Culture Files: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About War’

As Canada’s mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, we begin tabulating the enormous cost of this military effort: 158 soldiers killed, 2,000 wounded, $20 billion spent.

As shocking as that toll is, Noah Richler’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, laments another largely ignored cost: the demise of our “long and upstanding” reputation as a nation of peacekeepers. Gone is Lester B. Pearson’s dream of a military whose mission was diplomacy and development. To Richler, the Afghan war has turned us from a “soft power” that tries to “make a difference,” replacing that ideal with the old myth of Canada as a “warrior nation.”

In a scathing attack that won’t sit well with veterans, Richler engages what he perceives as a war-mongering cabal comprising politicians (Stephen Harper); generals (Rick Hillier, former chief of the defence staff of the Canadian Forces); journalists (Christie Blatchford); academics (war historian Jack Granatstein) and patriotic chest-thumpers (Don Cherry!) who reject the peacekeeping model as naive, futile (Bosnia), tragic (Rwanda) and, all told, unheroic. Instead, this old guard draws on the tales of heroism from past wars, composing a narrative that Richler feels is terribly flawed because it routinely overlooks the soldiers and civilians who pay the steepest price; the dead and maimed are just forgotten pawns. Ultimately, the author asks whether diplomacy and aid might achieve the same results as armed conflict and urges readers to cut through the “epic” talk that surrounds war and see it as it truly is: hell.

—Peter Muggeridge, from the June, 2012 issue of Zoomer