An expansion on The Expositor’s view on war and adventure

We still live in a world where the use of military force will remain necessary

To the Expositor:

RE: ‘War is not a glorious adventure,’ editorial of April 5.

I thought I would wait until most of the flag waving and triumphalism had died down before I offered my own comments on the celebrations involving the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Those were different times in the Canada of 100 years ago, and no doubt our ancestors would take this military success as a sign that God was on our side. I think of Oliver Cromwell, the crypto-fascist Puritan ‘parliamentarian’ at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1645, during the English Civil War. Having led a successful cavalry charge down the Royalist right flank that day, Cromwell had been ‘unhorsed’ and received some nasty wounds in the fray. However, by ten o’clock that night he had recovered enough to be sitting up in a makeshift bed, writing his correspondence. In a letter to a colleague, Cromwell boasted how victory that day proved once again that his was “the army of God.”

Unfortunately, Cromwell lived about 125 years too soon to have been aware of Voltaire’s cynical observation that Divine Providence always seemed to be “on the side with the larger battalions.”

Personally, I have never been a big subscriber to the belief that Canada came of age as a nation in the mud and the blood of Vimy Ridge. On the other hand, I don’t plan on making a pilgrimage any time soon to the front steps of the Saskatchewan Legislature, where Tommy Douglas proclaimed into force the first medicare plan of any jurisdiction in Canada—or North America.

And my point is? It is difficult to pinpoint the exact foundations of what turns a country into a nation. Myths, legends and folklore are often as important as raw historical facts when assessing the key binding agents that hold a country together, and give it a sense of identity.

Make no mistake: The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a magnificent feat of arms for Canada’s young army. Our soldiers achieved what the armies of Britain and France had been unable to do on several earlier occasions—namely, take the ridge.

Was it worth it? Mmmm…hard to say. By the spring of 1917, aircraft were in widespread use, as was aerial photography for reconnaissance purposes. Holding the high ground to get a ‘one-up’ on your enemy was no longer as important as it once was. Consider, too, that 3,600 young Canadians were killed in just four days, and 7,000 more seriously wounded. Then there are the psychological scars that the survivors suffered for the rest of their life (think “PTSD”) that can never be measured.

Nor did Vimy Ridge change much in the big picture, from a strategic point of view. Granted, our success in that battle seemed to be—at least temporarily—a glimmer of hope in a bleak military situation. Canada, along with the other armies on the Western Front, was just emerging from the horrible bloodbath of the previous year’s summer campaign, now known as the Battle of the Somme.

Nothing really changed in the day to day military operations after Canada’s big win in April of 1917 either. All troops on the Western Front—our own included—would continue to pay the high price of the “butcher’s bill” during the summer campaign of that year, which professional historians would later call the Battle of Passchendaele.

When Canada’s Prime Minister, Robert Borden, visited England in December, 1917, he demanded a private audience with David Lloyd George. The British Prime Minister was shocked when a mere ‘Dominion leader’ proceeded to give him a severe dressing down. Borden made it clear that there would not be one more Canadian soldier sent to Europe on his watch, unless something was done to stop using them as cannon fodder in these senseless mass offensives.

Mention is made in The Expositor’s editorial about the responsibility of the writings of Karl Von Clauswitz (Von who?) in causing the greatest cataclysm in world history up to the time of The Great War. From the safety of his teaching position at Lichterfelde, the Prussian military academy in Berlin during the 1820s, this philosopher of war as he is called, expounded the thesis that, “War is a continuation of politics”—at least, as politics apply to the area of foreign policy. When sovereign nation states interact, they first pursue their interests through diplomacy. If that does not work, it is natural for them to resort to military force to get their way. Or so argued Von Clauswitz.

His theory fell into disrepute after World War I, because of the extreme destructiveness of that conflict. In Professor John Keegan’s acclaimed book “A History of Warfare,” there is a photo of a large mushroom cloud from one of the many atomic tests conducted back in the fifties. The caption under the photo states that nobody has been able to explain how nuclear warfare could be “a continuation of politics.”

Don’t be so sure. Keegan himself admits that the greatest disciples of Von Clauswitz in the twentieth century were the Marxists—Lenin, Trotsky, Chairman Mao, Ho-Chi-Minh, Fidel Castro, the list goes on. They all applied Clauswitzian theory with great success, and with great brutality. Moreover, there was plenty of material found in the archives after the Soviet Union collapsed, to indicate that the Stalinist louts who ran the Kremlin, were toying with the idea that nuclear war just might be winnable.

Remember, too, how we live in a world with ISIS and Al Qaeda. We also live in an era of third world nut cases like Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and the medievalist mullahs of Iran. Any one these organizations, or rogue states, would use weapons of mass destruction in a heartbeat, if they thought they could get away with it.

No doubt war is a nasty business as the headline in The Expositor’s editorial so rightly suggests. Unfortunately for the countries in the West, we still live in a world where the use of military force will—from time to time—still be necessary.

Instead of “Never again,” perhaps we should say: “The odd time, and on a much reduced scale.”

Brad Middleton