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SSNS Home > Senior Years > Curricula 9 to 12 > Grade 11 > Canadian History > Remembrance Day > Bibliography


4. Book/Media Reviews


The Book/Media Reviews provide an evaluation of selected books about Canada’s involvement in war. More entries will be added, as we find them. Recommendations are welcome.

Reviews include:


World War I

Aitken, Sir Max, M.P. Canada in Flanders: The Official Story of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Volume 1. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915.
Review by R. Shirritt-Beaumont, 28 July 2009

I found this book only a few weeks ago. It was on a bookshelf, along with many others I have inherited over the years, but I had never taken notice of it before. It probably hadn’t been opened in decades, let alone read, and only survived the trash bin because I don’t discard books, especially those that were valued by earlier generations of my family. However, it has taken on added meaning recently, because I now have some understanding of its historical context. Sir Max Aitken, or Lord Beaverbrook, as I have always known him, wrote the book, but more significantly, he did so with some assistance from Talbot Mercer Papineau, an officer in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. One of my great uncles also belonged to that regiment, which makes for a potent link. These two men, my uncle and Papineau, shared the same trenches, endured the same hardships, and died the same day on the battlefield at Passchendaele. I feel connected.

There is another connection. This book was purchased by my family during the First World War, possibly by Grandfather Harry Beaumont, or one of his sisters. When I pick it up, I almost feel their presence. For them, the book was timely; for me, likewise. With two brothers overseas in the trenches, they needed to understand what was going on. Two generations later, I want to know as well. Why did so many Canadians volunteer? What was their motivation? Why was support for the war so widespread, especially in English Canada, even when the casualty figures became so high? The loss of one soldier in Afghanistan gets headlines all over the country in 2009. During World War I, so many men were dying on the battlefields of Europe that several newspaper columns were needed at times to report the dead. In 2009, the death of a Canadian soldier on Afghan soil provokes a national debate on the legitimacy of that war. In World War I, doubts were seldom voiced publically. 

Canada in Flanders provides insights into the mindset of many Canadians between 1914 and 1919. Perhaps one of the most striking features of this book is the idea of Empire. The British Empire was portrayed as a family with the Mother Country and her Dominions joining together in a common cause. As the Right Hon. A. Bonar Law wrote in the Preface,

Our enemies said, and probably they believed, that the outbreak of war would be the signal for the breaking-up of the British Empire. They have been mistaken. After this war the relations between the great Dominions and the Mother Country can never be the same again. The pressure of our enemies is welding us together, and the British Empire is becoming in reality, as well as in name, a united nation.

There was no doubt either about the legitimacy of the war effort. In the Introduction, Sir Robert Borden asserted that “the justice of the cause was recognised in every quarter of the King’s dominions, and nowhere more fully than in Canada.” Moreover, it had since “been confirmed by the judgment of the civilised world.” It was a “remorseless militarist autocracy” that had “decreed” the war, and it was the “horrible methods” of that autocracy that were killing brave Canadian soldiers defending “liberty and civilisation.” In the cynical, cosmopolitan age in which we live, this seems a naïve, one-sided view and the book a clever piece of propaganda. However, Aitken and most of his contemporaries actually believed what they wrote, and if they were here today would probably defend the stance they took. For them, the rise of Nazism and World War II only confirmed the conclusions they had reached in World War I.

Another reason why Canadians answered "the call to duty," was the fact that so many of them were either recent immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants from Great Britain. Loyalty to the "Mother Country" was its own inspiration, so that there was no need to coerce volunteers to come forward in the early stages of the war. They came willingly and in great numbers, and it was only later, as the war dragged on and the horrors of trench warfare become better known, that men began to think twice about enlisting. There was little of this in Aitken’s account. Hardships were acknowledged, but only as a backdrop to heroic acts. Aitken focused instead on the battles where there was Canadian involvement and on Canadian achievements, particularly those of individual soldiers, whose heroic exploits on the field were recounted in glowing terms. For example,

What … could be more thrilling than the story of the dash of Major H. M. Dyer, a farmer from Manitoba, and Captain (now Lieut.-Col. 25th Battalion) Edward Hilliam, a fruit farmer from British Columbia, when in the face of almost certain death, after the trench telephones were disabled, they set out to order the retirement of a battalion on the point of being overwhelmed!

Thrilling indeed! For a young agricultural student like Harry Beaumont, reading by the light of a coal oil lamp after a long day of labour on the farm, it would have been exhilarating to read this account. Major H. M. Dyer was a man he knew, a farmer in the Minnedosa District and formerly Chair of the Board of Directors, Manitoba Agricultural College. Stores like his stirred the hearts of the people back home even when they were not personally acquainted with the men involved. These soldiers were family and deserving of the country’s unfettered support as evidenced in the letters they wrote, the socks and mittens they knit, and the food packages they sent.

There was also a nascent nationalism in Aitken’s account. Soldiers may have been fighting for the beloved Mother Country, but as they trained at Valcartier, travelled en masse overseas, trained again on the Salisbury Plan, and took their place as Canadian units on the battlefields of France and Belgium, their sense of Canadian identity and pride grew. Canadians were beginning to develop an independent spirit.

Aitken’s style matched his time. Criticism of the war effort was muted, even though he acknowledged that errors had been made. He was also silent about the conflict between Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and Sam Hughes, his Minister of Militia and Defence, that led to Hughes’ forced resignation in November 1916. Instead, he portrayed Hughes, not as the difficult man he really was, but as the “father of the Canadian Contingent” whose “words had an electrical effect upon the men’s patriotism.” After all, Aitken owed his position to Sam Hughes. Since this book was a rallying cry to the Canadian people, a call to patriotic service in wartime, there was no place for dissent in high places or critical analysis of events that were still unfolding. That had to wait for another day.

What I liked most about this book were the stories of soldiers. I will close this brief review with one of my favourites, the tale of Major Hercule Barré, a story that probably illustrates as well as most the kind of frontline humour that kept men from going mad.

The grim practical joking of Fate is illustrated by the adventures of Major Hercule Barré – a young French Canadian who fought well and spoke English imperfectly. He had been ordered to get to his company in haste, and on the way (it was dark) met some British officers, who promptly declared him a spy. The more he protested, the more certain they were that his speech betrayed him. So they had him back to the nearest Headquarters, where he was identified by a brother officer, and started off afresh – only to be held up a second time by some cyclists, who treated him precisely as the British officers had done. Once again he reached Headquarters; once more the officer, who had identified him before, guaranteed his good faith; and for the third time Barré set out. This time it was a bullet that stopped him. He dragged himself to the side of the road and waited for help. Someone came at last, and he hailed. “Who is it?” said a voice. “I, Barré!” he cried. “What, you, Barré? What do you want this time?” It was the officer who had twice identified him within the last hour. “Stretcher-bearers,” said Barré. His friend in need summoned a stretcher-bearer, and Barré was borne off – to tell the tale against himself afterwards.[1]

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Bird, Will R. Ghosts Have Warm Hands: a Memoir of The Great War, 1916-1919. 1968. Reprint, Ottawa: CEF Books, 2002.
Review by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont, July 2008

This is a must-read book for anyone wanting a first-hand account of the soldier's life in the trenches of France and Belgium during World War I. It was written by a survivor, a Canadian soldier named Will R. Bird, who used his more than ordinary literary skills (he was a journalist after the war) to give a detailed account of his own wartime experiences. In so doing, Bird described trench warfare in all its horror through the eyes of the men on the front lines. There is no romanticism here. Nevertheless, in the telling, there is also hope. Bird claimed his life was saved on at least two occasions by the intercession of a deceased brother, suggesting, if true, that the war is but a small event in the eternal scheme of things, that beyond it there lies something much larger, but as yet not understood.

The book is gripping and ideally suited for students and teachers alike. Highly recommended, it can be obtained from CEF Books, P.O. Box 40083, Ottawa, K1V 0W8 (1-613-823-7000).

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Christie, N. M., ed. Letters of Agar Adamson, 1914 to 1919, Lieutenant Colonel, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Nepean: CEF Books, 1997.
Review by R. Shirritt-Beaumont, 17 September 2009

A regimental war diary is a good place to start if one wants a summary of its day-to-day activity in the field of battle, but it says little or nothing about the personalities, the internal tensions, and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that also play a role in war. For that kind of information, one has to look at the private letters, diaries, and personal reminiscences left behind by the soldiers and officers who were there. The letters of Lt.-Col. Agar Adamson to his wife Mabel stand out in this regard. Covering the period between 1915 and 1919, they are a rich source of information on the realities of trench warfare, the characters of the officers and men involved, their heroic feats, failures, and other personal trials, as well as the camaraderie and humour that held them together. Adamson saw it all. Half-blind and nearly fifty when he enlisted, he was an unlikely candidate for the battlefields of Europe. Yet as Captain of the 2nd Company of the PPCLI, he was in the very thick of the fighting from the moment that the regiment arrived in Flanders, and after he rose to Commander of the regiment, he still made nightly tours of the front lines. He cared for his men and never expected them to do anything he was not prepared to do himself.

Adamson’s letters paint a far different picture of the life of the officer from that often imagined by the ordinary soldier. Indeed, there were those who sought the cushy jobs and avoided the trenches like the plague; Frank Whiting alluded to this type in his diary. However, Adamson was not one of them; indeed, he despised a man who shirked his turn in the lines. His officers were inspired by his sense of duty and discipline, and many of them died on the front lines leading and fighting alongside their men –Papineau, Drummond-Hay, and Stewart, and dozens more. He trained them, praised them when they deserved it, reprimanded them for the faults he saw in them, and mourned them when they fell. His letters reveal so much about the kind of men they were.

They also reveal much about their womenfolk, the wives, mothers, sisters, friends they left behind, who often found their own unique ways to serve King and Country. Besides looking after her husband and his regiment, through the regular purchases (like the bath tub for the men) she made on their behalf in London, Mabel Adamson helped organise a relief fund for Belgian refugees and even went across the channel from England for a time to direct its work. Her letters would be interesting to read as well, but only one has been included in this book. It may be the most important one, too, because it captured the essence of their relationship in words that Adamson would have understood and appreciated.

Adamson loved his wife and often expressed his affection in his letters, but chaffed at her efforts to manage him. In the epilogue, the editor, N. M. Christie, suggested that the stress of war changed Adamson and ultimately destroyed his marriage; however, Mabel’s letter suggests something quite different. After the war, Adamson lived in England, which provided him with some relief from her unwanted attempts to control his life. She remained by her own choice in Canada and managed what she could, just as she had done during the war. Her letter, written to her son Rodney after his father’s death in 1929, gives no evidence that she loved Adamson any less or that his feelings had changed for her. “I know that had he lived the life I wanted him to live he would have been well and both of us happy today,” she wrote, an illusion to which she still clung, but weakly, as she herself acknowledged. “What I might have done was to have lived with him and let him be happy in his own way,” she added, “Then the end would have been the same, only I should have no regrets.” That realisation came too late to change the post-war separation, but it proved that their marriage was far from destroyed. All Agar ever wanted from his wife was her unconditional love, and after his death she was nearly ready to give it.

On many levels, Adamson’s letters are revelatory, not just about the events of World War I, but about the people who fought or were in any way associated with it. They are also about his deep, often frustrated love for a woman as strong-willed and independent as himself and her belated acknowledgement of what was needed to strengthen the bonds between them. For the thoughtful reader, these letters have many lessons to teach.

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Cook, Tim. At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916. Volume 1. Toronto: Viking Canada (the Penguin Group) 2007.
Review by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont, July 2008

This is a detailed history of battles won and battles lost by Canadians during the first two years of World War I. With the aid of excellent maps, Cook tells the story of each engagement, noting in detail the plan of action, or lack thereof, the main events, and the consequences. Cook focuses his attention on the frontline soldiers, many of whom lay down their lives while forging the Canadian Corps into an elite fighting force that "never lost a battle" after its "brilliant victory at Vimy Ridge, in April 1917." Volume 1 is about the battles of 1914-1916, when Canadians were dying by the thousands as they learned how to fight effectively in the trenches. It is the bravery of these ordinary men in the face of almost impossible odds that takes centre stage. this focus also illuminates the appalling conditions at the front lines and an apparent disregard for the ordinary soldier by those higher up in the chain of command on both sides. The lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including over 60,000 Canadians were sacrificed, often with little or nothing to show for it. One is tempted to assess blame, but there was little that anyone from the Generals down to the front line soldiers could do to change the course of the war, once the political decision to fight had been made. Under those circumstances, one is left in awe of the courage of the officers who were called upon to give the orders and the soldiers who followed them, even when all knew that obedience meant almost certain death. By remembering their sacrifice, we honour them. This is a great book, and it will be a welcome volume for anyone interested in World War I. For additional reviews and purchase information, go to Amazon.ca.

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Hodder-Williams, Ralph. Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, 1914-1919. Volume 2. The Roll of Honour and Appendices. Edinburgh: R. & R. Clark, 1923.
Review by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont

The book , which is downloadable free of charge at Internet Archives , contains 391 pages of information most of which pertains to individual soldiers connected with the PPCLI. Data on specific names can be found in "The Roll of Honour," in "Decorations, Distinctions and Awards," or in the "Nominal Roll and Record of Service of the Officers, Warrant Officers, N.C.O.'s and Men who served with P.P.C.L.I." In addition, the "Summary of the War Diary," "Letters and Documents," and "Statistics of Strength, Casualties, Etc." provide details on the operations of the regiment itself. Researchers, especially those interested in particular soldiers, should find this a most useful addition to the data available through the Attestation Papers and Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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McClung, Nellie L. Three Times and Out. Based on the story of Private Mervin Cecil Simmons in German prisoner-of-war camps, 1915-1917. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Press, the Riverside Press Cambridge, 1918.
Review by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont, May 2010

This is a book that every student of World War I should read. Not only is it a gripping tale of Private Simmons’ encounter with and escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps, but it is also a reflection of contemporary attitudes and biases of soldiers and civilians alike in English Canada. The moral superiority of the allied cause was unquestioned at the time; it was the defence of freedom and democracy against the autocratic regimes of Germany and Austro-Hungary. Stories of German brutality to Belgium civilians and Russian prisoners reinforced the claim. To have suggested otherwise would have created doubt and threatened the momentum of the war effort. On the other hand, there were some attempts at balance. Not all Germans were evil. Simmons included many examples of good Germans who treated prisoners kindly or did not interfere when they attempted to escape. If there was to be a lasting peace, these Germans were needed to build a new government based on principles of equality and freedom.

It is not always apparent whether it was Simmons or McClung who was voicing these sentiments. In 1918, Three Times and Out would have been seen by most readers as Simmons’ story. Today, however, the thoughtful reader wonders how much McClung mediated that story and added her own biases and understandings to it. Nevertheless, regardless of who held them, these ways of thinking were common in World War I, so the book becomes a means of identifying and assessing the culture of the period with the added benefit of hindsight.

Aside from the philosophy and politics of the book, it is the stories that the reader remembers best – the respectful young German border guards just doing their duty, the old gentleman who minded his own business, the farm folk who fed the prisoners as well as they did themselves, and the close calls and tribulations of Simmons and his fellow escapees as they struggled for the Dutch border and freedom. After all the intervening years, it is still a great book and well worth reading. Better still, it’s online and won’t cost you a dime!

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World War II

Cottingham, Peter Layton. Once Upon a Wartime: A Canadian Who Survived the Devil’s Brigade. Brandon: Prairie Mountain Publishers, 1996. Review by R. Shirritt-Beaumont, July 2008[2]

Once Upon a Wartime is a memoir of Peter Cottingham’s war experiences as a member of the First Special Service Force, later nicknamed The Devil’s Brigade, which was a unique international commando unit made up of Canadian and American soldiers who saw service in the North Pacific, North Africa, Italy, and Southern France. Even though the author apologised for his shortcomings as a writer, I was spellbound by his text. It was hard to put the book down. Mr. Cottingham’s memory for detail is quite astounding, making his hair-raising experiences all the more vivid and real, even after all the intervening years. I was particular moved by his account of the breakout from the Anzio beachhead on May 23, 1944 and the subsequent action that culminated in the liberation of Rome. It was achieved at enormous cost. In Peter Cottingham’s own words,

Of the six hundred or so of our regiment who left the Anzio Beachhead on the 23rd of May there were about sixty odd, including myself, who managed to answer the roll call after Rome was finally secured for the Allies on the 4th of June.”

Five Cottingham brothers were in the Armed Services of Canada during World War II, and David, the eldest, died at the Battle of Ortona on 23 December 1943. It is a miracle that Peter didn’t share the same fate. This prompts a thought. After having read Will Bird’s memoir Ghosts Have Warm Hands and Frank Whiting’s “The War Diaries of Francis James Whiting, 1914-1918, and now Peter Cottingham’s account of his own war experiences, it is hard to ignore the nudge from somewhere deep in the soul that the lives of these men were miraculously preserved. Perhaps they were designated as living witnesses to otherwise unrecorded acts of courage by countless allied soldiers whose combined actions ensured that the freedoms we take so much for granted today would be preserved. Maybe that’s something we all could think about at the next Remembrance Day memorial we attend.

Once Upon a Wartime is still available from Peter Cottingham at Box 596, Neepawa, MB, Canada R0J 1H0.

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Margolian, Howard. Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Review by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont, October 2010.

During the summer of 2010, I participated with eleven other Canadian educators in the Historica-Dominion Institute Battlefield Tour of WWI and WWII sites in France and Belgium. Prior to going, I had become reasonably familiar with WWI while helping to build an online database of nearly five hundred Canadians who had served as soldiers in that war. Our aim in setting up this database was twofold: firstly, to promote student research of individual soldiers to better understand Canada’s involvement in WWI and the impact it had on the development of Canadian identity, and secondly, to encourage student participation in the Centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017.

I signed up for the tour, so that I could obtain a better idea of the geography associated with the battlefields, something that is difficult to visualise from two-dimensional maps. In this, the tour was a smashing success, but it was much more than that. The first week was devoted to WWI sites in France and Belgium; the second focused on Canadian involvement in the Normandy Campaign. Since I had not studied WWII in depth, it was mostly new to me. Military historian Lee Windsor was one of our instructors, and he certainly opened my eyes.

One place we visited was Abbaye d’Ardenne, where at least twenty Canadian soldiers were murdered, including one of Lee’s cousins, Lieut. Thomas A .L. Windsor. It was shocking that these murders were not isolated, but formed a pattern throughout the Nazi 12th SS Panzer Division in clear violation of international law on the treatment of prisoners. I also learned that Kurt Meyer, the commanding officer at Abbaye d’Ardenne at the time, was tried and convicted at the end of the war for his part in these crimes. However, he only served a few years before being released. No other officer of the 12th SS, and there were several implicated in the murders of Canadians, was ever charged. They literally got away with their low and cowardly deeds. I resolved that when I returned to Canada, I would find out more about this sad affair.

Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy fit the bill perfectly. Howard Margolian’s thoroughly researched book deals specifically with the murders of 156 Canadian servicemen in Normandy by soldiers and officers of the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitler Youth’. This division was made up of young, brain-washed, mostly teenaged young men led by fanatic Nazi officers, who set the tone for the atrocities perpetrated by the 12th SS, or Murder Division, as it became known on both sides of the campaign. Its inexperienced young soldiers had been acculturated into a military brotherhood led by men who had committed similar atrocities on the Eastern Front against Poles, Russians, and Jews and/or had participated in the establishment of the death camps.

Margolian has amassed convincing evidence that the officers of the 12th SS encouraged, and sometimes directly ordered, the murder of prisoners. For that, their names and that of the regiment to which they belonged should ever be inscribed in infamy. It was bad enough that they did not restrain their soldiers on the battlefield, when murder can occur during the heat of battle, but worse still, they ordered executions of prisoners after they had been moved back from the battlefield.

However, almost as reprehensible were the actions of Allied military bureaucrats and obsequious politicians at the end of the war, who either acted in a limp-wristed fashion to bring these criminals to justice, or actively worked against taking any action at all. As a result, Kurt Meyer, the only one of these sociopaths to be convicted, ended up serving only ten years in prison. When he died in 1961, there were more than five thousand mourners at his funeral in Hagen, West Germany, and all kinds of eulogies by his old comrades. Even Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and other West German politicians sent tributes that were read out at the memorial service. They should have been ashamed.

Thus, over a hundred and fifty Canadian soldiers, who bravely fought to end one of the most evil regimes in living memory, were all too soon forgotten. Among them were members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, including brothers George E. and Frank V. Meakin of Birnie, Manitoba, a community about forty km from where I was raised. Part of A Company’s 9 Platoon, they were captured during the Battle of Putot and later executed with twenty-four other prisoners, including two British soldiers, at the Chateau d’Audrieu. These soldiers were murdered at the order of Gerhard Bremer, commander of the 12th Reconnaissance Battalion. Their murderers included SS First Lieutenant Willi-Peter Hansmann, SS Technical Sergeant Leopold Stun, unidentified SS troopers with rifles, NCOs with machine pistols, and officers with sidearms. SS Captain Gerd von Reitzenstein was implicated as well. Yet none of them were ever punished, on this earth at least, for their crimes.

The deaths of the Meakin brothers were particularly poignant. At the order to fire, George threw himself in front of his younger brother Frank and was killed instantly. It was in vain because Frank was immediately dispatched with a pistol bullet to the head. George’s act of brotherly love was just one of the many selfless acts by Canadian prisoners reported by witnesses who survived. In concluding his book, Margolian wrote,

By their acts of decency, in the shadow of their own deaths, they preserved for all time that which their killers had tried to erase with cowardly murders and unmarked graves – their essential humanity. More than any war crimes trial, more than any monument, this is the real legacy of the 156 Canadians who were so brutally and callously done to death on the killing fields of Normandy. It is a bequest of which we can and should be perpetually proud.

We can also remember them. For that reason, their names will go up on our website. We invite students to research to find out more about these unfortunate men and appeal to their families to provide us with pictures and additional information about them. May they live on in our memories as witnesses to the evil that cost them their lives.

Howard Margolian deserves high praise for his well-written and highly readable book about this little known aspect of the Normandy Campaign. It provides a glimpse into the darkest side of Nazism, the depth of which was only fully understood in 1945, when the horrors of the death camps throughout Nazi Europe were finally exposed. What a world it would have been if they had won the war. But they didn’t, and we can be proud as Canadians for having taking a stand to defeat them. Our soldiers did not die in vain.

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Fitoussi, Richard, Bergreen, Brooks, (Producers), & Brooks Bergreen, Lobb, Randall (directors). Waging Peace: Canada in Afghanistan. DVD Video. Toronto: 3 World Media in association with FauxPop Media, 2009. Reviewed by R. Shirritt-Beaumont, 5 October 2009.

My father grew up when the British Empire was still a presence in Canadian classrooms. Maybe that is where he learned about Afghanistan. Perhaps it was Rudyard Kipling’s The Young British Soldier that taught him about 19th century conditions on the Afghan front. Evidently they were not that much different from today, if we can believe the parody of Kipling’s famous poem written there recently by an anonymous British solder. 

Whatever his sources, my father gave me my first lesson on Afghanistan when I was only a boy. I can’t remember much about it, just a few vague images of wild mountainous terrain, the Khyber Pass, and fierce Afghan fighters, but my father’s claim that the British never conquered this remote and isolated land remains a clear and powerful memory to this day. Maybe, after British successes in two world wars, it was the utter novelty of the idea that explains why I retained it. You simply can’t win a war in Afghanistan. Isn’t that the lesson of history?

Certainly we are fed a steady diet of doom and gloom in the media about the prospects of victory in this benighted land. Every time one of our soldiers dies, the debate over the war heats up, and there are calls for immediate withdrawal of our troops. For the average Canadian, it’s hard to know what to think. That’s why a film like Waging Peace: Canada in Afghanistan is important. It’s the story of one man’s quest to find out more about this war. For journalist Richard Fitoussi, it is not enough to listen to the musings of political pundits and other luminaries about Canada’s prospects in Afghanistan; he decided to go there and find out for himself. Through this film, we can join him vicariously and acquire important insights concerning Canada’s future course and chances of success there.

The film draws in the viewer on a number of levels. Fitoussi’s camera captures the stark beauty of south-eastern Afghanistan, with the mountains an ever-present backdrop to its parched and dusty landscape, but more importantly, it provides a glimpse of its people, which is at once intimate and haunting. One cannot forget the playful hopefulness in a young girl’s eyes, or the guarded look of a boy who has just experienced a soldier’s kindness. These are real people in a dangerous place. Since they are the official reason for Canada’s involvement, it is fitting that they should be visible and respectfully so. Nowhere does Fitoussi err on this account.

However, of necessity, the Afghan people cannot be the only focus. Our soldiers represent Canada; we need to know how they are conducting themselves there. Like Fitoussi, most Canadians are uncomfortable with media images of American soldiers abusing prisoners and terrorising civilians. War is never a pretty thing, and news outlets tend to emphasise its most sensational aspects, so one has to be careful about singling out American forces for criticism. Still, there are disturbing aspects to American military culture. During the first Iraq war, a famous American comedian was sent to entertain U.S. troops at a military base in Saudi Arabia. Most of his jokes were innocent enough, but on occasion they revealed a palpable contempt of Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Eastern culture in general. It was boorish behaviour, to be sure, but worse still were the peels of laugher that it elicited from the audience of young soldiers. Indeed, the insensitivity of that mirth raised disturbing questions about American military culture and its ability to win the hearts of the people it was supposedly liberating. How does that culture play out in the battlefield, in the streets of Baghdad, in the homes of frightened civilians?

Fitoussi is very much interested in military culture, especially as it intersects with the civilian population, and his film is a refreshing respite from the usual images we see of that contact. Indeed, its emphasis on the gentler approach of Canadian forces tends to legitimise our presence there in ways that the perceived cultural myopia of Americans cannot. It is a fine line that a soldier has to walk to maintain authority without bullying and friendly contact without intimidation. However, our soldiers appear to be making a concerted effort to reach out to the Afghans through their village elders and other civic leaders. It’s a delicate manoeuvre, and one fraught with tension at every step of the way, but it feels like the right thing for our soldiers to be doing. They come across as nice guys doing a tough job. Even when they lose four of their friends in a roadside bomb, they are professional. They know the enemy, and he’s not everybody on the street.

Like anyone doing investigative reporting, Fitoussi sought experts to help him make sense out of what he was seeing in the field. These included prominent Canadian historians like Margaret MacMillan[3] , Jack Granatstein, and Duane Bratt, who provided insights on Afghanistan’s recent history and the nature of the war there. Mohmmadullah Koshnia, a liaison officer with the United Nations, commented on the link between the Taliban and Pakistan. Foreign correspondent Graeme Smith, of the Globe and Mail, warned of the coming confrontation over opium cultivation that Canadian forces have so far avoided. Nick Spicer, foreign correspondent for the CBC, focused on the difference between this conflict and that of Iraq. He emphasised that Canadian forces were in Afghanistan primarily in support of its fledgling democracy and not because of the war on terror.

Fitoussi seems to have been influenced considerably by this viewpoint. He concluded at the end of the film that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without the support of the Afghan people, and implied that Canadian troops need to remain there beyond 2011 to secure the country and help build a civil society. It is a conclusion borne of Fitoussi’s idealism and identification with ordinary people in war-torn countries, and undoubtedly linked to his work in Cambodia, where he has filmed the impact of landmines on civilian populations and continues to work internationally for their eradication.[4] However, it is not an inevitable conclusion emanating from the film’s content. One could as easily conclude that Canadian troops need to get out as quickly as possible because the country’s weakened institutions and cultural fragmentation prevent the creation of a democracy any time soon. My own view is that the war can only be won if it has the long-term support of Canada and the other NATO countries involved. Our troops may be able to win the hearts of the people and even be recognised locally for their reconstruction efforts, but if ordinary Canadians don’t see the value of this work, our troops will be withdrawn before the job is complete.

The possibility for different interpretations to come out of this film is one of its greatest strengths. Indeed, its content can serve effectively as a catalyst for thoughtful discourse and debate about all aspects of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, but it is equally useful as a documentary source about what our soldiers are actually doing there on a day-to-day basis. Remembrance Day is one of Canada’s most solemn memorials, and our fallen soldiers are honoured every November 11 in schools across this country. Whether or not Canada has a legitimate role in Afghanistan is beside the point at such services. This film honours our armed forces by highlighting their work in security and reconstruction. Like Canadian soldiers in two world wars, they have put their lives on the line in support of the Afghan people. We need to honour them for that. Therefore, the film is a relevant resource, not only for the study of Canada’s international military role, but also for the creation of fitting memorial services at the school and community levels for the soldiers who have died in service to their country.

This film can also be a tool for raising awareness about the plight of civilian populations around the world both in war and its aftermath. As Fitoussi rightly observed, the moral relativism to which a majority of Canadians adhere often makes it hard for them to discern clearly between good and bad at home and elsewhere. It is easier for Fitoussi to recognise the great evil perpetrated on the Afghans by the Taliban, because he has seen it firsthand. What the film does effectively is to bring the faces of Afghanistan’s people, particularly its children, right into our classrooms, so that we, too, can see who is caught in the crossfire. Those faces are a powerful reminder of why we have taken on an international role and assumed the responsibilities attached to it. In any reconsideration of our future position in Afghanistan, they must not be forgotten.

The film has another lesson, too. Even though some viewers may quibble about the depth of its analysis, Waging Peace is nevertheless an excellent model of the strategies students need to learn in order to do sound investigative research. Fitoussi clearly outlined the rationale for his documentary at the outset by stating his questions concerning Canadian involvement. Then, he did primary research, in this case, by going into an active war zone to see the situation for himself. Someone investigating a long past historic event would do the same by studying original documents at an archive. He interviewed soldiers and officers on the ground, as well as war correspondents who had been there. He further supplemented his field research by interviewing historians and others, whose expertise made them good secondary sources to help filter the data he had collected. Finally, he stated his conclusions, on the basis of the research he had done.

In summary, this intimate and beautifully articulated film about Canada’s role in Afghanistan comes highly recommended. It is an ideal classroom resource for the development of the critical thinking skills that students need to function responsibly and independently in a free society. It is also a sympathetic portrayal of Afghanistan, a rare tribute to the Canadian soldiers who are serving or have served there, and fittingly, a memorial to the men and women who have given up their lives in the defence of the Afghan people from a ruthless and relentless foe.


Supplementary Films:
Three films from Pakistan (2008-2010) are instructive concerning the rise of terrorist movements and the social and political conditions that made this possible. Pakistan: State of Emergency (26 February 2008) describes the rise of the Taliban in the Northern province of Swat, the factors behind this dramatic rise, and local efforts to counteract it. Narrated by news reporter David Montero, who has been investigating Pakistan’s woes for some time now, it is an incisive portrayal of the underlying causes behind the current unrest in that beleaguered country.

Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, (14 April 2009) is a compelling documentary narrated by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy that centres on the pathological, if not diabolical, indoctrination of Pakistani children by the Taliban that is robbing of them of their youth and in many instances of their lives. It’s a chilling indictment of the Taliban, which has undermined civil society in Northern Pakistan on every level and threatens the stability of the entire country.

Pakistan: The Lost Generation (23 February 2010), narrated again by David Montero, is a telling expose of the dysfunctional educational system that is failing the children of Pakistan. It explains in part the widespread and growing dissatisfaction with the government in Karachi as well as the attraction of the young to the enticements of extremist organisations like the Taliban.

All of these films add context to the enormous challenges that face Canadian and other N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s next-door neighbour to the northwest. They are a sombre warning of a dark future for the region if its problems are not addressed by local governments and by the international community.

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Click on the footnote number to return to the text:

[1] Aitken, Canada in Flanders, 83-84.

[2] While attending the Neepawa Homecoming in celebration of its 125th anniversary this summer, I chanced upon Peter Cottingham, with whose family I become acquainted when I was teaching there many years ago. During the course of our conversation I learned that his father had fought at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood in 1916 and had been so badly wounded that he was presumed dead. In fact, a letter went home stating that he had been “killed in action.” I mentioned that I had a war diary by Frank Whiting, detailing his experiences in that very same battle, and Mr. Cottingham eagerly accepted my offer to send him a copy. I also learned that he had written a book about his own war experiences in World War II and had copies in his car nearby. This was more than good luck, and I knew that I needed to obtain that book. Was I glad I did!

[3] See her address (on video) “Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History” (Part 1) (Part 2) that was given at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, Australia, in July 2008.

[4] For more information on Richard Fitoussi and his professional photography, see Cambodian Genocide Group and Witness Photographic.



Last updated: October 22, 2010



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