Last week, Noah Richler published an essay in the Globe and Mail entitled “War: Why don’t we get the message yet” to publicize his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About War (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book yet, though I should have a copy through the Toronto Public Library in a few days). In it, Richler affirms his belief that war is futile, inhumane, and devastating. He observes that Canadians are so insulated from war’s effects and so used to hyperbolic fictional violence that they are “immune not only to the shock of war’s violence, but also to the sum of regret and horror and anger and shame that is its aftermath.”
Richler’s right that there’s a disconnect between our willingness to authorize military force and our tolerance for its consequences when they come to our attention, but he’s headed in a futile direction if he thinks that all it will take is talking about the pity of war for people to get the message. After all, the futility of World War I is a cultural juggernaut: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse grossed $177 million internationally and the live show of the same name is playing in London, New York, and Toronto on open-ended runs (both are based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo). When the show opened in Toronto, it came with a mini-film festival of four movies that each expressed the opinion that the war was pointless: Oh, What a Lovely War, Gallipoli, Passchendaele, and A Very Long Engagement.
The problem is that, to bastardize Tolstoy, every bad war is bad in its own way. Telling the story of World War I as stupidity that even a child could have recognized not only demeans all those who took its questions of right and wrong seriously, but it also makes the war useless as a lesson for the future. No war seems truly pointless at its start, and pretending that the case against war is a slam-dunk virtually guarantees that the actual lessons about the pitfalls of war get left behind when an real, complicated case comes up.