10 November 2008

Why did we fight?

As poppy day is once more upon us, I found myself pondering the question of why Canadians died in the two great wars of the 20th century. What were they about anyway?

There is a memorial in Calgary that would answer that question. In a grove of poplars along Memorial Drive a sign explains that the trees were planted to honour the men who died in WWI. It announces, "They died for your freedom." The truth of course is the war to end all wars wasn't about anyone's freedom. It was little more than an exercise in bloody-minded hubris by a collection of decaying empires. No great cause. Just pointless slaughter.

World War Two was also about empire. About those who had one against those who didn't but wanted one. Post-WWI, the British and French shared large parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The Dutch had Indonesia, the Americans the Philippines, and so on. If you were a major power, you had an empire. It was de rigueur. Two major powers, however, Japan and Germany, did not. Naturally, they aspired to the status of their contemporaries.

There were, however, rules about empire. One, was that only white people could have one. Two, was that they could only rule over non-whites. In their quest for empire, the Japanese violated the first rule and the Germans the second.

Japan no doubt felt particularly hard done by. All those European powers occupying colonies in Japan's backyard, on its turf so to speak, while the Japanese were confined to their islands. Not surprisingly they found this offensive. They decided to correct this perceived injustice and create a Japanese empire in Asia. The Europeans could not, however, abide this ambition as it threatened both rule number one and their own empires. And they had the leverage. They had access to ample natural resources -- particularly oil, the life blood of the industrial state -- and Japan didn't. Japan's need to conquer a vast range of territory to guarantee itself access to oil and other resources resulted in an overreach which ultimately undid its dream.

The Germans, too, dreamed of empire. Hitler both envied and admired the British version, and mused at times about a kind of partnership, the British dominating Asia and Africa, and Germany ruling over Europe east to the Urals. In 1941, he referred expectantly to Russia as "our India." The Russians demurred, and with some help from their allies they buried Hitler's ambition in the rubble of Germany.

So what was Canada doing in these wars of empire? Not fighting for our freedom certainly. Nor anyone else's in WWI. We joined that war because of our association with the British Empire -- "ready, aye, ready" and all that. Not much of an excuse for wasting 65,000 Canadian lives. Some suggest it was our coming of age. How sad if we came of age by engaging in arguably the stupidest event humanity ever inflicted on itself. If we had courageously and sensibly refused to participate, now that would have been a meaningful statement of independence. The young men who volunteered probably did so out of misguided senses of nationalism and adventure, tragic victims of a lack of wise counsel from their elders.

Our involvement in WWII came in two parts. The war in Asia was purely a war about empire, the Japanese attempting to replace European power with their own. By defending British colonization over Japanese we fought for race, not freedom.

We did defend freedom in the European Theatre, however. We were OK with Europeans subjugating Asians and Africans, but we would not accept white people, certainly not our fellow Anglos, being subjects of an imperial master. Here, at least, we were on the side of the angels. Here, our sacrifice had a measure of justification.

1 comment:

  1. "We joined that war because of our association with the British Empire -- 'ready, aye, ready' and all that."

    All I would add here is that it wasn't so much a matter of joining per se. We did not have an independent foreign policy until 1931. We had no choice in World War I, we were very much still a colony ourselves.