Sunday, April 9, 2017

April 9: Extra - and change of pace.

Canada is seeing a celebration of the battle of Vimy Ridge, and how it created a Canadian nation. The Brunswick News  has carried at least six, gushing stories about it - all of them pretty much the same story. And all of them pretty shallow.
In fact, Canada was a nation long before Vimy Ridge. Remember Confederation in 1867? Nor do nations, as a  rule, suddenly get created. They are the products of  centuries of immigration, conquest, mixing of peoples, centuries of evolution of political structures. World War 1 had nothing to do with creating a Canadian nation. Canadians are, as they should be, proud of the Canadian performance at Vimy Ridge. But it didn't create a nation.
On the contrary, the Canadian government did a great deal in that war to weaken us as a nation. African Canadians were routinely refused the right to join the army. So were French-speaking Canadians So were Chinese Canadians. So, for the most part, were Canada's native peoples.
For that matter, a very large part of the Canadian army was made up of British-born who had emigrated to Canada - and now needed jobs in a country with a high unemployment rate.
Far from rising as a proud nation after the war,  Canada edged toward civil war after 1918. Canadian troops in Britain had to be sent home quickly because they were organizing in favour of communism.  After the war, there were general strikes, especially massive and violent in Winnipeg and Vancouver. The experience of war had embittered people who were angry they had fought for millionaires, only to have the millionaires dump them when the war was over - and the millionaires could sit back and count their war profits.
Britain was having the same experience. That's why The Legion was formed. It was to keep in touch with veterans so they could shoot at strikers if necessary.
As well, and for reasons that baffle me, most media accounts don't even mention the brilliant Canadian officer who commanded at the battle of Vimy Ridge. He was Arthur Currie, a man whose only military experience had been as a colonel in the reserve. He had no significant military training, no experience.  But this colonial amateur would  come to be regarded by the British government as the best general on the British side. It even considered him for the top position commanding all British and imperial troops. (Unfortunately, they didn't do it. They left command to a British aristocrat, Earl Haig, who was a dolt.)
And there's another unpleasant aspect to this story. Nations don't usually go to war out of affection for any other nations.  Usually, wars are fought for quite selfish reasons. We have wars in the middle east. That's not because of love of anybody. It's because our billionaires love oil. Wars are usually fought for markets, resources, for profits. That's what empires are for. That's why the U.S. killed over a million Iraqis.
(Incidentally, if wars are fought to create nations, why don't we count The War of 1812 as the  founding of the Canadian nation?) Our military did a pretty good job in that one, too.
Britain helped us in the war of 1812  because it had to in order to protect its own investments. But by the 1870s, the thrill had worn off. Britain could see a war with Germany coming. That called for a big friend. And Canada wasn't big. The British realized that they needed the U.S. - but -what if Canada got into another war with the U.S.? Then Britain would have to fight the U.S. As the Imperial power, it was obliged, for example, to defend Canada.
No. Canada would have to become independent. To survive, Britain would have to kiss up to the U.S. - and it's been doing that ever since. That's one reason Britain pushed for Canadian confederation. It was a step toward getting rid of Canada. This attempt at making up with the U.S. is why Churchill  called his history of Britain "History of the English-speaking Peoples". He knew the British Empire had nowhere to do but down. It could survive only by creating an English-speaking gang.
But the U.S. wasn't much interested in being friends with Britain. It was building its own empire. By the 1890s, Britain was worried.  The US wasn't buying the idea of "English-speaking peoples." And that created a crisis.
With a war with Germany looming, Britain needed allies. The only place it could get them was from the colonies. However, in time of war the Imperial agreement was that Britain would go to war for the colonies - but - they did not have to go to war for Britain.
Then came the golden opportunity to change that as Britain moved to war to steal the gold of South Africa in what would be called the Boer War. Canada would be asked to join.
It was a big help that Canadian big business wanted Canada to join a war that had nothing to do with Canada. After all, their market and their sources of capital were largely in Britain. And so Canadians died for the empire. This was the precedent Britain wanted. (Just as Canadians in Libya, Afghanistan, Latvia, Iraq today are the precedents for what the U.S. wants.)
That's why Canada just automatically went to war in 1914.
Once the war was over, though, Canada became a handicap for Britain again. What if Canada  were invaded by the U.S.?  Horrors! Britain would have to defend Canada.
In fact, there was a touchy period about 1904. The U.S. was claiming (on a very questionable basis) a piece of land that Canada claimed belonged to it. And it was the only Canadian route in those days to the gold fields of the Yukon. The American pesident threatened to send in troops if necessary. British politicians gulped.
So they set up a loaded commission to decide the issue - and Canada was outvoted by the British and Americans. But the warning was clear to Britain. It had to dump Canada. That's why, after World War 1, Britain was happy to move away a bit, and to let Canada decide for itself when it wanted to go to war.
On the issues of war and money there is no sentimentality on the part of government or big business.
And so, without it being much noticed, Canada is now a part of the American empire, and it fights wars for the U.S.
The monument to the Canadians at Vimy Ridge is the most magnificent I have ever seen. To go up the tunnels to the German line at the top is an experience that defies words. And then, to stand at the top and look down at a vast stretch of farmland is so breathtaking it makes one forget there are still tons of high explosive buried under the ridge. And below  the ridge, one can see farms with live artillery shells stacked up like cordwood, all dug up from a soil that still breathes the horror of that battle. And behind the ridge are rows of the grey stones that mark German graves.
Was the battle a turning point in the war?  No.  For the rest of the war, the Canadian army would perform magnificently under Currie. But the battle of Vimy Ridge was one that led nowhere.
And have we made this world a better place as a result of that war?
And did all those who died in it even know what they were fighting for?
Remember the thousands who died. Forget the "birth of a nation bilge".

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