Reappraisals and the Forgotten 20th Century

May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

I picked up Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century on somewhat of a whim at Montréal’s last independent Anglo bookstore, Argo Books on rue Sainte-Catherine, a few months back.  Since then, it’s been buried in the knee-deep stack of reading next to the bed.  But, after finishing Jerry White’s meditation on 20th century London, as well as a short novella by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, two defining writers of the 20th century, I thought perhaps it was time to crack the binding on Judt’s book.

I am all 7 pages in and have already read more food for thought than I do in most of what I read in a month.  Judt’s main point is that in the West, but especially in North America, particularly the United States, we have done exactly what Mike Edwards, the frontman of the disposable pop band Jesus Jones said we were doing 20 years ago, “waking up from history.”  Except, whereas Edwards was optimistic, and Francis Fukuyama was loudly and proudly declaring we had reached the End of History (seriously, how the hell does Fukuyama have ANY credibility after that?!?), Judt is more concerned.  He says we’ve lost our way, we live in a society focussed on forgetting, of ignoring the lessons of history.

Judt is particularly concerned with the States, his adopted nation, and where he died in 2010, after a battle with ALS.  In particular, he writes of the triumphalism of the States after the end of the Cold War, despite the defeat in Vietnam and the stagnation of Iraq (and Afghanistan) when he was writing in 2007.  He notes how the United States is the only Western nation that still venerates and celebrates its military history, a sentiment that disappeared in Europe after the Second World War.  He writes:

For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the last century is that was works.  The implications of this reading of history have already been felt in the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. For Washington, war remains an option — in this case the first option.  For the rest of the developed world, it has become a last resort.

I’m not entirely certain this is indeed the case, given Tony Blair’s hitching of his horses to Dubya’s war machine in 2003, but it certainly does give pause for thought.

It also brings the Harper government here in Canada into sharper focus.  Canada is a middle power, and that might be generous, actually.  And yet, Harper is hell bent on celebrating Canada’s military history, one that by and large ends with the Second World War, and denigrating our proud history as peacekeepers (including the very simple fact that Lester B. Pearson invented peacekeeping).  I wrote about this, somewhat tangentially, with the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL last fall.

And yet, here we are, a minor middle power in the world, striking a more bellicose tone than even the US in some cases, most notably in our support for Israel.  This is not a discussion of whether Israel deserves support or not, this is a discussion about the role of military history and veneration in public discourse.  Harper has used Canada’s proud (and distant) history as a military power, and Canada’s excellent record in the two World Wars to bolster and justify his muscular vision of Canadian foreign policy.

In this sense, then, while the US remains a major military power, and indeed the world’s major one, Canada remains small potatoes.  And all I can think of is an episode of The Simpsons where Bart, Milhouse, Rod, Tod, Nelson, and Martin head into Shelbyville for reasons I can no longer remember, and they decide to break  into teams.  Bart and Milhouse, Rod and Tod, and Nelson and Martin.  As they make their way off, Martin dances around the big, burly Nelson, who is somewhat reluctant of his role as the enforcer, singing his friend’s praise and celebrating his prowess.  In my vision, Obama is Nelson and Harper is Martin.  Kind of sad, really.

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§ One Response to Reappraisals and the Forgotten 20th Century

  • E A M Harris says:

    Military history has never interested me, but it’s obviously important to a lot of people. Bookstores have shelves of the stuff. I think this is a sad reflection on society. Only when the shelves of ‘peacekeeping history’ or ‘caring history’ are as long and as full will we know there has been a real change.

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