Marching as to War

By Pierre Berton

Anyone interested in understanding why Pierre Berton has been Canada’s most popular historian for the last four decades (Klondike was published in 1958), should consider Marching as to War. At first blush, it might seem like nothing new. Berton has covered much of the same material before in books like The Promised Land, Vimy, and The Great Depression, as well as the first volume of his memoirs.

And yet Marching as to War is amazingly alive, full of a robust enthusiasm for its subject that propels the reader over fifty years of Canadian history as if they were so many minutes. And if it leaves the reader with any doubts as to whether the half-century from 1899 to 1953 was “the most remarkable period in our past,” it’s likely only because they’re thinking of another of Berton’s epics – his telling of the story of theYukon gold rush, the building of the Canadian railroad, or the War of 1812.

Berton is the consummate popular historian: his work both preserves and challenges the past, bringing its lessons up to date with intelligence and brio. Despite his interest in military history he never betrays his conviction that Canadian involvement in three of the four wars he deals with was entirely unnecessary. The Boer War, World War One, and Korea were mere exercises in Imperialism, highlighting Canada’s drift from the orbit of one superpower (Great Britain) to that of another (the U.S.).

Drift implies a situation where no one is really in charge, and we can see something of this same absence of responsibility behind such military fiascos as Hong Kong and Dieppe. Indeed, in the case of the latter Berton has to canvas an entire literature that has been thrown up over the question of who was in charge. In contrast, what made Arthur Currie the only first-rate general Canada has ever produced and the “greatest soldier in Canada’s history”, was precisely his sense of personal responsibility. Unlike many of his Great War counterparts, he had “an almost fanatical hatred of unnecessary casualties.” More often, the Canadian military was made to suffer under amateurs like the man Berton refers to as the “unspeakable” Sam Hughes.

But if Berton is tough on our military leaders, he is downright savage on the home front. Berton’s bete noire has always been the party line (of whatever party), which makes a lot of what he has to say refreshingly provocative. The lack of realism in Canadian culture is one of his favourite targets. Berton sees Canada’s resistance to realism in fiction as ushering in an Age of Gullibility after what should have been the disillusioning experience of the Great War. Without a realistic tradition in the arts (realism was considered an American innovation), it was easy for the government to turn the pliant media into a tool for propaganda. With few exceptions, one of the great villains in Marching as to War is the press.

In all of this it is the individual personalities that stand out. Berton’s Canada has always been a people’s history. Long acknowledged to be a master storyteller, he also has an incredible knack for telling just the right anecdotes, a way of finding individual stories that manage to represent the larger social experience. And while Marching as to War may be his most intensely opinionated work of history yet, it is never unfair. Like all of the best of his work, it is invaluable.

Review first published September 15, 2001.


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