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A private war

John Bell

July 29, 2014

Canadian historian and noted chicken-hawk Jack Granatstein has decried the lack of government support–measured as always in dollars–for celebrating the centenary of World War I.
I speculated in a previous column on Stephen Harper’s apparent and uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for rewriting the history of WWI. Compared to counterparts in Britain and Australia, Harper has been virtually silent as the 100th anniversary of the start of that war has come and gone.
But not to fear, private enterprise is volunteering to go over the top. It all makes perfect sense: a government wed to the principle of privatizing all public services is happy to let corporate Canada spread the gospel of militarism, while it concentrates on getting reelected.
A “memorial” event at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, timed to mark the war’s start, is sponsored by RBC Wealth Management, U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs (endowed by the chair of Barrick Gold), Canada Company (a “charitable, non-partisan organization that serves to build the bridge between business and community leaders and the Canadian Military”), and the City of Toronto. Professor Margaret MacMillan, author of several not great books on WWI will speak, as well as Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Thomas Lawson. The Massed Band of the Canadian Armed Forces will entertain. And through it all, while there will be the obligatory tut tutting about the horrible carnage, the message will be clear: Canada’s nationhood was validated through the glory of warfare.
Propaganda 2.0
The good folks at PostMedia–the same that bring you the National Post–have taken the rewriting of the history of WWI off Harper’s hands. They have launched web site entitled “The Great War: 1914 – 1918” to house a series of articles and essays on the causes, conduct and after effects of the war. If listening to “prominent” Canadians reciting that vile, pro-war piece of doggerel, In Flanders Fields, is your idea of fun, this is the place for you. (Trevor Linden, David Suzuki, Dan Mangan: give your heads a shake.) There is even a piece devoted to cocktails popular during the war years.
The virtual gramophone section presents a narrow selection of patriotic songs from the home front. While interesting on their own, songs like “A Conscientious Objector” need to be put in full historical context to be more than novelties. The song was written to shame and ridicule opponents of war, just like the movement of mostly well-heeled women handing out white feathers to able bodied men not in uniform. Pacifist religious groups were some of Canada’s earliest settlers, and various essays tell how their right to vote was summarily stripped from them by the Tory government of Robert Borden, or how the state choreographed anti-immigrant racism. But the information is scattered like buckshot, a mention here, a tossed off fact there, making it almost impossible to connect the dots.
The entries on this site range from the informative to the downright intellectually dishonest. My worry–and Stephen Harper’s hope–is that this mishmash of often revisionist bullshit will become the basis of “history” for a new generation of students. Dog forbid that anyone should take seriously Terence Corcoran’s absurd essay “The War that Killed Growth” featured in the “after the War” section. Readers may recognize the name; Corcoran is PostMedia’s leading business writer, a true believer in unfettered “free market” capitalism.
This essay is no exception to his simplistic economic ideology. His argument is that the 100 years before WWI were a long, glorious economic boom. The war opened the door for Lenin and the evils of Bolshevism, which in turn begat the “welfare states” that hobbled the developed economies of the western nations for most of the following 100 years. It is only in the last few decades, with the prevailing neo-liberal economic ideas of “free trade”, “globalization”, and the weakening of both workers organization and social services, that capitalism has returned to its former glory. “The sources of that 19th-century boom were essentially the principles of capitalism: globalization, relatively free trade, private development, low taxes, limited government intervention, and sound monetary policies based on the gold standard,” writes Corcoran.
Déjà vu
Corcoran cannot be excused for repeating such nonsense simply because he fervently believes it. To begin, the century leading up to the war was never the happy, uninterrupted growth he claims. The period was one of boom and bust, of regularly recurring crisis, of overheated economic bubbles punctuated by recession and depression. Sound familiar?
Along with that, the 19th century was marked by wars, inter-imperial rivalries and workers revolt. From the British Chartist movement to the Paris Commune, the century was a laboratory of revolutionary theory and practice. It is telling that Corcoran bashes Lenin but never mentions Marx.
Further, Corcoran says his imagined economic boom was the result of “globalized European economies” enjoying their “silver age”. Not a word about how the millions of enslaved Africans suffered and died to produce that European boom. No mention of how the genocide of indigenous Americans was the precondition for the glorious rise of the USA and Canada. Not a whisper about the carving up of Asia, the Boxer Rebellion or Opium Wars.
In fact, in more than 2000 words, Corcoran does not mention “empire” or “imperialism” once. For him the war was caused by the character deficiencies of the European rulers, not from the militarist rivalries at the heart of the very imperialism he refuses to acknowledge. Pathetic.
In the coming months I’ll revisit “The Great War” site and expose some of the nonsense therein, but don’t wait for me. Read up, and if you are moved to anger as I am, feel free to write a commentary or rebuttal and send it along to us at Socialist Worker. And be sure to check out the UK-based site “No Glory In War” for outstanding material to counter the kind of misinformation that Harper’s corporate allies are churning out.


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