Canada in wartime

A historian looks back and finds some major takeaways and hard truths about Canadians at war


 

Canadian Infantry during World War 1

It is now 115 years since Canada first sent troops overseas to fight. Since the Boer War, we have fought in the Great and Second World Wars; the Korean War; in some warlike peacekeeping operations as in Cyprus on several occasions; in Somalia; and the former Yugoslavia; peripherally in the first Gulf War; then in Kosovo and most recently in Afghanistan. More than 115,000 Canadians have died in service. This country has paid its dues again and again.

But what have we learned from our war experience? What lessons can we draw from a century’s conflicts, loss, defeats, and victories?

Historians don’t really believe that there are lessons in history. Assad is not Hitler. Ahmadinejad was not Mussolini, even if he was a dangerous buffoon. The times are never in sync, the people involved always different, the challenges and opportunities never the same. And yet, some things do stand out when we think about Canadians and war. Let me point to five maxims that might be construed as lessons of history.

The first maxim is that we will always fight someone else’s war. Canadians have never been the aggressor, and we will never start a war. We go into battle to be a good, loyal ally. This is not to suggest that Canada’s national interests have not been at stake in our wars, only that they have never been decisive factors in our decision to fight, and we have never considered what they are before we go to war. That was certainly true in South Africa, and true again in 1914—the Dominion was a colony with as much say as the Gold Coast in determining British policy. It was true again in 1939, notwithstanding the Statute of Westminster of 1931, which made Canada as independent in foreign policy as it was in domestic matters. Canadian loyalty to Britain was our reason for going to war, not fear of Nazi aggression. Canadian interests were not directly at risk until the fall of France in June 1940 or, more likely yet, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. This was also true in Korea and Kosovo; it was true in Afghanistan, although Canadian national interests are probably more directly involved in the fight against Islamist terrorism than they were in opposing the kaiser and führer in 1914 and 1939. But that is a discussion for another time and place.

Secondly, we will always go to war as part of an alliance, but we will never have much say in shaping alliance strategy. Canada is simply too small a player to get a very loud voice. We had almost no say in the Great War, although prime minister Sir Robert Borden used the Canadian Corps’ battlefield performance to win more autonomy within the Empire. We had almost no voice in Allied strategy in World War II, although Mackenzie King used the nation’s huge war effort to get a role in the combined boards that ran the Allies’s economic war and to establish Canada’s middle power status. We had no say in Korea, none in Kosovo, and none in Afghanistan—except in trying to get other NATO allies to buy into the war and largely failing. The reality is that Canada is a small power, and small powers do not determine the policies of the great. A little realism on the part of our politicians, our media and our people would be useful in assessing our role and responsibilities.

A third and more contentious point: Canada is unlikely to be united in war. The sharp anti-military attitudes of the present have their resonance all through our history. We have never fought a war where Canadians en masse supported the effort. And in truth, in all our wars, one substantial part of the population—with many honourable exceptions—largely opted out, public opinion in French Canada being sharply against participation. This was attributable to a lack of political leadership, not to character. We need to remember that it was a Quebec politician—Louis St. Laurent—who brought Canada into NATO, into the Korean War, and to spending seven per cent of GDP on defence because he was unafraid to lead. We have not had a political leader since 1957 who has done so, not one who has been willing to talk national interests to Quebec instead of pandering to the nationalistes.

Then, preparedness matters. There will be another war. No historian could say otherwise. There has always been war and, barring an extraordinary change in human nature, regrettably, there will always be wars. Thus Canadians either pay for their defence with dollars now or with lives later. The lack of realism, the sense that Canada has only values and no national interests to defend, or at least none we think about, has always meant we are unprepared. We all have fire insurance on our homes against the small chance of a fire, but we refuse to have the national insurance policy that a well-equipped, well-trained military provides. Canadians have never been and are not prepared now. And we will pay in lives yet again. If that doesn’t prove that there are no lessons in history, what could?

Finally, Canadians do well fighting wars once we set our mind to the task. At Vimy, Passchendaele, and in the Hundred Days Offensive; at Ortona, the Gothic Line, in Normandy, and at the Scheldt; at Kap’yong and Kandahar, Canadian grit, determination, and military skill shone through. Though the losses were terrible, uncommon courage was the norm.

On November 11 each year, some Canadians stop to remember. They all should because we live in freedom and relative peace thanks to those who put their lives on the line for us. We must remember all the men and women who gave their todays for our tomorrows. All Canadians must never forget.

J. L. Granatstein, OC is a Canadian historian who specializes in political and military history. He served in the Canadian Army from 1956 to 1966. His latest book is The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918. This essay first appeared in Lest We Forget, a booklet accompanying an exhibition of First World War paintings by Charles Pachter on view at the Lieutenant-Governor’s Suite at Ontario’s legislature until June 2015, or through the vice-regal website. Copyright 2014, Office of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.


 

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