The Vimy Trap: or, How We Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Great War

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift Be­tween the Lines, 384 pages, $29.95

The Vimy Trap, from his­to­ri­ans Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, is a bit­ing cri­tique of how Cana­di­ans re­mem­ber the First World War. Set against the back­drop of the cit­i­zen­ship guide that was re­launched in 2011 by the fed­eral govern­ment of Stephen Harper, the book seeks to ex­plore and to dis­man­tle how Cana­di­ans view the war.

“By the sec­ond decade of the twen­tyfirst cen­tury, Vimy had be­come Canada’s na­tional fa­ble,” the au­thors ex­plain. “Par­tic­u­larly un­der the reign of the Harper Con­ser­va­tives, through care­fully se­lected words and im­ages, the Cana­dian state worked over­time to re-en­chant Cana­di­ans about the

war — to en­cour­age us to re­mem­ber it as a time of gal­lant mounted cav­al­ry­men, de­ter­mined ma­cho gen­er­als, sub­mis­sive women, and un­di­vided na­tional pur­pose.”

Un­like Cana­di­ans to­day, McKay and Swift ar­gue, Cana­di­ans in the post­war pe­riod over­whelm­ingly re­jected the mil­i­tarism of the First World War. The idea that Canada was “born” at Vimy Ridge and that it was a heroic bat­tle, hall­marks of the “Vimy trap,” are more re­cent con­cep­tions that bear lit­tle con­nec­tion to the re­al­ity of the West­ern Front.

“If the very peo­ple who had fought the war no longer be­lieved in it, or in the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal or­der in whose name it had sup­pos­edly been fought — then any no­tion of it as the in­spir­ing myth of the na­tion was in trou­ble.”

The Vimy Trap raises a num­ber of im­por­tant cri­tiques, and the story or myth of Vimy Ridge should be open for dis­cus­sion and de­bate. The nar­ra­tive of Vimy too of­ten over­whelms the story of the First World War in Canada. Like­wise, Cana­dian mil­i­tary his­tory and re­mem­brance ac­tiv­i­ties would ben­e­fit from a more in­ter­na­tional ap­proach and per­spec­tive.

But The Vimy Trap isn’t re­ally about any of that at its core. The book’s ar­gu­ment is based al­most en­tirely on the work of other his­to­ri­ans, with lim­ited new re­search. For in­stance, the au­thors’ very valid cri­tique of Pierre Ber­ton’s Vimy is drawn al­most en­tire- ly from the ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­says Vimy Ridge: A Cana­dian Re­assess­ment, pub­lished in 2010.

While the book of­ten ref­er­ences and bor­rows from ex­cep­tional in­ter­na­tional his­to­ri­ans — such as Jay Win­ter, Stéphane Au­doin- Rouzeau and An­nette Becker, and Joanna Bourke — it rarely takes time to draw out these dis­cus­sions. There is lit­tle at­tempt to untangle the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Win­ter’s work and that of Cana­dian his­to­rian Jonathan Vance.

For all the talk about how the tra­di­tional Cana­dian nar­ra­tives avoid dis­sent­ing voices, very lit­tle ev­i­dence is of­fered from fran­co­phone, Indige­nous, and other di­verse com­mu­ni­ties. Even the sim­ple task of jux­ta­pos­ing

the bat­tles of Vimy Ridge and Beau­mon­tHamel would have pro­vided an im­por­tant ex­am­ple from a Cana­dian con­text.

Many chap­ters are con­structed around com­pelling but lim­ited sources. The chap­ter “Wartime Pho­tos on Dis­play: The Wounds of Mem­ory and the Push for Peace” ex­plores how Cana­di­ans in the 1930s un­der­stood the First World War based on the pub­li­ca­tion of se­ries of pho­tos in the 1934 by the Toronto Star and the Win­nipeg Free Press. The au­thors then pro­ceed to gauge the im­pact of these pho­tos al­most ex­clu­sively by cit­ing let­ters pub­lished in the same news­pa­pers. While dis­cussing the photo story the au­thors re­mark, “The Great War had taught, or should have taught, hu­man­ity that the abo­li­tion of war was an ur­gent pri­or­ity.” In that small dis­tinc­tion be­tween “had” and “should” lays that quag­mire of the First World War’s un­der­stand­ing, and that’s where the au­thors find them­selves strug­gling.

Writ­ing twenty years ago in his work Death So No­ble (which is heav­ily crit­i­cized in The Vimy Trap), Vance re­sponded to a sim­i­lar cri­tique. “To make such an ar­gu­ment is to mis­con­strue the past,” he ex­plains. “It is to as­sume that, sim­ply be­cause we judge the First World War to have been an ap­palling slaugh­ter, peo­ple who lived through it must have judged it that way. This is clearly an as­sump­tion that the his­to­rian can­not make.”

The au­thors of The Vimy Trap ask read­ers to dis­re­gard the depth of schol­ar­ship on this topic in ex­change for the per­sua­sive but lim­ited ev­i­dence they present in this book. Just as im­por­tantly, in at­tempt­ing to make their ar­gu­ment by lin­ing up al­most ev­ery act of re­mem­brance and com­mem­o­ra­tion be­hind the views of the former Harper govern­ment, or the likes of Don Cherry, McKay and Swift mis­con­strue present-day Cana­dian as­sess­ments of Vimy Ridge and the First World War. There are, in fact, many his­to­ri­ans, mu­se­ums, teach­ers, and stu­dents work­ing to cre­ate mean­ing­ful and thought­ful re­mem­brance ac­tiv­i­ties that do not fall vic­tim to the “un­re­lent­ing Vimy­ism” the au­thors per­ceive all around them.

Joel Ralph,

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