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Manitoba History No. 89

No. 89

War Memorials in Manitoba
in Manitoba

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Manitoba History: Review: Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada

by Peter Brown
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

A Military History of Canada. Desmond Morton. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985. xii, 266 pp, ill. ISBN 0-88830-276-2.

Canada’s military history is so unlike that of her closest allies. We have no military heroes like Britain’s Marlborough, Nelson and Wellington; no period of conquest such as Napoleon’s continental empire. Unlike the U.S., our nation was not fabricated out of revolution and conflict. Nor was it torn apart by civil war and recreated as a regional power and, after 1945, as a super power. Moreover, for the most part, our wars have been others’ wars. The war of 1812, the Boer War and the world wars of the 20th century have been the result of other nations’ aggression and failed diplomacy. When called upon we have made our contributions to empire and alliances and we have sought little for ourselves. Along the way, we have come to believe that we are a peaceable people more interested in north-south dialogue and east-west detente than in cold war politics and strategic nuclear advantage. In sum, Canadians believe we are an “unmilitary people” (G. F. G. Stanley) whose “myth of war emphasizes voluntarism and the prowess of amateurs.” (Desmond Morton)

These are comfortable thoughts but they may also be, in a world only tenuously protected by the balance of terror, dangerous illusions. Desmond Morton’s A Military History of Canada is an attempt to confront at least two illusions: the vision of Canada as peaceable kingdom, and the myth of our strategic invulnerability. Canada may be a “peaceable kingdom” but our history and our political, social and economic institutions have been affected profoundly by war. Colonial and revolutionary wars “helped shape the myths and memories of a divided national identity.” (ix) In the twentieth century, “war compelled Canadians to choose between Empire and independence and ... forced Canada into a new and more troubled dependence on the United States. War was the catalyst for an explosive industrial expansion and for much of Canada’s system of social security.” (ix) Modern wars have divided Canadians; they have left “a heritage of differences, only lightly buried by the passage of time.” (xi) Not just differences between French and English, but a host of sullen memories “from the Métis defeated in 1885, to the Japanese and Ukrainian Canadians, interned because wars allowed old prejudices to be worked out.” (x)

Moreover, Canada’s current strategic degagement which began in Ogdensberg in the first year of World War Two has led to a dangerous dependency on the United States. In 1939, Canada declared war on Hitler’s Germany, not because Britain had done so, but as a sovereign, independent nation. Within a year, however, while Churchill grumbled in the background, King had accepted Roosevelt’s de facto leadership in the defence of North America. Canada’s deference to U.S. strategic priorities continues, though now the cost, as Churchill foretold, is immeasurably greater. For Morton, the cost is not only in treasure and sovereignty but in security. Canadians, he says, admire greatly America’s technological brilliance, but have little confidence in her diplomacy, strategic wisdom and tactical skill —as Korea, Vietnam and Granada will attest. Canada’s strategic security, is therefore, a “vanished certainty. It would be unfortunate if Canadians were the last to discover it.” (266)

If Morton’s message is unsettling it is also clear and true. It is a pity, however, that neither his narrative nor his scholarship will support his message. Retelling old yarns about Champlain peering down the barrel of his arquebus before he dispatches two Iroquois chiefs, or going for a walk with Laura Secord’s cow is not the way to illustrate so important a message. Morton’s questions and observations are good ones but they beg analysis. Apart from his introduction and sections of the last chapter, his narrative evokes childhood memories of G. A. Henty, not as it should, a sober and analytical discussion.

Winnipeg Rifles, 8th Battalion officers.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

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