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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Are we more peaceable?

I’m preparing for my Canadian citizenship test, and one of the important sections in the book Discover Canada is the important role that Canada and Canadians played in World War I. Over 600,000 Canadians served in the war, most of them as volunteers; 66,000 died. Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge in 1917. One Canadian officer said, “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade…in those minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” April 9 is celebrated as Vimy Day.

In the past, I have found it paradoxical that for a country that has essentially been a pacifist for most of its history, and one that invented the concept of peacekeeping, Canada is richly proud of its military engagements.

In my 2011 column in the Canadian Immigrant, I wrote: “Like most sensible people, I’m opposed to war and to military intervention by one state or many states into another. Personally and ideologically I find Canada’s presence in Afghanistan unjustifiable. Many Canadians share this view. However, even when a majority remain opposed to Canadian presence in Afghanistan, an equal number or more love and respect the armed forces and especially those who are killed while serving the country.”

A senior journalist (Paul Hambleton) had explained about the Canadian tradition to recognise and respect the sacrifices of the armed forces – right from the World War I veterans to the young soldiers in Afghanistan. This veneration overrode ideological opposition to war and militarism. This was an issue of national consciousness and identity.
This year, the world will observe the centenary of World War I – the Great War that killed over nine million people, and (till WWII) was one of the worst wars in recorded human history.

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature why violence has declined. It argues that despite the death, destruction and savagery that human beings inflicted upon each other in the 20th century, there has actually been a steady decline in war and violence. The contention is seemingly untenable, but Pinker’s marshalling of historical facts and his interpretation make for a compelling read.

He notes, “…in the West today public places are no longer named after military victories. Our war memorials depict not proud commanders on horseback but weeping mothers, weary soldiers, or exhaustive list of names of the dead. Military men are inconspicuous in public life, with drab uniforms and a little prestige among the hoi polloi. In London’s Trafalgar Square, the public across from the big lions and Nelson’s column was recently topped with a sculpture that is about as far from military iconography as one can imagine: a nude, pregnant artist who had been born without arms and legs. The World War I battlefield in Ypres, Belgium, inspiration for the poems ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the poppies worn in Commonwealth countries on November 11, has just sprouted a memorial to the thousand soldiers who were shot in that war for desertion – men who at the time were despised as contemptible cowards…Conspicuous pacifism is especially striking in Germany, a nation that was once so connected to martial values that the words Teutonic and Prussian became synonyms for rigid militarism…yet today German culture remains racked with soul-searching over its role in the world wars and permeated with revulsion against anything that smacks of military force.”

An interesting point of view was presented by Historian Niall Fergusson in his 1999 book The Pity of War. He termed World War I as the “greatest error of modern history,” and argued that had Britain not entered World War I, the course of history would’ve been very different. Germany would’ve taken control of Europe, “and Continental Europe could…have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today – but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars.”

For good measure, he adds, “with the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter . . . in a German-dominated Central Europe about which he could have found little to complain. And Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, forever waiting for capitalism to collapse -- and forever disappointed.”

(quotes from The Pity of War taken from the book's review in The New York Times)

For a previous post on Niall Fergusson, click here: History as Opinion

Image: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152817425065663&set=a.186987155662.160435.177183000662&type=1&theater

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