J. L. Granatstein. Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. xv + 519 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-4691-8; $31.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8020-8696-9.
Reviewed by Galen Perras (Department of History, University of Ottawa)
Published on H-War (August, 2004)
The Canadian Army and Military Professionalism
J. L. Granatstein looms very large in Canadian historiography. He has authored or edited more than fifty monographs, ranging from academic studies of Canadian political and military history, to more popular tomes aimed at a broader general audience. A graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, he left Canada?s military to become a professor in York University's Department of History in suburban Toronto in the 1960s. Upon retiring from academia in the 1990s, Granatstein took on the difficult job of Chief Executive Officer at the then struggling Canadian War Museum. Saddled with a terrible building, that neglected institution had enjoyed far too little support from the federal government for decades. When he left that post two years later, the construction of a new museum facility on a highly desirable plot of land in Ottawa was set to get underway, with an opening date scheduled for late 2005.
However, most Canadians probably know Granatstein for his political commentaries on television networks and two short but contentious books; Who Killed Canadian History? in 1998; and Who Killed the Canadian Military? in 2004. The first monograph launched Granatstein from the obscure ivory towers of academe into the more frenetic world of public advocacy. Granatstein bemoaned the loss of "national" history in Canadian schools and lambasted many secondary and post-secondary educators for adopting a social science approach that downplayed or simply ignored anything that smacked of a common and national historical meta-narrative. Granatstein?s "take no prisoners" assault on the educational "left" engendered a bitter counterattack, and the fight was on.
One cannot understand Granatstein?s new book, Canada?s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace, without this context. This study too, while historical in its presentation (complete with scholarly apparatus), is a deliberate piece of advocacy. As Granatstein makes very clear in the preface, the book ?is an extended argument for military professionalism? and a reminder that all too often Canadians make the same mistakes again and again when it comes to their underfunded and unappreciated military. There is nothing inherently wrong with such advocacy, but I must come clean as well. I too am an alumnus of the Royal Military College (though as a civilian graduate student), have taught cadets and serving military personnel for that institution, and once worked for National Defence Headquarters as a strategic analyst before returning to academic life. In that capacity, I was often struck by the steadfast dedication and professionalism of so many Canadian military officials despite an often indifferent and uncomprehending government and populace. Moreover, I have known Dr. Granatstein (though not well) for fifteen years, and once had intended to study under him at York in the late 1980s before opting to work in the private sector. The world of Canadian military history is very small.
That all said, does this book do a good job of outlining the chequered history of the Canadian army? I think it does, though there are some problems. There are numerous inherent difficulties in writing a single volume study that covers a complex subject over a considerable span of time. One must make choices, sometimes difficult, about subject coverage and depth. In this case, the book spends much of its time analyzing the twentieth century. Less than fifty pages thus are devoted to the nineteenth century, which is unfortunate. The 1855 Militia Act, which one historian of my acquaintance claims is the true birth of the Canadian army, merits only the briefest of mentions. The discussion of the Riel Rebellion of 1885 too is far too short, as is the account of the Boer War. I would have liked also to have seen more about Sam Hughes, the controversial Minister of Militia and Defence from 1911 to 1916, though Granatstein?s discussion of the very self-confident Hughes (described elsewhere by some as possibly mentally unbalanced) is a measured one.
Having kick-started his career with two good books on Canadian politics in the Second World War, Granatstein does not stint in his discussion of the Canadian army's experiences in the two world wars. His assertion that the Canadian Corps of 1917-1918 was the finest and most professional military formation that Canada has ever fielded rings true, even if, as he points out, the Corps's rate of venereal disease in 1916 was nearly six times higher than the rate among their British compatriots! One cannot argue either with his account of the sad state of affairs in the interwar period. Hopes that the Corps's sterling wartime accomplishments would lead to a better-funded professional force were all too quickly dashed. To employ an overused post Cold War term, after more than 60,000 fatalities on the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe, Canadians clearly sought a "peace dividend." The result was a tiny army almost totally lacking in modern equipment and tactical acumen despite the best efforts of some officers to seek the martial skills they feared might be needed again all too soon.
Such fears proved all too prescient after Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939. For the second time in twenty-five years, Canadian men (and finally women too), signed up for the duration. But unlike 1914, there was little enthusiasm in Canada; the hard losses of the first war had destroyed any remaining illusions about the romance of war. But as in 1914, fashioning a mass army from a tiny professional cadre was no easy task, and this time the army had real competition for warm bodies from the navy and the air force. Circumstances and Prime Minister Mackenzie King?s fear of casualties and conscription limited the army's role initially. Nor did it help that when the army finally saw combat at Hong Kong in December 1941 and Dieppe in August 1942, it suffered two horrific and still controversial defeats. Granatstein blames the debacle on Hong Kong on the army?s inefficient administrative and training practices, and its utter lack of an independent intelligence apparatus; Canada, he asserts, ?needed to act like a nation, not a colony? (p. 201). But the army performed well in the oft-ignored Italian campaign and then learned some bloody lessons on the job in Normandy and Holland in 1944. When Germany finally collapsed in May 1945, while it had not enjoyed the spectacular success as exemplified by Vimy Ridge?s capture in 1917, Canada's army had done its part to bring down Hitler?s hideous regime.
But as Granatstein rightly avers, Canadians again sought a peace dividend. Canada's military shrunk to near extinction after 1945, and then had to be painfully rebuilt in the early 1950s when the Cold War got hot in Korea and threatened to get very hot indeed in western Europe. Canadian forces were posted to Europe by the early 1950s, where they would stay for over forty decades, the first time the nation's military elements had been posted overseas in peacetime. But those forces were drastically cut after Pierre Trudeau's ascension to power in 1968. No friend of the military (unless it could be used to cow a handful of Quebec separatists in 1970), and highly suspicious of NATO, Trudeau wanted to focus on domestic affairs. Nor was he a great fan of peacekeeping, a task that the Canadian military had come to most reluctantly as it took troops away from training for the expected confrontation with the Soviet Union on the north German plain. Canadians, though, loved the notion of mediating between warring parties, that is until two Canadian soldiers murdered a Somali youth in 1993 while trying to restore order in Somalia and feed the starving inhabitants. Subsequent "peacemaking" operations in the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1990s, often with the United States taking the lead, also proved most disputatious. Canadians, it seems, prefer to see their soldiers as peaceful guarantors of security after the fact rather than as aggressive enforcers.
Granatstein ends his book with an impassioned call for money and resources for the army so that it can defend North America, participate in the war against terrorism, play a meaningful role in peacekeeping operations, and act overseas with its friends and allies "when and wherever Western and democratic interests are at stake" (p. 427). I agree, but will not hold my breath. Spending more on the military is a tough sell when Canada's health care and educational institutions are in financial crisis. Still, I would suggest that Canadians (and others too), regardless of their position on an enhanced military, read this book. It is a good synthesis of the impressive research on military history in Canada--indeed, I think that one of this book's major accomplishments is that the author goes out of his way to draw attention to Canada?s increasingly fine military historiography.
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Galen Perras. Review of Granatstein, J. L., Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace.
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