By Goodwin Ginger
There is nothing necessarily wrong with being sentimental when reporting on a foundational national myth: Vimy Ridge is where the First World War turned in favour of the Allies, and where an independent Canadian identity was forged. National Myths are useful insofar as they serve to give us a sense of a national and collective identity. Moreover, they serve to recall the great sacrifices and horrors that were endured to create that identity.
Yet to hear some tell the story of Vimy Ridge, you would think World War One was staged just so Canada could forge an independent identity. Indeed, if we are to go by the CBC’s coverage of Vimy, all we would know is that a lot of Canadians died taking a strategically important hill in a War that had apparently no causes or consequences. We would not know that besides the 3,500 hundred Canadians that died taking that god forsaken hill, that untold millions of others died in the Great War. Nor would we know why and what those Canadians, and untold other millions, were fighting and dying for. The platitudes coming from the national broadcaster and right wing commentators would have us believe that it was a fight about freedom. Oh really? Freedom from, and freedom to what?
True for some elites it was a war about freedom to get into and extend their colonial empires and imperial trading blocks. For other elites like the British and the Ottoman’s it was about preserving their decaying empires. It was a product of an interstate system in which national elites created insecurity in other nations by engaging unrestrained arms procurment and development along side gross militarism instead of diplomacy.
But for workers and farmers, those it must be said who did 95% of the fighting and dying, it was at best about the siren call of nationalism, duty, and loyalty. These are all virtues in most conditions, but when cynically manipulated by elites almost always deadly vices. Indeed, is that not how our good neighbours to the south got sucked into Iraq?
To recognize the utter senselessness of the First World War, its horrendous waste of human life and sick manipulation of farmers’ and workers’ loyalty and sense of duty, in no way undermines their valour. But if Vimy, and the slaughter of Canadians, is to have any meaning, beyond serving as a mere stage for a Canadian national identity play, the national broadcaster and the Canadian media owe Canadians a larger context through which to understand how it was that so many young Canadian farmers and workers came to loose their lives in Europe; and how it was that a European war managed to suck broad swaths of the entire world into its bloody and sadistic vortex.
If Vimy is only remembered as the stage upon which a Canadian identity was forged we will have utterly dishonoured the memory of how it was our valiant soldiers came to fall at a little known ridge called Vimy.