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  • A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars by Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey A. Keshen
  • Amy Shaw
A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars, by Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey A. Keshen. Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press, 2015. 254 pp. $70.00 Cdn (cloth), $29.95 Cdn (paper or e-book).

Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey Keshen's new work sets itself a rather daunting task, to summarize Canada's experiences in both world wars, on the home front and overseas, and to do so in a fairly short and accessible book. It is a credit to their research and lucid prose that A Nation in Conflict largely succeeds in this.

A great strength of this book is in its organization. It is thematic rather than chronological, with sections on areas like "Politics and Recruitment" and "Battles in the Air" that discuss both wars. Presenting it this way, rather than with discrete sections for each war, makes the book much more cohesive. It also enables the authors to highlight comparisons that might otherwise be elided — the static nature of fighting in World War I, for example, with the movement of World War II in "Fighting Wars on Land." And, given that many aspects of planning in WWII were undertaken in conscious reaction to experiences in WWI, this is a useful device. Moving back and forth between the wars offers opportunities for insight, but also potential for confusion. This is largely avoided, and the authors work well together, with a consistent style and tone throughout the book.

They come to it with different areas of expertise; Keshen has focused on social history in much of his previous work, while Iarocci has a more material and operational focus. (Sometimes the connection to earlier work is curiously explicit — it is odd and a little confusing, given the wealth of posters, art, and photographs available, that the cover image for this book is identical to that for Keshen's Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers) The authors draw on their individual areas of interest and strength to produce a work that is fairly wide ranging. The emphasis is on fighting overseas, with equal time for the wars in the air, at sea, and on land. There is attention to the home front, much of it in terms of economic aspects of the war effort. Women are somewhat neglected, their experiences, including in the armed forces and overseas, mentioned only in the "Society and Morality" section at the end of the book. [End Page 375]

A Nation in Conflict attempts equal focus and attention to the various fronts — land, sea, and air — on which the wars were fought. There is much to commend in this. Public memory of the wars tends to focus on the armies fighting on the western front, the navy and air force appearing at strategic moments (the Battle of Britain, D-Day) in the narrative but otherwise rather neglected. It is nice to see a fuller discussion of these aspects of the war in a general history. But there are some difficulties too. The neglect of the other fronts is largely due to the differences in scale — far fewer Canadians were involved in the naval battles of WWI, for example, than in those on land in Europe, and this book's decision to give equal space to both results in a skimming over of several battles that involved thousands of Canadians, and a detailed focus on the specifications of a single ship, or the boredom of its crew.

The book generally eschews controversy, putting forward limited, careful statements about censorship, the comparative effectiveness of Borden and King as wartime leaders, the Battle of Dieppe, and the aerial bombing campaign. This is fair, especially for a general, introductory text, and offers a good introduction to some of the issues historians debate in a way that should encourage discussion in an undergraduate classroom. At the same time the book does have some difficulties with laudatory language and little lapses into the cliche´ that stigmatizes military history. Do we really need to hear again about how soldiers "persevered against the odds … throughout the darkest hours of the war" (147...


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pp. 375-376
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