Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Vimy rant

edit - note added at bottom
I am going to take a break from France posting for a while to post about something that happened in France. Namely the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

I have nothing to add to the sap-clogged rivers of ink that have been spilled on this topic in Canada in terms of the battle’s importance, or its meaning, or heart-rending recollections torn from diaries that were never intended to be plastered all over the front pages of our newspapers. To the best of my knowledge, I have no direct ancestors that served in either of the World Wars, let alone at Vimy.

Nonethless, I’m going to rant. Specifically, about Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute. You might not of heard of them, but if you’re from Canada you will know their work. Every year, at least twice a year (Canada Day and November 11) they publish a poll which will get heavy, and undeserved coverage in the media, that will purport to demonstrate Canadians woeful lack of knowledge about their history in general and military history in particular.

When there’s a special anniversary, they inevitably pop up again, as they did this year on the commemorations of Vimy Ridge Whenever they do, there is much hand wringing that we are losing our heritage and therefore our sense of national identity and forgetting the sacrifices of bleah bleah bleah.

No one who knows my writing can accuse me of being indifferent to history (Canadian history in particular) but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something radical: Vimy does not matter. Remembering Vimy does not matter. It is completely inconsequential to understanding Canada, war, or history. Even for students of military history its importance is largely one of improved tactics and the effect the win had on Allied morale– Vimy Ridge itself was strategically insignificant.

I would argue that the deep attachment neo-Tories like Griffiths have for Vimy is of much more historic interest than the battle itself. It mattered once, to a Canada that was young and finding its way in a world that still measured national worth by the length of its muskets. No more. We have new symbols, new beliefs. It is no more natural to worship the dead at Vimy – over and above those at, say, Ypres, who were equally brave and just as dead – than it is to have a once-in-a-decade conniption over the Battle of Stoney Creek (1813).

Interestingly, those countries that participated in the Great War with less of an obsessive need to have a capital “I” identity all pick losses as their “national” battle: Passchendaele for the Brits, Verdun for the French, Gallipoli for the Australians. The tremendous loss of life for little geo-political gain in a war of which the major consequence was to set up another war is not something that can be appropriately remembered by a “glorious victory.” Canada’s fetishization of Vimy is a throwback to an era we have outgrown.

I am not suggesting that we forget the Great War or the men who fought in it, but simply remembering it as “Vimy” or even remembering Vimy divorced from the context of the propaganda that has swirled around it since 1917 is serving Canada’s history and identity just as poorly as forgetting it entirely.

Edit Just to clarify, I fully intend to visit the Vimy Memorial later this year (see comments). My beef is with the idea that knowledge of a single battle should - or even could - be considered a key part of Canada's national heritage and identity after ninety years, over and above hundreds of other equally important events and developments.


Travis said...

Do I even need to point out that I agree with every word you said?
Just in case people are angry, I'll give them an easier target: given that history shows us that people are basically despicable, is it EVER sad or memorable that people we never knew died? I mean, is there NOTHING in your present-day environment that excites emotion above the idea of some ancient clodhopper being blown to smithereens on a insignificant landscape feature far away in both time and space?

Anonymous said...

Kinda wishing I hadn't brought the whole Vimy thing up now.. (not-really-anonymous-but-don't-know- how-to-figure-the-whole-identity-thang out..(Tara)

Mark Reynolds said...

I should clarify (I think I'll add a note on the post) that I personally look forward to visiting the memorial soon, probably when my parents visit in October. My beef is with the Dominion Institute and the idea that "military history" equals "national history" or that a country's founding myths need be set in stone.
Unlike Travis, I do get choked up at the thought of men younger than I dying for no good reason - that others don't doesn't make me more Canadian, just more sentimental.

Travis said...

Apologies for the brutal words in an inappropriate forum. This is YOUR blog.

Mark Reynolds said...

Don't apologize! There's no sense in sharing an opinion and then not expecting feedback. The edit was actually on the off chance my Mom reads this - she wants to visit Vimy and I do want to go - I just wanted to make it clear that my beef is with the Dominion people. And I fully agree with you - there is no particular reason why we should be choked up about people we don't know that died years ago - the fact that I get choked up doesn't make me virtuous. Comment away! Be as brutal as you like!