Toronto writer Noah Richler sees links between epic rhetoric and the rise of a warlike culture

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      The bellicose former Canadian chief of the defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, once famously described the Taliban as “detestable murderers and scumbags”.

      “We are not another government department,” he snorted to the media. “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

      To Toronto writer Noah Richler, this is a classic example of the grandiose, warlike rhetoric that has rippled to the surface in this country over the past decade. His thought-provoking new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions), examines the fundamental character of Canada as it fought a war in Afghanistan.

      “I think societies have different ways of narrating the world back to themselves,” Richler tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Toronto home. “And one of these, what I call epic thinking, comes about when a group feels threatened or wants to encourage a chauvinistic idea of self that makes it easier to undertake some kind of quarrel. So we see this not just in Canada, but in wartime generally.”

      In Richler’s view, epic thinking celebrates larger-than-life heroes, vilifies opponents, and reduces the world to a simplistic dichotomy of good and evil. The opposite kind of thinking, he contends, is exemplified by the novel as an art form, because it humanizes others and seeks to understand their behaviour.

      “The advantage of being able to characterize a whole group of people as a kind of monster at the edge of the territory—as wholly bad—is that absolves you from having to consider who these people are,” he says.

      What We Talk About When We Talk About War names the country’s most influential epic thinkers over the past decade, ranging from Hillier to hockey analyst Don Cherry to journalist Christie Blatchford, who turned writing about the war in Afghanistan into something of a cottage industry. Others include Canadian military historians, notably David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein, and Conservative politicians, led by Stephen Harper. The general message over the first five years of the Afghanistan war was that peacekeeping is for left-wing politicians, and that real soldiers go into combat.

      Epic thinking is also on display in the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the War of 1812, even though Canada didn’t exist when British troops sacked the White House.

      “I don’t believe there was a Tuesday-night cabal of academics, journalists, and politicians getting together,” Richler tells the Straight. “On the other hand, I think that it’s quite straightforward that building up the idea of the Canadian military—and building up the parlance of the Canadian military in the nation’s eyes—was a shortcut to an easier and more demagogic idea of nationhood.”

      Richler notes that the Conservatives also practise epic thinking in the political world, characterizing their opponents as thoroughly despicable. Refugee claimants from Sri Lanka are branded as terrorists; environmentalists are accused of being in the back pocket of foreigners. Richler points out how this approach was on display when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews suggested that opponents of Bill C-30 were on the side of child pornographers.

      “I do believe Harper is held back, and just barely, by Canadian conventions and tradition and the times,” Richler says.

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