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Canada in the Great Power Game: Gwynne Dyer’s latest history has a strange sense of déjà vu

Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014
Gwynne Dyer
Random House of Canada

Man of letters Stephen Leacock wrote in June, 1939, only months before the outbreak of the Second World War: "If you were to ask any Canadian, 'Do you have to go to war if England does?' he'd answer at once, 'Oh, no.' If you then said, 'Would you go to war if England does?' he'd answer, 'Oh, yes.' And if you asked 'Why?' he would say, reflectively, 'Well, you see, we'd have to.'"

That was the sentiment of many Canadians before the Second World War. A generation earlier, during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, Canadians automatically had to go to war when Britain did, since London controlled the dominion's foreign policy, but they chose the extent of their commitment. It was huge, with the nation of 8 million putting 620,000 civilian soldiers in uniform, of which more than 60,000 never returned home. During the Second World War, more than a million Canadians served in the fighting forces, and while Canada declared war a week after Britain, on September 10, 1939, most English Canadians felt there was no choice in the matter. In Korea, five years after the Second World War, Canadians did not have to go to war at Britain's side, but they went under the United Nations flag. There was almost no public debate. This pattern of commitment in war would extend to Canada's compulsive joining of international bodies – the UN, NATO, and NORAD. Canadians also sought to be a helpful fixer on the world stage, which led to membership in nearly every peacekeeping mission from the 1956 Suez Crisis to the early 1990s. In the 20th century, Canadians went to war or sought to enforce peace frequently, sometimes because they had to and sometimes because they chose to, but usually the line between the two was not clear.

This is the story that famed Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer tries to tell in his new book, Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014. He does it very badly.

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Dyer has been writing with sharp wit and piercing insights for more than 40 years in a relentless series of newspaper columns and books, many of which later became documentaries, on all manner of subjects related to warfare. One expects a lot from Dyer, author of the classic book, War, an international bestseller that has gone through many reprints and editions. Which is why Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014 is so disappointing. There is little fire in it. Much of the text is a bland retelling of Canada's many wars and it is utterly conventional in almost every way.

The thesis of the book purports to be about Canada's engagement in war and its negotiations with the major world powers – Dyer's Great Power Game – but there's just not much that is new in the text and this major theme only presents itself episodically.

While there have been hundreds of new books over the last two decades exploring and re-evaluating almost every aspect of Canadian military history, I see no trace of them in Dyer's book. That said, one can't evaluate from whence Dyer has drawn his ideas, as Canada in the Great Power Game, 1914-2014 has no bibliography.

This book seems to be based largely on an earlier book, The Defence of Canada, that Dyer wrote with Tina Viljoen in the late 1980s, with unused material, according to Dyer in his Introduction, becoming the foundation for Canada in the Great Power Game. Viljoen and Dyer's The Defence of Canada was good in the 1980s; it is thoroughly stale 25 years later.

The dates on the cover of the book are prominent: 1914 to 2014. Yet the first chapter of the book delves into the South African War, fought from 1899 to 1902. After having devoted around 100 pages to the Great War, Dyer pays much less attention to the Second World War – a more complex war for Canada – with the Cold War dribbling away in a number of episodic explorations. The book continues to lose steam as it closes in on the present day. There is, for example, barely a word on the critical peacekeeping/peacemaking operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Surely there is something to be said about Canada's commitment to the Great Power game in these operations far from Canadian soil. And of Afghanistan? The 10-year-long mission that killed 158 Canadians, cost more than $20-billion dollars, and caused deep rifts in Canadian society is given a mere handful of pages, and only in relation to the Chretien government's decision not to go to war in Iraq.

There must be a strange history behind the conception and writing of this book.

Tim Cook is the author of seven books on Canadian military history, including The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War, which will be available on Sept. 10, the 75th anniversary of Canada's decision to go to war against Hitler.

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