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Write On Ottawa: Noble Illusions by Stephan Dale

By Ruth Latta on October 7, 2014

A century ago, in 1914, the “Great War” began, a war which killed 66,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders. Ottawa author Stephen Dale is concerned about the way this tragic anniversary is being commemorated. In Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Publishing, 2014), he accuses the Harper government of spinning World War I as an heroic war for democracy and against tyranny, from which we should draw the lesson that, in our own time, Canada should play an active military role in international affairs.

First World War veterans, however, saw the war differently. A British veteran, Harry Patch, for example, who died at 111 in 2009, told Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the middle of the Iraq/Afghanistan war, that “war is organized murder and nothing else.” The First World War, which was “driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe”, wrought such largescale destruction that for many decades after its end it was considered “one of history’s darkest episodes.”

One hundred years later, this tragic conflict is being spun into something inspirational, with no veterans alive any more to contradict this interpretation. Dale points to disturbing trends: These days, Canadian military missions are about making war, not keeping peace. During the Afghanistan war, anyone who criticized our participation risked being labelled unpatriotic and disloyal to our troops. Increasingly, the warrior, with his “manly virtues” is supposed to be our national hero.

Why did young men sign up in droves in 1914 to fight the “Hun”? Seeking insights, Dale turned to Young Canada, a popular boys’ magazine of the day, published in England and compiled annually in book form. In these annuals he found a glorification of Britain’s past military adventures, with an acceptance, even a sanctification, of extreme violence against non-British people in order that “civilization” would triumph over “savagery.” They were xenophobic and indifferent to genocide.

Young Canada was one of many boys’ magazines published after 1890. It was aimed at a high reading level, was never vulgar, and was written in archaic “high diction” with euphemistic, feudal words. A horse was often a “steed”; battlefield dead were “the fallen.” (Post-World War I authors like Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan chose to write plainly because the overblown rhetoric of World War I seemed to them the language of lies.)

The ethos of male comradeship, faraway adventures, and heroism in the face of danger can be found not only in Young Canada but also in most boys’ leisure reading material of the day. In the Young Canada stories, the British prevail because of their superior character and the morality of their mission, but during the Great War, victory was not a matter of character or morality, but of efficient use of technology. Many soldiers adopted an ironic attitude to their situation. Survivors emerged with broken bodies and shattered illusions.

Young Canada was only one of many influences toward an ethos of manliness and heroism. Physical education in schools and organizations like Boy Scouts had militaristic overtones. Lord Baden Powell advocated an emphasis on patriotism so that the Scout would be “a far superior soldier.” Although Canadian churches had been pacifist-minded at the time of the Boer War, they did an about-face when Canada found herself at war in 1914, and became “zealous war promoters.”

Would today’s youth flock to recruiting stations with naive enthusiasm as an earlier generation did in 1914? Since young people of today seem anti-authoritarian and aware of the nuclear threat, perhaps the answer is “No”, but Dale isn’t sure. Currently, in the United States, pro-military messages have reached such a saturation point that the idea of the military as a force for good in the world is “simply accepted”. Dale believes that war-themed video games and military tributes at hockey games encourage an uncritical support for “all things martial.”

At just 111 pages including end notes, Noble Illusions is reader-friendly in length as well as in layout and design. I would have liked more on the pre-war Protestant churches’ pacifism and their sudden reversal, with reference to pacifists like J.S. Woodsworth and William Ivens, but that could be the subject of another book. Although Noble Illusions lacks a bibliography, the end notes show the works Dale consulted, which include those of Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, Mark Moss, Sharon R. Fisher and Julia Briggs. Well-researched and timely, Noble Illusions draws convincing and ominous parallels between 1914 attitudes and those of our own time.

Ruth Latta is an Ottawa writer. You can find her here.