Culture & Conversation

War of Words

Given his pacifist perspective, you might expect Noah Richler’s new book about Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan to be a rant. Or one of those “important” books that attract high-powered reviewers, so you can get by with reading reviews. Not so. What We Talk About When We Talk About War is an eloquent meditation on the nature of modern warfare, and one of the best books I’ve read about Canada in years – not the surprisingly colourful, forgotten history of, but a biting analysis of who we are in the twenty-first century, and why. Spinning off from the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, … About War makes an elegant bridge from Richler’s justly acclaimed Literary Atlas of Canada (2006), which was based on his coast-to-coast road trip encounter with contemporary novels and novelists, in search of our national soul.

This time Richler promises “a consideration of the phrases and forms of story that Canada has used in order to talk itself into, through and out of the war in Afghanistan.” Culling through mounds of old newspapers, he gleefully cuts and pastes together an astonishing account of how the Harper government, spurred by the crisis of 9/11 and backed by a handful of sympathetic intellectuals and journalists, undertook a massive “recalibration of Canadian ideas about the importance of the military and its role in foreign policy” which allowed for a huge increase in military spending, the publically-stated purpose being to support American military goals. Astonishing not because he uncovered new facts (he didn’t), but because the synthesis and analysis of known facts is so deliciously provoking. Because it raises news and comment to a higher level, that of psychological, emotional, philosophical meaning.

In the space of five years, Canada’s international image was radically changed, with profound domestic implications. One small example, the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway became the Highway of Heroes, a gesture fraught with symbolism. The effort entailed a concerted reformulation of the Canadian personality, reviving old myths, putting others to bed. Richler argues the makeover didn’t stick in part because the chosen battleground for testing this new image was an unwinnable war. Forced to retreat, Harper and the military were forced to revive the lost legacy of peacekeeping; renaming what the military was doing over there made slipping away publically defensible.

This book with a long title has a narrow issue focus – there is no discussion of the extent to which military expenditure was inspired by domestic, vote-getting motivations, providing the government with opportunities to spend millions of dollars in parts of the country where Conservative support needed shoring up; no reference to Harper’s wider learning curve in the realm of foreign policy, for example, his public appreciation for the Dali Lama and disdain for China’s internal politics, followed by a parallel reversal over the same time period, as he woke up to the reality of the international economy. We’re left with the impression that, in spite of his best efforts, Harper has been drawn back into the deep middle road (or rut) of Canadian values where peacekeeping is the thing to do. This makes for a neat story arc, but it feels premature; surely Harper’s attention has just gone elsewhere. The changes he wrought – or tapped into – will not soon disappear.

Arguably more interesting is the ‘big idea’ Richler develops using war (like novels in his last book) as material. Built slowly and carefully to a crescendo, his idea both nails and transcends its subject masterfully, and it is a literary one: that war and war mongering call for an epic form of thinking, whereas peace and peace-keeping require a taste for the novel. Epic literature is heroic, favouring the stark contrast of light and darkness, friends and enemies, winners and losers; the novel seeks to understand, illuminate complexity and reconcile or at least bring about a truce in the natural clash of opposites. These two forms of thinking obey quite different laws and uphold different values.

Dipping into the Iliad, he frames the central paradox of pacifism in mythological terms: as Achilles’ mother told him, a young guy has two choices: live a long, unremarkable life of peace, or a short military one promising everlasting glory. War is hell, a terrible waste of life and money. But it is also exciting, rousing, energizing, especially in a time of uncertainty, which is to say pretty well all of the time.  Since the first recorded skirmish, war has offered generations of youths without prospects a quick route to self-definition and a glamorous routine. War has also presented generations of writers with a subject worthy of their deepest outrage, finest style. An ancient irony, tackling an ideology he passionately opposes has brought out Noah Richler’s inner warrior, inspired his best writing yet.

So we are living in epic times. By identifying a sea change in the Canadian political psyche, Noah Richler identifies the spirit of our times, opens an important discussion. His big idea explains, for example, why the bottom has dropped out of literary fiction, why all people seem interested in reading in droves is crime fiction, Swedish polars and, well, books like What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Books that are the intellectual equivalent of a good night’s sleep, that leave you feeling smarter, ready to cope with the grind of national news, and actually interested in Canada and the culture wars that lie ahead.

Don’t leave this one to the critics. Buy the book, sink back, get mad and enjoy.

Noah Richler will appear at Paragraphe Books and Breakfast this Sunday, May 13, with Kim Thuy, Taras Grescoe and Jeff Rubin, 10 am at Le Centre Sheraton, 1201 Boul. René-Lévesque West. Tickets are $32 plus tax. Call 514-845-5811.

Check out Noah Richler’s columns for The Rover, The Writing Life, here.

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