The Fall and Rise of Military History

“Cook argues, rightly, that Americans, Australians, and Britons consistently have recollected this war in reasonably accurate ways, which emphasise their sacrifices and successes. Canadians, alone among the victor powers, have tended to forget why they fought this 'necessary war,' and to remember their defeats more than their deeds.



The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War. Tim Cook. Allen Lane, 2020.



THIS BOOK ASSESSES how an unmilitary people remembers its military history. Tim Cook’s account of how Canadians have viewed the Second World War says much of value, though his analysis largely is implicit, in particular regarding how and why politics shaped his topic. He also emphasises memorials above memories, and the politics of veterans groups and the technicalities of official commemoration over popular attitudes. Occasionally, the book verges on being a précis of committee meetings about the building of buildings which never were built, while it does not fully explain many of the social and political factors which drive the events which he describes. Fortunately, the strengths of the work easily outweigh these weaknesses. Cook recognises that no two countries remember the Second World War in the same way, and that these memories often are counter-productive. Obsession with that war distorts British and Russian understanding of their place in the world today, and so too Italian and Japanese efforts to forget that it ever happened. Still, Cook argues, rightly, that Americans, Australians, and Britons consistently have recollected this war in reasonably accurate ways, which emphasise their sacrifices and successes. Canadians, alone among the victor powers, have tended to forget why they fought this “necessary war,” and to remember their defeats more than their deeds.


"The military remained the most respected national institution and for the first time in generations, the Forces were central to national identity, just as they had been to history"

Subscribe and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS


Cook finds these attitudes “surprising, even shocking,” and shows that this war matters to Canadians, in ways which they often underrate. This underestimation stems from a conflict between both conservatives and liberals of various vintages since 1945, and also broader attitudes toward identity and strategy. Canadians find strategy, and their strategic history, hard to handle. We never have had to be responsible for our own security. We have not needed to defend our vital interests through our power alone, nor could we have done so. Our military forces sometimes have been great but rarely, since the Riel Rebellion, have been used in direct service of our national interests, not even in the emblematic instance of 1939. Instead, we have loaned our power to some international entity, the British Empire, the United Nations, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, in order to help it maintain a liberal political and economic order across the globe. It is the Canadian way of war. Canadians went to war in 1939 to pursue not narrow interests, but those of the world, through the means of supporting the British Empire. They also acted for reasons of identity. The dominant body of Canadians in 1939, those of British descent, commonly saw themselves as being both Canadians and part of a greater imperial polity. Canadian historians sometimes describe this identity by phrases like “imperial Canadians,” which is presented as colonial and inferior to proper Canadian nationalism. This criticism is parochial. David Edgerton recently has argued that people in Britain did not have a “British” national identity before 1945, but rather a looser and partly imperial one.* Before 1939 none of the Anglo elements of the British Empire really saw itself as a self-contained nation. Only the end of empire moved Australians, Canadians, Englishmen, and Scots in that direction.

* See David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, Allen Lane, 2020.


LATER, THE DEATH of this combined Anglo-Canadian-imperial identity crippled understanding of what Canadians had done during this war, and why. Canadians supported Britons partly because they thought them kinfolk, but mostly because the cause seemed right, and in Canada’s interests. Later, however, the impression that Canada seemingly had fought for Britain, delegitimised these motivations, and led some critics to conclude that Canadians had acted as colonials, or without agency. In fact, Canadians acted as they did consciously, and because they thought it right for themselves, and the world. These views were correct, and worthy of respect.

These older attitudes shaped the postwar politics of veterans’ groups, especially amidst the culture wars which shook Canada during the 1960s. These groups became the only spokesman of the war generation, and pursued the collective interests of all veterans, along with parochial and divisive aims, which silenced other views. These groups were central to a conservative, Conservative, and Anglo-Canadian body of opinion. Liberals and liberals wanted to outmanoeuvre them, so as to create a new Canada which an increasingly assertive and nationalist Quebec would tolerate. They hoped to foster a new sense of nationalism, or more precisely, a “binationalism,” a highest common denominator of a liberal Anglophone nationalism, and a moderate national one from Quebec. Most Canadians tolerated or supported this change in general though not in every particular. To alter the identity of the country, the old one must die. Americans could strip the socialist politics from “This Land is Your Land” simply by excising some verses and adding others. Utter extirpation alone could take imperial Canada from “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Veterans groups identified with the imperial Canadian framework, and the defence of old symbols — they expressed loyalties to their British commanders of the war, “Good old Winnie” and “Good old Monty” rather than Canadian ones. In 1964, Lester Pearson, Great War medals on his chest, defended the proposed Maple Leaf flag before the twentieth Dominion Convention of the Royal Canadian Legion. He was booed. One legionnaire bellowed, “You are selling us out to the pea-soupers!” Thus, veterans marginalised themselves, precisely as liberals pressed them in that direction. Few Canadians today would share the politics of veteran’s groups. Neither did many veterans at the time. These veterans’ groups easily could be seen as reactionary, and an impediment to the new Canada, because they really were old and in the way.

Canadian military history and the Second World War stood on the fault lines of this culture war. Military history was central to imperial Canadian identity but hard to place into this binational one. It left Quebecois cool and left-wing Canadians cold. By militarising the symbols of imperial Canada, and then losing the battle over them, Conservatives and veterans groups defeated their own cause, and forced their opponents to become anti-military. Official commemoration of the Canadian military experience centred on the First World War, about which feelings rightly were ambivalent. Later, American culture wars reinforced a sense that war was bad, and best not discussed in polite society. Anti-militarism became imbued among academic Canadian historians and a substantial fraction of liberal and left-wing nationalists. Like Basil Fawlty, they did not want to talk about the war, and sought to keep it from the public sphere. War and military matters somehow were un-Canadian, and not truly part of its history. Cook assesses these anti-military sentiments, especially in Quebec, with power, but less so another contemporaneous development. Canadian nationalism became not just “binational” but “multinational.” Anglo-Canadian nationalism was bifurcated between the official version and a raucous and macho popular one, embodied in Don Cherry and Stompin’ Tom Connors. That popular nationalism was disassociated from insipid official ceremonies, but the True North remembered the war. War seemed as Canadian as hockey, two activities which Canadians often thought were one. They generally believed that somehow they were rather good at war, and remained interested in their own experiences, which they too interpreted from a national rather than an imperial perspective. Memories of military history easily could be stirred up. Cook does not address these issues, fundamental as they are to his narrative. Much of his data for public attitudes rests on letters to Legion magazine from veterans feeling sorry for themselves, which perhaps he overrates as evidence. Canadian memories of war could not later have revived as they did, and in the form which they did, without this unofficial, unorganised and private layer of popular attitudes.


COOK SHOWS HOW, step by step, between 1960 and 1990, the Second World War was largely forgotten in the public sphere, along with Canadian military history as a whole. Official commemorations withered into formalism. The Legion became inward looking, while the Canadian Forces suffered from budgetary neglect, seemingly content to survive on the margins of society. During the Cold War, the public discourse on politics became increasingly parochial, its gaze focused on the national navel of Montreal. Canadians almost forgot that they were members of NATO, the central part of their foreign policy. Right after the Cold War, partly because DND hushed up the facts, Canadians did not realise that their peacekeepers in Bosnia were in a shooting war. Later, DND kept Canadians from understanding what their forces were doing in the Kosovo conflict, partly from a bizarre fear that publicity would rouse anti-military attitudes, and provoke attacks on the families of Canadian servicemen at home.* The best-known Canadian involvements in “peacekeeping” during that period were the debacles of Rwanda and Somalia, which produced embarrassment. Though most Canadians were indifferent towards these debacles, a faction of liberals treated them as an opportunity to wreck what they viewed as militarism in Canada, without success.

* Robert Bergen, Censorship, The Canadian Armed Forces and Afghanistan: A Historical Comparison with Case Studies, Calgary Papers in Military and Strategic Studies, Occasional Paper No 3, 2009; and Scattering Chaff, Canadian Air Power and Censorship during the Kosovo War, University of Calgary Press, 2019.


Oddly, given his prominence as a military historian, Cook largely overlooks an important part of the story between 1960 and 1990: the writing of works about Canada and the Second World War. C.P. Stacey, as author, teacher and head of the Directorate of History or D.Hist in DND, and many of his students, most notably Jack Granatstein, published widely on Canadian politics and strategy during that war. So did historians like David Bercuson and Terry Copp, and the members of D.Hist, on the operations of the Canadian Army, the RCN and the RCAF. These histories, among the best of their kind internationally, offered any interested party an informed and thorough account of Canadian experiences in the war, which matched the quality of works in any other national history. One D.Hist author turned academic, Mark Milner, made the RCN central to the international study of the battle of the Atlantic. While never popular works, they had larger readership than the usual academic monograph. James Eayrs and Gwynne Dyer provided contrarian but able books on these issues. Collectively, these works improved the Canadian sense of their military past, especially compared to the abysmal understanding of the history of their foreign relations.

Meanwhile, popular interest in the war continued, especially reflected in the sales for Barry Broadfoot’s bestseller, Six War Years. Popular history crowded the bookshelves while the best-selling historian of Canada, Pierre Berton, integrated military history thoroughly into his works. Neither Berton nor Broadfoot even receive an entry in Cook’s index. Meanwhile from 1970 to 2010 Canadians developed a powerful place in international military studies. They colonised British universities, and created a Canadian school of British strategic history, and a notable one in French strategic history. Concentrations of military historians emerged at Calgary, RMC, Wilfrid Laurier, and UNB, with many more academic military historians scattered across Canada. Contrary to conventional views, never before had military history had so strong a position in Canadian academe, though now it is beginning to wane. The Second World War was taught constantly in Canadian universities, to booming enrolments — just not by Canadianists. The standard Canadian history textbook of the 1990s emphasised how that war affected Canadian society and politics, but scarcely mentioned its military aspects (unlike its discussion of the Canadian military experience of the Great War).*

* R.D. Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith, Destinies: Canadian History since Confederation, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1988.


THE ARRIVAL CAME suddenly, as several events in sequence stirred public sentiment. During 1992-94 the furore over the CBC television series, “The Valour and The Horror,” the last stand of both the old veterans groups and long-in-the-tooth anti-militarists reminded Canadians of the Second World War. The belated release of unflattering comments by British commanders about Canadian soldiers in the battle of Hong Kong sparked national outrage. These furores, and the sudden publicity given to commemoration of that war, especially the international gathering of veterans on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, sparked a cult of the veteran first as victims and then increasingly as heroes. Veterans had lost any political importance, but rose in power as cultural icons. This cult was reinforced by American fascination with veterans and the Second World War, which matured in 1998, with the release of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” followed by HBO’s “Band of Brothers” in 2001. Unofficial bodies began to promote commemoration and study of Canadian military history in the public sphere with rapid success which anti-militarists hated but failed to counter. Finally, 9/11 revealed the presence of real enemies and threats, and drove Canadians into a generation of active involvement in “peacekeeping,” a.k.a. “war.” Canadians rediscovered the world. War affected Canadians more than ever since 1952. Again, they loaned their power to international organisations to secure a liberal order across the globe. Though Canadians had little idea why they fought in locales like Libya and Iraq, they gave Team Canada astonishing support, as though combat were another international hockey tournament. Quebecois remained lukewarm but not hostile, while the rest of Canada (including many recent immigrants or their children) became fascinated by their past and present military history. A new cult of the war dead emerged in Canada, more powerful than anything seen since the First World War. Millions of people viewed television coverage of coffins being loaded onto Globemaster aircraft at Bagram Airfield near Kabul, then unloaded at CFB Trenton and driven down highway 401, watched by thousands of respectful observers from bridges overhead and far more via cameras in the sky. School assignments often had children reconstruct a veteran’s life and death.

These developments were natural and unofficial, though efforts were made to politicise them. The Chrétien government minimised publicity for Canadian military involvements, but still supported commemoration more than any Liberal government had done for generations. Its successor, the Martin government, treated the Canadian Forces with respect. The Harper government tried to make military history central to Canadian identity through the centenaries of the war of 1812 and the battle of Vimy Ridge. It failed to remake Canadian identity, but the Trudeau government did not challenge these celebrations or popular support for the military. Anti-militarists continued to lie low. DND enabled media access to its military operations in Afghanistan because it was necessary to gain public support for the mission. Through media embedment, soldiers became ambassadors for the Forces across Canada. Despite the inability of some senior brass to keep it in their pants, the military remained the most respected national institution in Canada, supported by public sentiment, and its constant work when other services failed during civilian crises. In 1999 Canadians guffawed as Toronto claimed that the military alone could clear its streets of snow. Elite opinion applauded when in 2020, the Trudeau government had generals oversee the administration of vaccines for Covid-19. For the first time in generations, war and the Canadian Forces were central to Canadian national identity, just as they had been to its history.

This article first appeared in the print edition, Vol. 11, Number 1 (Spring-Summer 2021) of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW.

John Ferris, FRSC, is a Professor of History at the University of Calgary. He writes on diplomatic, intelligence and military history, and strategic studies. His most recent works are John Ferris and Evan Mawdsley (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Second World War, Vol. I, Fighting the War (Cambridge, 2015) and Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Older Post Newer Post

  • Jack Morrow on

    The forgetting of the Second World War in the public sphere from 1960-1990 might have had something to do with the fact that for half that time, the country was governed by Pierre Trudeau, who chose to stay out of that war while patriotic Canadians were fighting in it.

  • Michael Dorosh on

    Berton perhaps deserves to be excluded. His book VIMY is such an enthralling read that few Canadians bother to question the nonsense between its pages. Compare to Jack Sheldon’s review of German records and you will see that Berton fell into the same trap that he critized others for – mythologizing Vimy Ridge. The Germans considered their positions their poor, and no one really tried to take the ridge until the Canadians did it. Yet Berton’s book – “pop history” – rehashes the old lies that Canadians wrested an unassailable fortress after years of failed attempts by other, lesser, militaries. If Berton is left out of discussions of Canadian military history, it’s probably for good reason.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published