Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Harper's Creeping Militarism & the Rewriting of Canada

Militarization is most often associated with states in which every facet of life revolves around symbols and practices directly connected with the armed forces. The most striking examples of this are obviously totalitarian states where the military has either a direct role in the administrative apparatus of the state or is deeply connected to the regime in power. Perhaps the most prominent example is Nazi Germany where the military, and particularly the more fanatical paramilitary organizations, played a central role in organizing and uniting the people. Here indoctrination began early and was extremely intensive. From an early age children were conditioned and prepared for service to country, disciplining minds and bodies for sacrifice. The 20th century was permeated with militarized states, even after the defeat of the key militarist powers in 1945: Germany and Japan. North Korea, Argentina, Chile and Uganda, for instance, are also illustrative and diverse examples. Militarism, however, is often a pejorative attached to dictatorial and fascist regimes. It is not something closely associated with democracy. Indeed, for most, the two concepts seem antithetical, yet democracy and militarism are closely linked and have a long history.

The fiery burst of rebellion and revolution in 1789 gave rise to one of the modern world's first militarized states. What accompanied the French Revolution's call for "liberté, égalité, fraternité" was the linking of citizenship and military service. France's revolutionary wars required a concerted effort in order to fend off the counter-revolutionary machinations of Europe's continental powers determined to restore the status quo of absolutist rule and quell the nascent movement for democracy. Spain, Prussia and Britain in particular had a vested interest in restoring the balance to preserve peace at home and dissuade potential agitators against challenges to the order of things. The French state, broke and in disarray, looked to the people as its first (and last) line of defense. The result was an early version of the citizen army - levée en masse - in which those with the ability were drafted to service. This was a major revolution in military affairs, massively increasing the size of the armed forces as well as its composition. Gone - at least until the late 20th century - were the days of guns for hire and limited forces. It was also a revolution in conceptions of citizenship. Citizens now had rights and reciprocal obligations to the state, mainly its defense.

18th Century France was merely the first linking of democracy and militarism. Canada experienced its first round with the Great War. However, this was outstripped and outpaced by the Second World War and the dawn of total war. The whole of domestic production was now oriented to the war effort. The entire country from coast to coast was on a war footing. All else was subsumed by this drive. The United States was also swept up, particularly after Pearl Harbor. While the end of the Great War brought a return to normalcy, the end of the second war inaugurated a new normal state of affairs: the militarized democratic state. While most production shifted back to the manufacture of goods for consumers, the onset of the Cold War prevented a full return to previous conditions. War production and industrial development would remain central to the state. Indeed, this was not without its benefits. The fruits of military research have meant the development of everything from the internet and microwaves to the ubiquitous iPod. Early on, however, there were dire warnings.

In 1961, outgoing president of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower took the occasion of his departure from the White House to give his famous farewell address to the nation. In it he warned of the emerging influence of military interests and the development of the Military Industrial Complex. Eisenhower ominously warned that:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.  

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. 

The warning was not heeded in the United States. The persistence of the Cold War and the end of detente in later decades would mean unprecedented military spending by the end of the 1980s. Militarism had become an ingrained and, ultimately, inseparable element of American society. As James Der Derian notes in Virtuous War, the Military Industrial Complex had expanded beyond its initial industrial confines to include the entertainment and media industries. No part of American life, from video games to the movies, remained untouched by military power and interests.

In Canada the process has been subtle, obscured by cultural and political factors, as well as a heavy dose of propaganda and spin. The persistent myth of Canada as a peace keeping nation hides the extent to which the state was integrated with the military interests of the United States. From NORAD to RADAR installations, Canada was an active participant in aiding American military objects. Canada is also a major arms broker, supplying its American ally and consistently ranking in the top 15 of suppliers globally. The peace keeper myth was largely tainted by the Somalia affair and by commitments to Afghanistan beginning in 2002. The Harper government has attempted to shift Canada further on to a war footing since coming to power, extending the Afghan mission, committing new funds to the military and often appearing in military gear alongside the troops. Those decrying Harper's vision of Canada often hark back to the peacekeeping myth, to a reality that never was, as the alternative vision for the country. The reality, however, is that while it may be hidden from view, Canada has nevertheless been on a heavy war footing for decades.

Certainly by this point objections will be made to claims that Canada is heavily militarized already. The fact that Canada is becoming more militarized as a result of Conservative policy is likely less objectionable. Yes, Canada's military capacity is relatively small. We're a small state, with a small population and economic resources limited by that fact. Moreover, when compared to the United States - which consumes half of the worlds military spending - Canada is nowhere near on that same scale.  The United States has an economy ten times our size and ten times our population. We spend about 1.5% of our GDP on the military (about $23b), but as a percentage of the federal budget that's nearly ten percent. Factor in long-term commitments such as fighter jets and new ships and our commitments to national defense is quite high. Direct military spending, however, is not the best measure of militarism. The true measure is political and sociological. It rests in governments and peoples.

As feminist IR scholar writes, "Militarization [is never] simply about joining a military. It is a far more subtle process " (2000, 2). She goes on to note that "many people can become militarized in their thinking, in how they live their daily lives, in what they aspire to for their children and their society, without ever wielding a rifle or donning a helmet" (2). "Militarization  is such a pervasive process, and thus so hard to uproot, precisely because in its everyday forms it scarcely looks threatening" (3). Militarism in Canada took an innocuous yet insidiousness form. It manifests itself subtly yet pervasively. It is one thing to remember and commemorate the sacrifices of the past. It is quite another to raise them to the centre of the nation's life. Remembrance Day is perhaps the clearest example of the former. It extols the virtues and sacrifices of individual heroism without elevating war itself. It remembers without elevation or embellishment. War is still hell and something to be avoided. Yet the latter view is taking over. War assumes a central role. No longer an evil it is dignified as a positive force, a nation building experience, something to unite. Under fiver years of Conservative rule, the military has slowly moved to the centre of national consciousness. Along with this shift, militarism has seized hold of notions of citizenship and identity.

History is the first casualty, subsumed by ideological visions of nationhood and belonging. The means is subtle and understated. It is not solely a rewriting but a re-emphasis. Battles and wars are now the defining moments in the country's history. The War of 1812 is now the conception point of a nation. Canada, the Conservatives tell us, was shaped by the few years of this war. Alternatively, it wasn't shaped, for instance, by the experiences of the early inhabitants of New France and later Lower Canada - the first to use the term Canadiens - or the collective struggles for Responsible Government. Gone is the formative experience of our own aborted revolution that was the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837-38. Canada, we are told,  had no real sense of herself until the Great War, where the nation was forged at Vimy. Throughout the rest of the century, it was war where Canada asserted herself, punching 'above our weight' as the Prime Minister likes to tell us. Omitted is Canada's commitment to peace. From our founding participation in the United Nations, presenting a solution to the Suez Crisis, the Ottawa Treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines and the (ultimately aborted) Kyoto Protocol, all have been subsumed by an image of Canada as a 'warrior nation'.

Citizenship is the second casualty. As history is reworked, so too is the notion of what it means to be Canadian. This is evident, for instance, in the changes to citizenship guides which have highlighted military history over social and political advances. Knowledge of important battles is placed on bar with knowledge of the Charter or other developments. Knowledge of the Battle of Stoney Creek or Vimy Ridge become prerequisites for becoming Canadian.

Culture is the third casualty and is intimately linked to history and belonging. Our media has latched on to the military, placing it prominently in television especially. This follows the American example where, even the those on the left, elevate the military to a position of moral authority. The politicians may do wrong, but the military is merely 'following orders'. Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been guilty of this, expounding and promoting the military, elevating it to an honoured place in American society. Perhaps the most vocal proponent in Canada is the loud-mouthed Don Cherry who has used his weekly pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada to extol the virtue of Canada's armed forces. This adulation cuts across the spectrum, from the right on Sun News to the left on the CBC (home to Cherry) where, for instance, Rick Mercer is quite fond of the troops. Public displays are also becoming more ubiquitous, from the American-style yellow ribbons, dressing in red on Fridays to the renaming of major infrastructure (Highway of Heroes).

There is certainly no fault in honouring bravery, service and commitment. Yet there is a fine line between this and idolization. It is one thing to give genuine thanks, but it is quite another to place the armed forces at the centre of public life and make such explicit connections to citizenship and identity. It is particularly problematic  when any criticism of the military is taken as an affront to men and women in uniform. Indeed, the slightest indication that one opposes militarization to to be labelled as being 'against the troops'. A democracy in which the military (or anything pertaining to it) is beyond the scope criticism is a vulnerable democracy.

One facet of this rising militarism is particularly interesting: it is a phenomenon of English Canada, in both sense of the word. First, it is a product of the 'Rest of Canada (ROC)' (as everything outside Quebec is labelled). Quebec remains much more pacifist. Indeed, it is strange that war is posited as the unifying factor when it is, in fact, war that has often threatened to divide this country. The war that gave rise to British North America - the French and Indian War - remains a sore spot with Quebec, centuries later. Similarly, the two world wars of the 20th Century threatened to rip the country asunder as a result of conscription crises. In the present day, Quebec remains most firmly against Canada's foreign adventures while English Canada is more voracious in its support. This is an English phenomenon in a second, racial sense in that it is accompanied by a very white version of Canada history. In emphasizing war as a binding agents, the Conservatives have massively downplayed other unifiers, particularly multiculturalism. In this rewriting of Canada, people of colour, immigrants and Aboriginals are largely written out. The two formative events as now written - 1812 and 1917 - are white colonial or Dominion events. Canadian citizenship has not only been militarized, but whitewashed as well.

These factors all come to bear politically. The more militarized society becomes, the easier it is for Harper to rebuild Canada in a conservative image. Fiscally it allows for a retrenchment of the social envelop while military spending continues to grow. This movement undermines other forms of solidarity, replacing notions of collective identity based on diversity and social welfare with violence and war. Harper's conception of history, citizenship and belonging are fundamentally antithetical to the values which have made Canada what it is.Social and welfare programs may be cut, but the need for new and ever more expensive military procurement goes unchallenged. While the F-35 contract has been criticized for going  massively over budget, no real criticism has emerged challenging the need for these jets. The military's word that they are required is all the matters. Similarly, $35 billion in ship building contracts only raises objection from the province that didn't secure a contract. The announcement that the government is going to spend another half billion on American satellites is also unlikely to elicit much objection. More alarmingly than this exorbitant spending, however, is the way in which the military establishment and the government have come to be linked under the current ministry. For the Chief of Defense Staff to actively intervene and defend a minister of the Crown raises serious questions about this relationship and the neutrality of the armed forces. Partisanship in a bureaucrat is a non-starter in the public service. The CDS serves the Crown and thus the people of Canada. A bureaucrat that serves the interests of a government and interfering in matters before Parliament is a danger to the democratic process. When leaders of the military involve themselves in the politics of the state, the end result is neither positive nor desirable.

Further Reading:
James Der Derian. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2001)
Cynthia Enloe. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives (Berkely: University of California Press, 2000)

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