Stephen Harper, warmonger

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a warmonger. Yes, you read that right. You haven’t accidentally wandered over to I’m not trying to score cheap points either. I’m just observing a fact. Stephen Harper is pro-war. He thinks that war is something worth doing. He thinks that war has numerous redeeming qualities.

Various commentators have pointed this out. After all, how many political leaders go out of their way to celebrate the beginning of the First World War? Or who thinks that the War of 1812 is more worthy of commemoration than the adoption of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms? The Harper Government is constantly sending out weird press releases, celebrating the anniversary of some battle or skirmish that no one has ever heard of. (The various quixotic initiatives undertaken by the government on this front have been documented in some detail by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift in their book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.)

All of this came to the forefront in the recent vote to join the U.S. effort to tamp down ISIS. Harper clearly regarded this as a much-anticipated “redo” of the 2003 decision, whether to join in the American invasion of Iraq. It is absolutely clear that, had Harper been Prime Minister in 2003, Canada would have joined that coalition. What is perhaps more striking is that, even with the benefit of hindsight, knowing how the American occupation turned out, Harper clearly still thinks that Canada should have joined the invasion force.

And yet, Harper remains as elusive as ever. There is some level at which he clearly likes war, and would very much like to see Canada get involved in more of them. And yet he is a peculiar sort of warmonger, in that he also doesn’t seem to have a lot of stomach for the reality of it. For instance, he doesn’t seem have much of the grudging respect for men like Vladimir Putin that you find on the right-wing of the U.S. Republican Party. His reaction to the Ukraine crisis was more like “Oh my God, how could you?” rather than “This is how the great game is played, we must learn to play it better…”

All of this led me to thinking about the various sorts of warmongers who are out there. I mean, what kind of young man reads All Quiet on the Western Front, or Johnny Got his Gun, or The Tin Drum, and comes away thinking “true, but on balance war still seems to me a good thing”? (Personally, I just finished reading Anand Gopal’s excellent, astonishing No Good Men Among the Living, which reinforces my general impression that war is almost entirely a shitshow, in which lots of people get killed. Gopal portrays the Americans in Afghanistan as having overwhelming force, but lacking almost entirely any reliable information about how to use it. The subsequent resurgence of the Taliban was, in his view, essentially an own goal.)

Anyhow, getting back to the warmongering. I can think of several possible motives for such a view, and thus at least four different categories:

1. Macho. The most common stereotype of the warmonger is the macho type, who essentially sees human relations in terms of a dominance hierarchy. Typically this sort of person began, at a young age, to use force and intimidation as a way of moving up the dominance hierarchy, and over time allowed this to become something of a worldview (often couched in terms of “respect” or “honour”). The attitude toward war is basically a projection onto the nation-state of the lessons learned in interpersonal relations – you have to show people who’s boss, you can’t let you guard down, if they don’t fear you they will conspire against you, etc. This is the sort of person for whom the chant, “we’re number one,” resonates deeply (example: John McCain).

2. Realist. The realist is far less emotional than the macho warmonger – in fact, he is often better described as being “in the grip of a theory.” The theory in question is usually a somewhat reductionist view of human relations, which maintains that “when push comes to shove,” or “when you get down to brass tacks,” it is force that maintains social order. Thus the realist is inclined to view international law, negotiations and deliberations, to be potentially useful, but only when backed up by the use of force. People, however, tend to forget this, which is why is necessary to have a war every so often, in order to remind everyone how things really work (example: Robert Kagan).

3. Nation-building. Others see war more instrumentally, as part of a larger nation-building project. Nothing unifies people like having a common enemy. And as Carl Schmitt taught us, the nation is fundamentally about drawing the distinction between friend and foe. The nation-building warmonger initiates conflict, not just to distract from difficult domestic issues, but to enhance social solidarity, and to create a sense of national purpose (example: Vladimir Putin).

4. Romantic. In this day and age, the romantic militarist is a bit of an odd duck, despite the fact that it used to be a very popular view. Consider this passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is like a tiny window into a world that has long disappeared:

Rostov, standing in the front lines of Kutuzov’s army which the Tsar approached first, experienced the same feeling as every other man in that army: a feeling of self-forgetfulness, a proud consciousness of might, and a passionate attraction to him who was the cause of this triumph.

He felt that at a single word from that man all this vast mass (and he himself an insignificant atom in it) would go through fire and water, commit crime, die, or perform deeds of highest heroism, and so he could not but tremble and his heart stand still at the imminence of that word…

The Tsar addressed the officers also: “I thank you all, gentlemen, I thank you with my whole heart.” To Rostov every word sounded like a voice from heaven. How gladly would he have died at once for his Tsar!

“You have earned the St. George’s standards and will be worthy of them.”

“Oh, to die, to die for him ” thought Rostov.

The Tsar said something more which Rostov did not hear, and the soldiers, straining their lungs, shouted “Hurrah!”

Rostov too, bending over his saddle, shouted “Hurrah!” with all his might, feeling that he would like to injure himself by that shout, if only to express his rapture fully.

This is the sort of romanticism that the First World War largely put an end to. At the same time, you can still find echos of it, particularly among those who are intensely patriotic, or committed to the virtue of “sacrifice” – which always seems to mean dying rather than, say, paying taxes – or who think that war helps the nation to achieve “moral clarity.”

If one had to slot Stephen Harper in somewhere on this list, I think one would have to classify him as a romantic militarist. This is mainly due to the fact that his attitude toward the military, like much of his more general political conservatism, seems to be based on nostalgia. His book on hockey made it clear that this is a significant aspect of his temperament. (Many people who are fundamentally misanthropic take the affections that would normally be directed towards other people and displace them into some other realm, cultivating for instance an excessive fondness for animals. Stephen Harper appears to have taken a number of ordinary human emotions and displaced them onto objects in the past.) One of his core convictions seems to be that things were just better back in the old days. A hazy romanticism about Canada’s military past is part and parcel of all this – the sacrifice, the heroism, etc. Hence all the stuff like reverence for Passchendaele (a battle that Lloyd George described as “one of the greatest disasters of the war… No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign”), or the desire to revive old insignia and uniforms.

Unlike McKay and Swift, my inclination is regard all of this as mostly harmless. As far as rebranding Canada as a “warrior nation,” the Conservatives seem to me to have been spinning their wheels. This is for two reasons:

First, there is the fact that they have been unable to figure out, any better than the Liberals before them, how to solve the problem of military procurement in this country. As a result, there is little danger of Canada actually becoming a fighting nation – we simply don’t have the hardware to do it. Furthermore, the lack of equipment — or even competence in the acquisition of equipment — betrays a fundamental lack of seriousness, which in turn makes a lot of the militarism seem like just play-acting.

Second, there is the fact that Canada does not need a fighting military. Americans often accuse other Western nations, particularly some European states, of free-riding on U.S. military power. And while this may not be true of some nations, it is certainly true of Canada. As far as military spending is concerned, the relationship between Canada and the United States is a perfect example of what Mancur Olson referred to as the “exploitation of the great by the small.” Part of what’s nice about having the world’s largest undefended border with the U.S. is that the U.S. would therefore never tolerate the invasion of Canada by a hostile power. As a result, we have to be prepared for minor border skirmishes, but we don’t really have to have a full-scale military, sufficient to defend the country from attack.

The fact that the Canadian military is essentially otiose provides one way of understanding our past enthusiasm for peacekeeping – at least it provided some rationale for maintaining something like an able fighting force. Take away the peacekeeping, and what becomes the new raison d’être for the Canadian military? The Conservative government has yet to provide one — indeed, it seems not to be aware of even the need to. The boyish enthusiasm for the military that you find in Stephen Harper (or, say, Peter MacKay) is essentially a matter of personal temperament and political ideology, but it lacks any underlying national or geopolitical rationale.

In other words, the fundamental problem with trying to reimagine Canada as a “warrior nation” – apart from the fact that we are not one – is that the military in Canada serves no pressing national interest, and so we have no material incentive to become one.


Stephen Harper, warmonger — 4 Comments

  1. That’s a thoughtful anatomy of Harperian militarism. And yet, how does the romanticism square with the squalid treatment of veterans, which is turning into a series of political own goals?

  2. The “nation-building” category seems like a much better explanation of Harper’s position than “Romantic” to me. It’s not “nation-building” in the sense of creating a country through conquest, but of (re)making the idea of one.

    For a few generations influential sections of the Canadian promoted a sense of national identity that was (very roughly speaking): our past is that we have no past; our identity is that we have no identity; our values are that we have none, and certainly none worth fighting for; we have a consensus on consensus, and don’t need to be more specific than that; we’re boring; the entirety of our national identity is that we’re definitely not American plus one social program instituted a few decades ago plus maybe the CBC; etc.

    Talking about 1812 and all that pushes back against that whole outlook. And it doesn’t require fighting any actual wars – just the idea that we might do so, or could be specific enough about what we believe to fight at all, and that we have a pre-Trudeau history which is admirable and exciting and worth talking and arguing about – all of that constitutes an important shift in the way the nation is conceived. It makes us more like the British or French in that way, instead of putatively “post-national”.

  3. Paul: I think it’s just incompetence. I think the key to understanding the Harper government is not just that he has authoritarian tendencies, but rather that he’s surrounded by fools. I’m going to write something on this, but first I have to finish Michael Harris’s book. Anyhow, I found this argument plausible:

    John: I think what the Harper government is trying to do in the “national identity” file is really interesting, very poorly understood by the public, and largely doomed (viz. to restore the pre-Trudeau English-Canadian identity). I guess I just wouldn’t classify this as “nation-building,” but something more like the opposite. Trudeau’s project was the nation-building one, because it aimed at creating a set of shared symbols at the federal level that would displace and absorb the lower-level ethnic British and French identities. Trying to reverse this, and have everyone revert to more parochial national identities (after all, there’s no way you are going to get anyone in Quebec to get all excited about the wars that we fought for the British), is not nation-building. I think it’s better described as just nostalgia.

  4. the biggest surprise is how Harper managed to bully the press from day one, we all know how he bullies everyone because he,s smarter than all of us put together, an arrogant man who thinks only of himself, everything else is just a photo opt