Talking about war

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First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (21/05/12)

Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.
-- Bertrand Russell

The public conversation around war has always been complex and thorny. What kind of language does a government use to convince its citizens that war is the appropriate course of action? What effect does media coverage of war have on our perception of it? How does Canada's military approach differ from that of other countries? Are we a society of peacekeepers or warriors?

These are some of the questions that Noah Richler explores in his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About War. As Canada starts to withdraw from its military mission in Afghanistan, the writer examines our national perspective on war, and whether this position has changed over the years.

It often seems like a challenge to have a rational discussion about the merits of warfare, given the emotion and political stakes involved. One phrase that came into frequent use at the outset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that critics should "support the troops."

"That's the brilliant piece of blackmail, the support our troops idea, which put forward that it's somehow impossible to be against the war and, at the same time be able to claim to support our troops, which is nonsense," Richler told CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos during a recent interview. "It sounds like a trite example, but if I go to a theatre show and don't like it, it doesn't mean I hate actors, it means I don't like the production they're in. And I want our Canadian Forces to be resourced as best as we're able to do. But I can still have a quarrel with what they're undertaking, but ... there's simplicity to that story that people like."

noah-richler-100.jpgRichler said his book isn't a judgment on the war in Afghanistan, but a look at how we communicate about it and how the message evolves as the situation evolves. Initially, during the first few years of the war, Canadians were told the troops were there to "wipe out the Taliban," Richler said. Then "building schools for girls" became the signature project.

So what was Richler's position about entering the war in the first place?

"We did need to go in, we needed to stand by the United States, but I objected to the deliberate confusion of purposes that were being presented to us," he said. "I don't think that protecting our trade relationship with the United States, which was one of the reasons bandied about in the beginning, was a good reason to go in. And I'm sorry that ... we have done a number of things that have confused our possibility of operating the kind of role we did before with the U.N., being a sort of mediating force, and offering some kind of alternative path. We're part of the invading force in Afghanistan."