Militarizing Canadian Culture

Our government and media not just excusing war, but glorifying it
February 1, 2012

“The deformed human mind is the ultimate doomsday weapon.”

—British historian E.P. Thompson.

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I was reminded of this stark warning while listening to one of Rex Murphy’s Cross-Country Checkups on CBC Radio last November.

Murphy was interviewing Terry Glavin, a B.C. journalist and writer for whom I have great respect, about Glavin’s latest book, on Canada’s so-called “mission” in Afghanistan.

In response to the question of whether the “mission” was worth it, Murphy’s first telephone caller was a military man from Winnipeg. He said, in effect, that the “mission” was good for the Canadian military, because it gave them a chance to put their training and the tools of their trade to a practical test.

Think about that. Dispense with the euphemism “mission,” and what he was saying is this: Invasion, bombing and war, the massive organized spending of blood and treasure, are good because it gives the military a chance to try out its weapons.

That’s like wishing for the return of cannibalism so that we can test our dentures and stomachs.

Murphy utterly failed to question or challenge such a claim – surely an obscenity by any decent human standard – and contented himself with thanking the caller for his service.

As the internationally respected Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung has tirelessly argued, the trajectory of war starts long before the first shot is fired. It begins with euphemisms, lies, the glorification of combat, desensitization to violence, a process of “othering” vis-à-vis a designated enemy. Cultural violence lays the groundwork for the physical violence of war.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, and particularly the advent of the Harper government, there has been a conscious effort to militarize Canada’s culture. Have you ever wondered why recent official Canada Day celebrations are festooned with tanks and military equipment on which young people are invited to play? Why the government is promoting the War of 1812 as a symbol of Canadian identity? Why professional hockey teams have special games honouring the military? (Or for that matter, why chauvinistic hockey commentator Don Cherry is on television at all?)

Since 2002, 158 brave Canadian men and women have died in the Afghan “mission.” Those deaths have received prominent and suitably respectful treatment in the Canadian media. But during that same period, how much have we heard about the approximately 9,000 Canadian workers who have died on the job?

How far has Canada regressed in the last 10 years towards sentiments like the following:

“War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy, and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision – the alternatives of life or death.”

Who said that? Don Cherry? Nope, too many multi-syllabic words. Sounds a bit closer to Rex Murphy’s style – but actually, it’s a quote from the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Not exactly a friend of democracy or a prophet of a hopeful human future.

For Canadians who do care about democracy and a more hopeful future, there is a twofold task.

First, let’s wake up and smell the coffee. One need not be a pacifist – I am not – to recognize that there is a well-oiled campaign to lower the threshold at which war becomes a thinkable option. That campaign needs a counter-campaign in the terrain of culture – from exposing the economic and political interests behind militarism to celebrating the courage and sacrifices of Canadian civilians who have worked for a more peaceful world.

Second, we also need a campaign to revitalize Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC. As its advocates recognized 80 years ago, Canada needs a public broadcaster as part of a balanced media system; it serves democratic needs that commercial broadcasters alone generally do not. But CBC insiders, speaking off the record, confirm that CBC management has become “left-phobic,” terrified of upsetting the sensibilities of the Harper government. And that hampers the ability of CBC journalists to achieve their mandate of offering balanced opportunities for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.

Clearly, we can’t count on the Rex Murphys and Don Cherrys of the airwaves to do it for us.

(Prof. Robert A. Hackett has taught in the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University since 1984. He is a CCPA Research Associate.)