Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Book note on Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2012), pp. 370

In this thought provoking and erudite work, Noah Richler explores what he sees as a fundamental shift in Canadian politics, discourse, and identity in relation to foreign policy and international development. At the crux of his interpretation lays an assumption that over the course of one decade, from 9/11 onward, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government initiated a myth that distorts attitudes about Canada’s role in foreign policy and, particularly, the War in Afghanistan. For Richler, the Tories along with other notables have helped refashion a narrative of Canadian history.

The book is separated into five chapters which recount the “phrases and forms of story that Canada has used in order to talk itself into, through and out of the war in Afghanistan.” In his final pages, he sums up his critical account of Canadians in Afghanistan and suggests that our failure is intrinsically tied to a systematic policy of dehumanization, of both enemies and dissidents, which forms the core of the “Warrior Nation.”

As historians, What We Talk About When We Talk About War is a work that leaves much room for criticism.  The book deals with Canadian attitudes and ideas, but in some ways Richler is far too introspective. For an advocate of a perspective that encourages outward looking and humanitarian idealism, without taking into consideration whether other states have experienced similar misgivings about their more humanitarian pasts, Richler downplays broader international geopolitical developments.

The most important detail to Richler’s work is not that he is advocating for the resurrection of a “peacekeeping nation,” or a sprawling George Grant-esque lament for the Canada that once was, but instead the warning that he offers.  “War enters the unconscious early,” he writes on the first page of the book. (p.11) The danger of having a one-sided narrative about Canada’s military and our role in Afghanistan is that there is little to counter the idea that fighting and promoting wars must be good for us.  What sort of Canadians will exist in future generations if we stop questioning whether wars should be fought and only ask how we should fight them? Richler’s work is a testament to the fact that Canadians are very good at reimagining themselves. From colony to nation, imperial empires to commercial empires, for better or for worse, we have excelled at adapting to historical circumstance.  What We Talk About When We Talk About War, right or wrong, reveals that in the aftermath of Afghanistan, Canadians may need to rethink who we are and what we believe once more.