Hailfax Media Co-Op reviews Noble Illusions

Noble Illusions
Young Canada Goes to War

By Stephen Dale  

As the last of the first World War’s veterans have passed on, we are left with a gaping hole - in terms of eyewitness accounts of the horror and misery of this event - upon the face of the earth.

For those of us not inclined to read, listen to, or watch, firsthand accounts of this travesty, the lack of an actual, living, veteran has left the door wide open for various interpretations of this event to now compete with each other for time and airspace.

Stephen Harper - ever the emperor with no clothes - and his propaganda crew have taken this opportunity to turn the First World War into an instance where Canada grew up, or stepped onto the world’s stage, or took on it’s share of global responsibility. Or whatever. Dying for empirical aims becomes synonymous with the ‘ultimate self-sacrifice’, and also fits nicely with our new warlike persona.

This being the one hundredth year since the start of the ‘War to end all wars’, we can expect this kind of mind-numbing, ceremonial, imagery and pageantry - honouring the dead, never questioning the leaders or reasons – to continue onwards for several years to come.

Thankfully, there’s Stephen Dale’s new book ‘Noble Illusions – Young Canada Goes to War’ to set us straight.

Dale’s made a very interesting attempt to understand the early twentieth century Canadian mindset, towards comprehending how thousands upon thousands of Canadians could just keep up with the colonial stiff upper lip, whilst all the while watching dad, brother, uncle and the neighbours coming home in pine boxes or as broken pieces of their pre-war selves.

Towards that understanding, Dale’s taken a popular magazine of the day, meant for boys, ‘Young Canada’, and ‘done sociology’ upon its pages.

Between the covers of ‘Young Canada’, one finds innumerable helpful tips for boys on the cusp of manhood: gardening, playing ruggers, how to identify rail gauges in model train sets, etcetera, etcetera. Harmless stuff to be sure, and to Dale these helpful life tips are almost lamentable, given what passes for literature intended for young boys today.

Dale does, however, have a problem with ‘Young Canada’.

It is also a highly racist, xenophobic, piece of trash that includes brain-warping tales of British-led genocide upon Indigenous peoples – any non-British peoples, really – as though it was all sporting good fun, including for those that got the short end of the butchering. War is all in a day’s jolly fun, something that gets wrapped up before tea, and all in the name of the best bloody empire on earth, the British one, what?

Dale, rightly, has a lot of issues with feeding young, impressionable, boy minds all this poppycock. The biggest issue, in the context of World War One, was the impact of such propaganda.

Dale argues that Young Canada’s lessening of the realities and reasons for WWI, where in its pages war is something equivalent to keeping bees or perfecting one’s slap shot, helped to result in thousand upon thousand of young Canadians aching to sign up to go do battle with the ‘Kraut’, truly believing that they’d be home by Christmas.

Bullets aren’t really real. Death isn’t really what happens to young Anglo-Saxon men. Plus the enemy deserves to die, or at least put into servitude, for being non-Anglo-Saxon anyway.

It’s a really narrow, naive, racist, worldview. It’s also a really dangerous mindset to enter into a war in, where suddenly machine gun fire, trenches, and innumerable horrors are all quite real.

But, with history’s critical eye on our side, Dale’s analysis of the pages of ‘Young Canada’ unfortunately does make for a fascinating read.

The book is also a warning against too much pro-war chest-thumping going on in the modern age and Dale cautions against the impending tide of pro-military propaganda having a similar effect on the masses.

With memories of G.I Joe cartoons still imprinted on my brain, with a theme song I will likely never forget, despite the pleas of my rational mind, I would suggest that rather than a call for a vigilant watch for what lies ahead, that the tide of propaganda unleashed by World War One, however foolish and antiquated tomes like ‘Young Canada’ look to the modern reader, has never really ebbed.

Pick this one up.

— Miles Howe, Halifax Media Co-Op, Sept. 2014

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