Robert Teigrob, Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian & American History and Memory

By Taylor, C. J. | Manitoba History, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Robert Teigrob, Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian & American History and Memory


Taylor, C. J., Manitoba History


Robert Teigrob, Living with War: Twentieth-Century Conflict in Canadian & American History and Memory, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 471 pages. ISBN 978442612501, $37.95 (paperback).

"War, what is it good for?" Armed conflicts can be appreciated (or not) from three perspectives: they can achieve predetermined goals such as defending or acquiring territory; they can be ennobling, building character and forming social cohesion; and their memory can contribute to nation building through collective recollection of a courageous and triumphant heritage. Some argue the opposite: that their goals are illusory or narrowly imperialistic, the action savage and contemptible, and their memory divisive in a heterogeneous multicultural society.

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Recent history--Canada's military participation in Afghanistan, and the election of the Harper Conservatives --has encouraged the politicizing of these viewpoints. As Robert Teigrob explains: "Of course, public attitudes towards any issue ebb and flow over time, and since the early 1990s, and particularly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party attained power in 2006, Canadians were exposed to a coordinated and well-financed campaign to view themselves first and foremost as 'courageous warriors'" (p. 5).

Canadian intellectuals have bristled at this perceived militarization of our consciousness. Teigrob cites Michael Fellman's dissenting voice: "Militarism is seeping into Canadian ideological and institutional life with highly dangerous short-term implications. Yet we hear precious little outcry from the public or in the media, and this relative silence only encourages those controlling the levers of power to continue this development." (1) Living With War joins this resistance.

Teigrob is firmly in the camp that is mistrustful of the glory of war, pushing back against jingoistic government programs and conservative writing at the beginning of this century that sought to exalt Canada's military heritage. Thus, he favourably refers to recent monographs by Ian McKay, Jamie Swift, and Noah Richler that critique what is seen as recent propaganda, while being scornful of historians such as Jack Granatstein, who are portrayed as unabashed boosters of Canada's military heritage. In his analysis, the author conflates past and present attitudes toward historic military conflicts along with contemporary attitudes toward the military: that is, he argues that a positive view of Canada's military heritage corresponds with a desire to expand Canada's present-day military role--a confusion of topics common to the debate that Teigrob has joined.

The book examines Canadian and American attitudes towards war and the military throughout the 20th century. Teigrob compares responses, both contemporary and historiographical, to the American war against Spain at the end of the 19th century with Canada's participation in the Boer War, and then proceeds to compare national responses to the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The author argues two main points: first, that Canadian historical writing and memory have consistently exaggerated the unifying benefits of military conflict, while underplaying the dissenting views and consequent fracturing of national outlook; and, second, that American historical writing and public memory have been far more critical of that country's military past than that of Canada.

Living With War engages in a sometimes lively, partisan discussion about the meaning of past wars to present-day Canadian and American societies. It examines the reluctance toward participating in these conflicts by contemporary religious, ethnic, and racial groupings. I struggle, however, with an argument that seeks to compare the two nations on an equal plane. We are the mouse living next to an elephant and the trajectory of our respective histories is radically different. The American republic was born from armed rebellion. …

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