Gwynne Dyer begins this book by recalling that a combined book and CBC television project which he co-authored in 1986, The Defence of Canada, had been mysteriously cut back by both the publisher and the network, even though its authors had been paid for both a second volume and a rebroadcasting of the series. He later learned of how threatened the Canadian military had been by the project, and of the 14-year effort they had launched to propagandize against it. Whether the targets of this effort included the CBC and a book publisher is unknown to Gwynne; he concludes only that they “might” have – that is, the military “might” have been playing a small version of a much bigger and longer-running global game in which individual lives and the fates of small regions and countries were pawns easily sacrificed to the interests of a few large nation-states and their alliances.
This “great game” metaphor for relations among the powerful nation-states of the world has a substantial history and a recurrent place in the literature of political science and military history. Its origin is usually associated with the 19th-century expansion of Russia into central Asia and with British fears that their Indian empire could be invaded by Russia through Afghanistan, and also with Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim in which it is a standard term for the spying, plotting, counterspying, and surreptitious killings through which political influence in Afghanistan is being contested. When Dyer’s book opens, the “great game” has become an established European game in which the most powerful states of the early 1900s compete in making alliances, building militaries, devising armaments, stealing territory, acquiring colonies, and securing natural resources, all the while imagining that their economic prosperity depends not on cooperation but dominance. Nineteenth-century wars, Dyer explains, had enriched the victors while leaving relatively intact the political systems and core territories of the losers – phenomena which the great powers expected to continue.
Dyer’s central argument here has two parts. The first is that by the early 1900s this “great game” concept could no longer work – the First World War would result in the collapse of the Ottoman
The Second World War, he argues, was begun by Britain and France not to stop an evil Hitler but to prevent Germany from becoming a threateningly large power.
The problem with Germany was not that it wanted to conquer Britain; Hitler’s ambitions lay in the east.
But if he were to achieve them all, then Germany would be by far the strongest power in Europe. That,
more than the fate of small countries in Eastern Europe or the wickedness of Hitler’s regime, was the
main reason that Britain was preparing to fight the Führer. It was the old great-power game again, and
the rise of Germany made war inevitable. (181)
Canada was entangled in that war not by its own interests, or by its ethical principles, but again by pro-British sentiment in English Canada, by “the domestic political fact that Canada would be less divided by a cautious and limited entry into the war than by staying out entirely.” Dyer quotes a 1939 internal Department of External Affairs memo by future Prime Minister Lester Pearson: “If [Britain] fights, it will be in defence of her own imperial interests, defined by herself. Why should she expect any particular support for that?” (176).
Dyer's account of the Diefenbaker government years, including the establishment of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the arguments about arming Canadian forces with US nuclear weapons, is extremely interesting, especially in terms of the possible military interference with the CBC with which the book has begun. New agreements with the United States have brought about a situation in which the Canadian military have more confidential information about world security and US policies than Canadian government ministers are allowed to have, and the tail is beginning to wag the dog. Diefenbaker signs the NORAD agreement without knowing all that his military understand about it. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a Canadian admiral, on the advice of his military, orders compliance with a US military request that he knows his Prime Minister is considering refusing. Writes Dyer, “Torn between obedience to their own national authority and a ‘higher’ alliance loyalty during the Cuban crisis, the Canadian armed forces chose the latter. They rationalized their disobedience by making the same distinction between the orders of the present government and the ‘true interests of the state’ which has served as the justification for every coup from Chile to Thailand, but the Canadian forces are not coup-prone” (359). I stumbled over the syntax and content of the last seven words of that sentence. They look less like Dyer’s possibly ironic words than an attempted editorial qualification.
Throughout his accounts of the Cold War period Dyer has characterized the Canadian military as welcoming integration with U.S. forces because of the access to equipment and interesting tasks that integration brings them. Integration also, however, puts the Canadian military effectively under the ultimate command and influence of a non-Canadian government – something perhaps to be considered in the current F-35 fighter procurement debates. If there were a small ‘coup’ during the Cuban crisis, its ultimate origin was more likely in Washington than in Canada’s now ‘embedded’ military.
Unfortunately, the major limitation of Dyer’s book is that it is not at all academic – there are no footnotes, and no bibliography. For example, in his opening anecdote he provides three long quotations from ex-CBC journalist Allan Bonner, who participated in the Canadian military’s efforts to ‘correct’ Dyer’s 1986 book and TV series, but leaves their source unspecified. A reader has no way of determining whether they come from one document or several, what kinds of documents they might be, and where they might be viewed and checked for accuracy of quotation and for what else Bonner wrote – or said – in them. There are several hundred similar quotations in the book, most attributed only to a named speaker, a few inconsistently attributed to a name and a date or a book title, and none to a page number. Dyer’s numerous summaries of historical events and national policies, and generalizations about the motives and temperaments of individuals are similarly unsupported and thus difficult to check for accuracy. Oddly, it is the vaguely attributed quotations which endows the overall text with a sense of plausibility and consistency. I wonder, however, given the various issues of power that Dyer deals with, whether this lack of documentation was designed to avoid trouble – that at best cavalierly acknowledging sources, or appearing perhaps at times not to have any, was also a way of camouflaging the presence of some who wished to appear invisible. But am I being naive in wondering this, or paranoid? Without clear documentation it is hard to know, much as it it hard to make wise democratic decisions about war without accurate information about circumstances and likely consequences.