What we got wrong about WWI

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Last week, events were held around the globe to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, "the war to end all wars." The war looms large in Canadian mythology. We fought for freedom, democracy, "king and country," and in doing so, helped shape modern Canada. But military historical Gwynne Dyer believes we need to reframe how we think about the Great War, as this false mythology still influences how we make military decisions. He explores this in a new book, Canada in the Great Power Game: 1914-2014 and was on CBC's Power & Politics and CBC Radio's The Current to talk about it. Listen to his conversation with The Current guest host Jeffrey Kofman below:

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Canada entered WWI, not out of a duty to fight for justice or democracy, but simply because Britain was at war. In 1914, the connections between Canada and Britain were much stronger than they are now. "It was the mother country. Not only were we legally at war whenever Britain declared war because we are part of the British empire, we felt somehow morally obliged to be with them," Dyer said on Power & Politics. "It was about kinship."

Canada was never really at threat during WWI, Dyer says. And, with WWI beginning like so many other wars before it, no one expected it to last very long or get very ugly. But it did. As the war continued, the number of Canadians - and soldiers around the world - died in staggering numbers, the narrative needed to change in order to justify these deaths. Sixteen million people, soldiers and civilians, died in WWI, including 60,000 Canadians. "You had to justify so many dead, that all the great powers ended up saying it was about far higher ideals, things that you can conceivably kill that many people for."

This mythology has influenced military decisions ever since. Dyer's book follows Canada through the two World Wars, the Cold War and modern conflicts like Afghanistan. A troubling pattern emerges: even though Canada is never really being threatened in any of these conflicts, we fought anyway, in the name of a greater good, and thousands of Canadians die. This is the legacy that WWI has left us: a belief that military combat can be used for something more than playing out a power struggle between nations and to protect the legacy of those soldiers who gave their lives for their countries. "After the first World War, we were compelled to go on doing the same thing, otherwise we would be betraying the dead," Dyer said on The Current.

Dyer says that first, we need to recognize that bringing democracy and freedom to other nations isn't the job of the Canadian government. But, if we decide this is a mission Canada needs to take on, we must learn that it can't be done through imposing a military presence. He points to Canada's presence in Afghanistan as an example, where there is one Canadian soldier for every 1,000 Afghanis. Few of the soldiers speak Afghan languages and do not have training to encourage reconciliation and dialogue. "It's a noble aim, but frankly it cannot be imposed with the end of a gun," he said. "You cannot bring about democracy that way."