Friday, September 29, 2017

Book Review: The Vimy Trap (2016) by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Hello!  I am trying to get this blog back into service as part of my ongoing professional military development.  This is a book review that I submitted to the Canadian Military Journal this week.  The authors' left-wing perspective will be quite foreign to most members of the Canadian Armed Forces, but hearing a different voice is often a valuable experience.  MP

The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016. 372 pages,  $22.93.

The Vimy Trap is an extended critique of the place of the 1917 battle of Vmy Ridge in Canadian identity.  McKay, an academic, and Swift, a journalist, have spent their careers examining Canadian history and institutions from a left-wing perspective.  As their book’s title snarky title suggests, they reject the idea that Vimy was a foundational moment when a true Canadian identity and nation were born.   This provocative book is intended for a general audience, and is clearly intended to challenge a history that we have gotten very comfortable with.   

 McKay and Swift are at their best when describing the process by which Vimy Ridge became an iconic battle for Canada.  While tactically successful, Vimy Ridge did not have a strategic result.  In fact, Vimy was the sole bright spot in the failed Anglo-French Arras offensive of April 1917.   Other Canadian actions, such as the Hundred Days in 1918, had far more effect on the outcome of the war.    However, Vimy was the first time that the Canadian Corps had fought together, (albeit with significant British support), a point of pride to Canadians who took part in the fighting. 

 Immediately after the war there was disagreement as to whether Vimy should be selected over other Canadian battlefields (Hill 62 in the Ypres Salient was a candidate) to be the site of a national memorial.   By 1922 Vimy had been selected, in part because the scenic view, and the contract for the design of a monument was awarded to Walter Allward,  The driving force for the Vimy memorial came from William Mackenzie King, who first became Prime Minister in 1921.  As McKay and Swift note, King was a pacifist, and saw the Vimy monument as a way to condemn the “futility of war” while acknowledging the coming together of all Canadians in a great common cause.  Allward, the designer, wanted the Vimy monument to be a “sermon against the futility of war”.

McKay and Swift’s main thesis is that this ideal of a monument to peace was hijacked by a militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian history that ignored the horrors of World War One.   The authors describe this view as “Vimyism”, meaning a glorification and simplification of war, a desire to see Canada as always being on the side of right, and to see the battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation that was in fact far from unified.  This idea of “Vimyism”, which becomes a long screed against militarism, is where McKay and Swift overplay their hand while pointing at some important truths.

 McKay and Swift are right to remind us that Canada had no common or romanticised understanding of war in the decades after 1918.   There was a sizeable peace movement, fueled by trade unions, unemployment, social issues, pacifist clergy, and antiwar soldier writers such as Charles Yale Harrison, whose novel Generals Die In Bed (1928) is often hailed as the Canadian version of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.   However, in the late 1930s Canadian pacifism largely gave way to a grudging belief that a war against Nazi Germany was necessary.   “Vimyism”, claim the authors, developed in the last fifty years as a whitewashed version of Canada’s military history, so that Vimy is portrayed by everyone from Pierre Berton to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a glorification of Canada’s military history and a celebration of a common Canadian resolve to fight tyranny and win.

 In a rambling second half, the authors argue that for Vimyism to succeed as the myth of Canada’s birth in fire, much has to be forgotten, from the horrors of war as described by Harrison, to French Canada’s alienation from the war, the segregation of black Canadian soldiers in construction units, and the poor treatment of indigenous soldiers who did not receive proper pensions.  Vimyism for Swift and McKay also means forgetting the injustice of shooting of twenty-two Canadian soldiers, many of them young and psychologically wounded, for cowardice.   From the sales of war toys in the gift shop of the Canadian War Museum to Vimy tours for schoolchildren, the authors cast a wide net in looking for evidence of Vimyism as a false but “uplifting and sacred story of [Canadian] origins” that betrays the true horror of war.  To prosecute their case, McKay and Swift often use “what about” arguments, like supposedly noble Canadian soldiers executing prisoners or employing poison gas, or snide dismissals such as the comment that military intelligence and martial music are contradictions in terms.  All of these arguments are intended to expose Vimyism as a lie, though one can ask whether it’s fair to judge the Canada of 1917 by today’s standards.

Members of Joint Task Force Nijmigen participate in a short commemorative ceremony at the Vimy War Memorial at Vimy Ridge on July 15, 2017, prior to the 101st International Four Day Marches Nijmegen,  in the Netherlands, 18-21 July, 2017.  Photo MCpl Charles A. Stephen, CAF

It’s hard to imagine any members of the Canadian Armed Force embracing The Vimy Trap, though I suspect that this would not bother McKay and Swift, who seem to see militaries as part of the problem.  Contrary to McKay and Swift, it is possible to see Vimy in a way that is free of myth and romanticism while still recognizing it as an important battle.   Indeed that was how its participants saw it.  Sergeant Percy Wilmot of NS, who died of wounds after the battle, wrote that “Canada may well be proud of [our] achievement”.[i]  

One of the monuments placed at Vimy after the battle by members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.   Canadian War Museum.

 The Vimy Trap is nevertheless useful as an opportunity to reflect on how the CAF uses military history to perpetuate its values.   Young NCMs are frequently taken on tours of Vimy Ridge and other First World War battlefields.   In my experience, when our members see cemeteries full of Canadians as young or even younger than themselves, they are not moved to militaristic zeal.  In fact, quite the reverse.   Older members with combat experience immediately connect the war dead with their own friends and comrades lost or wounded in Afghanistan.   Militarism for the CAF is not the problem.     Perhaps for our leadership, the challenge is to use places like Vimy Ridge honestly, as historical moments, stripped of myth and full of pain and horror, yet still capable of teaching the military ethos of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical skill, and aggressiveness.

[i] Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18 (Toronto: Viking, 2008), 147.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Whose Life Is It Anyway? A Sermon For the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached Sunday, 17 September, 2017, St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Lections for this Sunday: Exodus 14:19-31;   Psalm 103: 8-13; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14: 7-8)



Who do our lives belong to?   Or, for that matter, who do our deaths belong to?   In the western secular world, over the last three or so centuries, a general consensus has been that our lives belong to ourselves.   Our desire for personal freedom and autonomy, our desire to chose our paths in life, has led us to believe very strongly in human freedom.   For example, we commonly tell young children, particularly girls, that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be This is at it should be.  I think we would all agree that we want to live in a world where children can become astronauts or nurses, pilots or politicians, stay at home programmers and parents, regardless of their colour, gender, or religion.


At the same time, these expectations lead us to believe that we are belong to ourselves, that we are, each of us, our own projects.   As the poem Invictus puts it, we want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.   We want to be self-reliant, to decide who, if anyone, we are responsible for.  Wealth and health are important because they allow us to seek this independence.  Some Christian preachers bless this mindset by preaching a prosperity gospel that promises wealth and freedom to those that God wants to bless.

Even in death, we seek to be self-reliant.  Some even dream of immortality, as some technology billionaires do who invest in projects to conquer the process of aging, or failing that to upload their minds into computers.  Lacking such resources, must of us prefer a peaceful oblivion.  The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that given the choice, most people would prefer to die peacefully, in their sleep, so that we don’t know that we’re dying.  If we can ignore death, then we can ignore our finitude, thus avoid the hard limits of our autonomy.


The church that Paul was writing to in Rome would have had a very different understanding of what the human life was all about.   The idea of being the master of one’s self would have been largely foreign to them.   Many would have been poor, and some would have been servants or even slaves of others.  So, when Paul speaks earlier in Romans 14 about the dangers of being judgemental, he writes “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they will stand or fall” (Rom 14:4-6).  Paul is this writing to a congregation who know that their lives are not their own, who live in an intricate and oppressive social web of class and hierarchy.  


One of the things which made the gospel so revolutionary, and so attractive, for these Christians, was that it exploded the categories of freedom and put all believers on the same level as men and women who were given freedom and equality by Christ.  This, in the next breath, Paul writes that all believers, even servants and slaves, will be given their freedom through the gospel:  “they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom 14: 4).  This idea of equality through faith is I think why Paul is so passionate, here in Romans and elsewhere in his letters, about why believers should tolerate and allow differences in religious practice between themselves.  Some might keep Jewish holy days and practices, others as gentiles might eat food that was offensive to others.   Paul didn’t want the Roman believers to fall into divisions and camps based on these old beliefs, because he saw them as all being equal to one another through Christ, who lived and died for all.  


This extravagant love of God in Christ, given for all regardless of class or wealth or even the number of sins committed, creates a new relationship between God and humanity.   Instead of belonging to other people, the Romans belong to God in Christ, giving them a dignity and a freedom that they have never known before.  This new relationship shapes the community of the church.  This is why, as Father Simon preached last week, forgiveness and reconciliation in the church is as important as it is necessary.   God who forgives us and reconciles with us, despite all that we have done and not done, creates a spirit or a culture which becomes the culture of the church and God’s gift to the church.   So Paul today, when he tells us in Romans not to judge one another, for that judgement is God’s work alone, and only through God’s love and grace in Christ will we be able to stand before that judgement.


We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.


So in life, so in death.  Paul tells the Romans that they belong to God in life, and after life.   For the believers of Paul’s day, whose lives on average were much shorter than our own, and who knew nothing of our modern medicine, I am sure that this verse was greatly reassuring.   And yet, in the dark moments of our own health crises, sorrow, and grieving, are these words not just as reassuring to us?  For this reason, the church has, since its beginning, advocated the idea of the good death, a time when we prepare for our end, seek absolution of our sins, and, as Christ did, hand ourselves over into the keeping of God in trust and submission to his power and his love.


As most of you know, for the past few years, my wife Kay has lived with advanced cancer and with all its various indignities.  Since we’ve come to join this yparish, Kay has lived through several life-threatening complications, and is currently in hospital facing new challenges.   She is not alone in this, others among you have faced or are facing situations that are just as severe.   And some of us grieve, for grief is seldom stale, but always close to the surface.  What gives Kay and (sometimes, me) much of our strength is that we know two things. 


First, we experience God’s love through the pastoral care, love, and support of this parish, including from members whose care for Kay has been selfless and generous.   This generosity was remarkable and we are grateful for it, but it is not just the generosity of one or two extraordinary people.  Rather, it is the generosity of spirit that comes from the church as a community that knows it exists because of the love of Christ, and so that it might continue its relationship of love for Christ and through Christ to one another

Second, we know that in life, and in death, we are the Lord’s.  We will always be the Lords.  We know that whatever may happen to our frail and fickle bodies, wherever we will go after our death, we will be held in God’s hands, safe in the mind and love of God, until it pleases God to raise us on the day of resurrection.


This Thursday, as I hope to kick off the theology on tap project, I chose as our opening question, What is the Point of Being Christian?   I think it’s a good starting point, even if it makes it sound like being Christian is a lifestyle choice that we make, like choosing to do yoga or follow a certain kind of diet.   What if, instead of a choice that we made, being Christian was simply being aware of our belonging to God?  Can we live in a way that doesn’t jealously guard our autonomy, in a way that is open to the fact that we belong to God, in life, and in death, and that through that belonging we find our true fulfillment and happiness?


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive