If we're serious about building a more peaceful world, we have to stop resting on our laurels on the home front. "Peace" and "freedom" are precarious for Canada and the U.S., too. What could we achieve if we were more upfront about it?
I’ll never forget my confusion, as a Canadian in Colombia in 2018, when I first visited Museo Casa de la Memoria. In Medellín’s “memory house”, a video explained that Colombia had more history with peace than any other country. I’d been raised to believe in Canada’s strong commitment to “peace, order, and good government.” Surely we were “better” at peace than a country recently at war for over half a century?
But what the video argued was that Colombia’s long history with peace deals had given it far more hands-on experience with the state-craft necessary to resolve conflict, and a lot more experimental data from different approaches to the process. In Canada, peace on the home front was something we were expected to treat as a done deal. In Colombia, peace was active and ongoing work.
This was the first of many mental flips that I’d immigrated to Colombia to receive. So much of the Western social contract troubled me, especially around its racism and xenophobia. I felt suffocated by the tenor of our discourse, which often incuriously assumed there was nothing to learn from the rest of the world. That everything of note in politics, philosophy, culture, and society happened here. How could we grow, how could we adapt to new challenges, if we started from the assumption that we already more or less had a lock on everything?
Learning from alternative perspectives
Colombia, for instance, had recently captured the world’s notice with its 2016 peace deal between the government and a guerrilla group called FARC. Even as U.S. Republicans and Democrats seemed intractably divided, Colombia had been working on an approach to restorative justice that would allow guerrillas to transition into a peace-time party with active state representation. The ultimate aim, in giving FARC the ability to participate politically (alongside representatives for the war’s wide-ranging victims, and in conjunction with submission to a special tribunal, the JEP [pronounced “hep”]), was to help the country heal.
Now, has this ambitious reintegration been easy? Absolutely not. Last fall, the country celebrated five years since that peace deal, and local media deliberated at length over its successes, failings, and ongoing challenges. In subsequent articles for this week’s four-part series, I’ll explore lessons from Colombia’s long history with peace-building, and the incredible ambition and promise of such an approach to restorative justice. But today I want to focus on the Western myths that underpinned my first transformative moment in 2018.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, after all, shouldn’t have come as the shock that it did for so many. And yet, the Western world is very good at teaching us to rest on our collective laurels. The idea that we in the West “earned” peace in a way that other countries haven’t is a problem that continues to diminish us as civic participants—and as global humanists.
But we can do better, once we recognize the source of our error.
World wars and nation-building
When I see how the war in Ukraine is fortifying national identity, I’m struck by the behavior’s familiarity. A united front before an external threat is a tried-and-true path to national consciousness, as my Canadian education also affirmed. Canadians and U.S. citizens, after all, hold memorial days as both sacred and critical to national identity. November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada and Britain, and Veteran’s Day in the U.S., which also marks Memorial Day on May 30. And those days are centrally about military losses of life.
Canadian schoolchildren learn to recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” as a core part of our civic education. It was, after all, written by a Canadian during the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s first major engagement in WWI.
WWI is also in general more “important” to us, because it was through service in WWI that Canada came into its own as a nation. As a Grade 8 student, I remember staging a classroom re-enactment of Canada’s successful military campaign at Vimy Ridge. It was an event that shifted our reputation on the Western stage, and one we were taught to be proud of. The British didn’t think much of us! We were artillery-fodder and lower class! Oh, but “we” showed them!
And so, after the war, Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles as its own nation in the world’s eyes. We were no longer Britain-Lite. That war made us, we young Canadians were taught.
(Which isn’t to say that Canadians don’t also nation-build around WWII, especially with respect to Juno Beach. We also pride ourselves on “freeing” the Netherlands, which still sends tulips every year in thanks. But WWII is much more a war for U.S. identity-formation. It’s a highly evocative narrative landscape that allows a country first driven into combat by Pearl Harbor—and ending that Pacific conflict with nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to spin endless media representations of moral virtue around fighting Nazis in Europe in the interim.)
And yet that poem by McCrae, which supposedly calls for us to remember the waste of war, has a tricky closing verse, which reads:
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
In short, it’s not just addressing the abject horror of loss, but also the importance of “passing on the torch”. That’s what we’re asked to reflect upon, when we recite it every year. What does it mean to “break faith with [those] who die”? What is the light we’re expected to carry, and how?
Something, something, war is… bad?
Yes, the U.S. is far more openly pro-military (with the military budget to match) than Canada. However, both countries have cultivated strange schisms between home fronts and frontlines since those first two world wars.
One aspect of WWI and WWII that we don’t talk as much about during memorial days is the sense of total war that our countries once embraced. War bonds. Local resource drives. Domestic rationing. Everyone on the home front striving to “do their part” for “our boys overseas”… Can you even imagine the same today? (Especially after two years of state mandates around COVID-19, and the rhetoric of oppression used by dissenters?)
When Canada, the UK, and the U.S. sent soldiers and support workers into those conflicts, the rest of these countries by and large knew it, lived it, and leaned into it. There was a “war on”, and this shaped attitudes of civic responsibility back home.
But in the 21st century, when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan for 9/11 hijackings carried out by al-Qaeda, war looked a bit different on the home front. It wasn’t just that most folks weren’t at all asked to tighten their belts or embrace a total-war mentality with respect to civic service. It was worse: the U.S. government had declared a “war on terror”, a bizarrely abstract enemy with uncertain terrain. And this gave license not just for the creation of Homeland Security, but also a whole new, highly emboldened surveillance state. Private and public security sectors thrived on the ensuing frenzy for counterterrorist action.
Despite these encroachments on privacy, though, U.S. “freedom” rhetoric couldn’t have been stronger. The U.S. was an unquestioned “land of the free” to many. And when the government leveraged its first post-9/11 war to invade Iraq? Solidarity involved stunts like “freedom fries”, to try to stir up contempt for countries that disagreed with a war built on false pretenses. And if everyday U.S. citizens disagreed with the war? Wanted to protest it? Sometimes those much-vaunted freedoms of speech and assembly were considered treasonous.
Even today, as the U.S. remains stuck in a “forever war” around terrorist threats, there’s an Orwellian absurdity to abiding claims that the U.S. is the “freest” country in the world.
But it’s not an incoherent claim, either. Rather, it speaks to how Canadian and U.S. cultures now exist at a disconnect even from wars in which they’re engaged, and often to maintain the illusion that our core values were already sufficiently fought for, and won.
The fuzzy borders of our “peace”
Canadians, after all, also take certain values for granted, “peace” being chief among them. In the 1950s, Lester B. Pearson aided in the formation of the UN’s first peacekeeping force, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his actions. Decades later, Canadian peacekeepers held the line in the Rwandan genocide. (Even though our most courageous members, including Roméo Dallaire, could do little amid the worst but bear horrible witness). We’ve supported relief efforts around genocide in Rohingya and Darfur, and come out against China’s similar actions toward Uighurs.
Great stuff, right? Except that such work primarily takes place out of sight and out of mind. Peacekeeping is something we do elsewhere, for poor countries in need. Pay no attention to RCMP encroachment on unceded Indigenous territory for corporate expansion. Or how our munitions helped fuel genocidal war in Yemen. We are peaceful, just as the U.S. is “free”.
And it’s not that the U.S. and Canada haven’t done some good work internationally. It’s that so much of our “peace-building” takes place amid complex national legacies, which haven’t been fully resolved let alone incorporated into our mythmaking around peace.
Canada, for instance, absolutely came into its own as a nation when it signed the Treaty of Versailles. But that treaty was an incredibly retributive document that economically ruined Germany. It paved the way for the rise of fascism, and WWII.
And the U.S. inaugurated our age of nuclear terror. It also has a long and storied history of destabilizing other governments for personal gain. Its international missions rarely succeed at “spreading freedom”. More often, foreign policy, espionage, and military action have simply exacerbated border crises caused by people fleeing the states the U.S. helped to destabilize.
And both Canada and the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees in WWII. Both countries devastated Japanese communities via North American internment camps. First Nations members of the Canadian military, and Native American and Black members of the U.S. military, also went overseas in both wars, but were fighting for “freedoms” not at all equally on offer back home.
We have always been, in other words, a mess of contradictions and imperfections.
So why don’t we speak of our “peace” and our “freedom” with the precarity both deserve?
Rethinking the myth of “peace”
In wartime, as we’re seeing now in Ukraine, there is a huge push to flatten complicating factors. Ukraine does have a neo-Nazi problem. The state hasn’t been just and fair to all its citizens. Does that automatically make Putin “right” in launching a brutal invasion? Absolutely not.
But we in the West often lack the ability to process such ideological and structural complexities in other conflicts because of how poorly we reckon with our own.
Colombia, as I’ll get to in subsequent articles, is no picnic when it comes to its ongoing peace-work. Between dissident FARC, ELN, cartels filling power vacuums in vulnerable rural communities receiving inadequate agrarian re-investment, slow-moving tribunal processes, and general economic and environmental precarities, there is… a lot still to be done.
The difference, for me, lies in the level of honesty about ongoing internal struggle. In Canada? Especially but not limited to Indigenous rights battles unfolding on unceded land. In the U.S.? Involving not just Indigenous rights but also ongoing histories of racialized oppression. And in all countries in the West (and then some)? The rise of radicalized far-right action groups.
What could we achieve abroad, what better policies for international engagement could we enact, if we owned up to the peace-work we still need to do at home?