- Saints, Sinners and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War
I still remember the response. I had been teaching Canada and the Second World War to undergraduates at the University of Toronto in 1992, during a depression Canadians blamed on the FTA, the GST, or simply the Tories. Prospects looked grim to young middle-class students. 'What we need,' one of them announced, 'is a Third World War.' After all, hadn't the previous World War cured the Great Depression, transformed most Canadians into affluence, and given Canada a respected voice in the world? If it cost Canada forty-four thousand lives, what youngster could care about such a number? Like the young of every wartime generation, none can imagine that they will join the statistics of dead or permanently disabled. And wasn't the Second World War what Studs Terkel named 'The Good War,' the comeuppance for Hitler, Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo? Without it, could the Holocaust have had survivors? Wouldn't Canadians still be strapped into the murderous ethnic, religious, and gender prejudices we had practised since time out of mind and which threaten, even now, to break back into our lives?
Perhaps Jeffrey A. Keshen had a similar experience. Saints, Sinners and Soldiers has been written with the conscientious determination to expose Canada's 'underbelly' in the Second World War. Did Canadians accept regimentation and regulation to prevent inflation and share our plenty with harder-hit allies? Yes, most of us dutifully limited ourselves to a few ounces of butter per week or two lumps of sugar in a cup of coffee. Others, obviously, didn't, though the low priority assigned to enforcement by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board keeps us from knowing the extent of noncompliance. Did the government tackle a housing crisis already aggravated by the Depression? The answer from Keshen is no. Loth to meddle in a classic free market, bureaucrats and economic advisors fought any major intervention. Were Canadian women liberated from domestic servitude and low-wage job ghettos by their contribution to wartime production and by military service? Yes, but at the end of the war, compulsion and self-denial sent them back to their traditional occupations and status, with none [End Page 426] of the landmarks of the earlier war. Canadian youth responded sacrificially to a national war effort that robbed them of family life and freedom. Were they recognized and rewarded? No, Keshen reminds us, the young men who formed the bulk of the traditional criminal class had disproportionately enlisted. Even shrunken police forces could enforce petty curfews and punish trivial misbehaviour as 'juvenile delinquency,' feeding popular paranoia that adolescents were the vanguard of moral decay.
Having enlisted the criminal classes in the Canadian armed forces, Keshen has no trouble explaining wholesale drunkenness, adultery, and soaring venereal disease rates among Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen, particularly in wartime Britain. While campaigns and fighting form a very minor theme in Keshen's version of the war, mass casualties seem even more futile when the circumstances in which they occurred are barely mentioned. In the last two years of the war, when Canadians in significant numbers participated in the Bomber Offensive against Germany and the ground war in Italy and Northwest Europe, Keshen's account becomes a catalogue of mass casualties, interspersed with enough reminders of looting, drunkenness, and sexual violence by Canadians to make Somalia in 1992 almost predictable. Mass criminality continued after VE Day in the Netherlands and in the abbreviated Canadian occupation of Germany.
Keshen's version of Canada's Second World War may presage a future tone in wartime remembrance which satisfies a Canadian preference for self-denigration. Saints, Sinners and Soldiers may satisfy colleagues and classroom teachers who feel obliged to teach the Second World War while doing their best to dishonour the claim that it was, in any way, a 'Good War.' Shakespeare did it better a long time ago. On the eve of Agincourt, a weary, frightened soldier muses: 'I am afeared there are few die well that die in...