Review of J.L. Granatstein and Dean F. Oliver’s ‘The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History’ by Roger Sarty

by | Jun 14, 2012 | LCSC, Reviews, War and Society | 0 comments

J.L. Granatstein and Dean F. Oliver, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press and the Canadian War Museum, 2011), 514 pages.

This is a ‘companion’ book in the best sense: a valuable reference, and a good read. Both strengths come from strong organization, the result in no small part of the volume being produced in its entirety by the two authors, rather than a panel of experts as in the case of other works in the large Oxford Companion series. The achievement of the two authors is impressive, in scale as well as coherence. There are perhaps a thousand entries, covering wars and military developments in times of peace from the beginnings of European settlement in the early seventeenth century to the present. Even the shortest of the entries, about 200 words, is substantial enough that it gives a good sense of the subject and why it is important. The longest entries are no more than about 3500 words, and distill the key elements of big, complex topics, such as the international conflicts of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries from which Canada emerged as a state, the two world wars and Cold War of the twentieth century, and the ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Afghanistan War’ of the twenty-first century. Particular campaigns, battles, political issues, leaders and notable personalities each have their own entries. Thus individual entries are readable and digestible, and one can search for topics under specific headings rather than having to wade through long consolidated essays. If you want to know more, you can turn to other, cross referenced entries.

The major essay on the central issue of ‘Conscription,’ for example, treats the controversies of both the first and second world wars, and refers to several other related major entries. These include ‘Quebec and the Military,’ and biographical pieces on several key participants, such as prime ministers Robert Borden, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and J.L. Ralston, the Second World War defence minister who demanded the dispatch of conscripts overseas to reinforce the First Canadian Army in 1944 and was ousted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King for this principled stand. There are also entries on specific elements of the conscription crises, such as Bill 80 of 1942 that empowered the government to send home defence conscripts to overseas combat theatres but which, much to the fury of advocates for compulsory service, Mackenzie King refused to implement until reinforcements were urgently needed and could be found from no other source.

The conscription issue is a staple of old style Canadian political history, but one of the book’s central aims is to examine more broadly how armed conflict, and preparations for conflict, have made Canada—its population, its politics, economy and culture. The intention and approach are laid out in the Preface: ‘This book reminds Canadians that war has shaped their nation’s past and present. It will undoubtedly contour its future. … Organized human violence— war—has had its way with us, and us with it. Canadians are different as a result. Canada is too. … Military history is not a restorative or a call to politicize the act of remembrance, but a source of understanding, of critical inquiry. It is a sometimes ignored, often misrepresented, strand of our historical DNA. We want to make it a little less of both.’ (p. ix)

Some of the extended entries on what in current scholarship might be termed ‘war and society’ topics include ‘Home Front, World Wars I and II,’ ‘War Finance, World Wars I and II,’ and ‘War industry, World Wars I and II.’ There are also entries on ‘Military Medicine,’ ‘Military Music,’‘War Art’, ‘War Photography,’ and ‘War Correspondents.’ These articles include recent developments, notably in the war in Afghanistan, as well as the better known developments of the two world wars. Also helpful on the military’s role in social change during the past twenty to thirty years is the long entry on ‘Sexual Discrimination,’ and a shorter one on ‘Gays and Lesbians in the Canadian Forces.’ A subject that has become a focus of study still more recently is the impact of Canada’s military experience on literary culture. One of the longest articles, ‘Research and Writing,’ argues that ‘The history of Canada’s wars and military excursion has been an integral part of Canadian letters from earliest times,’ that is the oral traditions of the First Nations (p. 366), and traces the development of scholarship in military affairs to the present. Cross references include ‘Autobiography, Military,’ ‘Biography, Military,’ and biographical entries on several leading historians.

Of course armed forces exist not as agents or mirrors of social development, but, as the authors emphasize, to uphold government authority internally, defend the state against external attack, and as an instrument of foreign policy. Indeed Canada is the product of ‘the game of kings’ (and queens)—Europe’s imperial diplomacy and wars of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, from which Britain emerged as the dominant power. Britain’s Royal Navy and regular army protected its North American colonies against the United States, the only nation in a position to conquer them, and which it attempted to do in 1775-6 and again in 1812-14. From the 1850s or earlier, Britain sought rapprochement with the United States, a bid to turn a one-time enemy into an ally in an increasingly competitive international environment. Part of this effort was support for confederation of the North American colonies in 1867, the granting of increased autonomy to the new federal state, and the withdrawal of the British Army garrisons, in order to reduce the British Empire trappings that aroused hostility south of the border. Britain also pushed the often reluctant young country to resolve its own differences with the United States, the beginning of the friendly relations that in the early twentieth century became the essential guarantee of Canada against major external attack. (‘Garrisons, British,’ and ‘Macdonald, John Alexander’ provide particularly clear accounts of the nineteenth century.)

The result of Canada’s growth to nationhood within the British Empire, and then its partnership with the United States, is that Canada’s own military has never been developed in any serious way for defence against invasion. The first militia forces were created in the 1850s to replace departing British garrison troops in domestic policing duties (‘Militia’). This role, explained in the extended entry ‘Aid to the Civil Power,’ has continued throughout the nation’s history, including the large scale deployment of troops in the crisis of October 1970 when the Front de libération du Québec proclaimed a terrorist insurgency by kidnapping a British diplomat and murdering a Quebec cabinet minister, and in 1990 to contain armed resistance to local and provincial authorities by Mohawk warriors at Oka, Quebec (both also covered in separate entries).

Canada, shielded by its great power friends, has thus been in the fortunate position of raising large armed forces mainly to fight far from Canada’s shores, starting with the ‘South African War’ of 1899-1902, and continuing through the major national efforts of the two world wars (which in both cases put about ten percent of the entire population in uniform), through the recent operations in Afghanistan. All of these conflicts, together with the employment of Canadian forces in Peacekeeping missions at trouble spots around the world since the 1950s (the subject of an incisive entry), have exemplified the use of armed forces to support foreign policy. That policy has always been to support a world order favourable to Canada’s large international interests (trade, utterly essential to the country’s economy, is only one example, together with broadly democratic ideals that are generally favourable to trade).

The essence of Canada’s military experience in many respects is its international context. It is that context that makes Canada’s story unique (we are one of the most international countries in the world and have always been so), important and controversial. The strong treatment of that context is perhaps the greatest strength of the book—in the extended entries on major conflicts mentioned above, and in thematic essays such as ‘Alliances, Canadian,’ and ‘Canada-United States Defence Relations.’ I would also commend the essays on each of the prime ministers who have led in times of conflict or presided over important developments in the organization of the armed forces. These seamlessly intertwine military issues and events with international policy.

The book is co-published by the Canadian War Museum, and features superb illustrations drawn from the museum’s collections. This support from the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, the parent of the war museum, is significant and important in fulfilling its mandate to promote Canadian history.

Indeed the book powerfully embodies the museum corporation’s commitment to historical research, and is something of a progress report on successful initiatives of the past decade and a half. Granatstein initiated a fresh emphasis on historical research at the Canadian War Museum when he was director and chief executive officer in 1998-2000. I was part of the new team, as director of exhibitions and historical research, and Oliver was the manager of the expanded research group. I left the museum at the end of 2003, when Oliver became director of exhibitions and historical research, a position in which he continues. I had no part in the making of the present book, other than to verify the facts in one entry some years ago (my correspondence shows I was only vaguely aware of the larger project for which the entry had been produced). I can only applaud the achievement of the authors in fleshing out, both in broad themes and detail, the ideas and research that the museum began to assemble fourteen years ago.