14 March 2007

Canadian War Museum: for promoting truth or tribal myths?

Two stories about war and history have caught the public eye recently. One is Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with the use of sex slaves, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," by its military during WWII. The other is a panel of text in the Canadian War Museum that describes the bombing of German cities during WWII as controversial. Both prompt questions about both war and the use of history.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears unable to make up his mind about the comfort women, first seeming remorseful, then denying coercion was used. Meanwhile, Japanese legislators have had all references to the infamous incident removed from junior high school textbooks. Other nations are deeply unhappy with Japan's historical revisionism. The South Korean Foreign Ministry referred to it as an attempt to "gloss over historical truth." I suspect most Canadians would agree.

We, however, have our own quarrel about our behaviour in WWII. One panel in an exhibit in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa claims the allied bombing of German civilians is controversial. The accuracy of the text is not in question and considering the air raids killed 600,000 Germans, left five million homeless, and included fire-bombings that were nothing less than mass terrorism, claiming the attacks were controversial would seem to be eminently reasonable. Nonetheless, the Royal Canadian Legion insists the text is "insensitive" and is calling for a boycott of the museum.

All this prompts the question of the value of history. Do we learn from it, or do we simply use it to create tribal myths. If it is the former, then teaching history has real value, if the latter, then teaching it becomes downright dangerous. Certainly, we can learn from it. For example, from the allied fire bombings of Germany (and more so from the atom bombings of Japan) we can learn that terrorism is used by good guys as well as bad guys. Furthermore, we can learn that in war, not only the enemy does evil. That we may have to do, or at least believe we have to do, terrible things in order to win is a vital lesson of war. After all, war isn't wrong so much because other people do bad things, but because we do bad things.

But if war history is used -- not learned from but used -- simply to honour our warriors and create tribal myths, it becomes a menace. What better way to enamour young men of war than to instruct them that yes it is dangerous but nonetheless leads to glory for our righteous warriors? Young men love risk and to endure risk in a noble cause -- how attractive, how romantic. And this, I submit, has been the major use of military history down through the ages. We have long been taught that Canada "came of age" during the First World War, a highly arbitrary idea arising from the exploitation of military history for myth-making.

So far, the War Museum is standing firm and leaving the panel in the exhibit. Let's hope it, if you'll pardon the expression, stands by its guns and insists on placing truth over myth.

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