- War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature by Robert McGill
Robert McGill's War Is Here meaningfully contributes to the field of Vietnam War studies. Like many recent publications in critical war studies that track the extensive and ongoing repercussions of the American war in Vietnam, McGill outlines the impact of that conflict on Canadian literature and national ethos. Unlike so many recent publications, McGill does not rely on archives opened since the turn of the millennium. Nonetheless, his study plumbs a subject not commonly dealt with outside or, according to McGill, inside Canada: the marked impact of the American war on Canada's culture of the era.
McGill particularly focuses on the literary inauguration during the war era of what he calls Canada's "new nationalism" or the sharp distinctions then drawn between US and Canadian culture and politics. In this national ethos, where the US venture in Vietnam evidenced its militaristic and imperialistic proclivities, a contrasting story of Canada emerged as a peace-loving, progressive, multilateral haven for what McGill terms "war immigrants," known in the United States as "draft dodgers." This myth of a "peaceable kingdom" concealed for many Canadians, however, the tensions in Canada's relationship with the United States, selling as Canada did many of the munitions and materiél needed to arm the United States and its allies during [End Page 187] the American war. While the new nationalism was premised on Canada's essential difference from the United States, McGill asserts, it also included fear about the two countries' shared border and the potential that Canada could be targeted militarily by its southern hegemon.
McGill outlines in five chapters the emergence of the new nationalism in fiction, film, poetry, drama, and non-fiction, arguing that the era was potentially a "golden age" for Canadian literature. Chapter one investigates, through close examination of George Grant's Lament for a Nation and Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, the feminization of Canada by war-era writers who saw in Canada an uncannily gendered connection to Vietnam. Using what McGill terms "figurative language," these writers cast Canada as an impotent man or sexually assaulted woman. Chapter two features texts illustrating the Canadian fear of American invasion, aiming, McGill suggests, to foment the new nationalism that would ostensibly protect Canada from its aggressive neighbour. In this chapter, McGill examines a series of war-era novels: Bruce Powe's Killing Ground, Ian Adams's The Trudeau Papers, and two novels by Richard Rohmer, Ultimatum and, in a deliberate reference to oil, Exxoneration. Chapter three studies literature's representation of mass media's construction of the American war for Canadian viewers, calling into question the ethics of spectatorship and the development in literature, according to McGill, of Canadian literature's primary qualities – irony and self-reflexivity. In this chapter, McGill pays special attention to Linda Hutcheon's The Canadian Postmodern and Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Chapter four returns to questions raised in chapter one about gender and sexuality, looking carefully at war-era novels that "queer" Canada as they depict draft dodgers violating heterosexual, masculine conventions asserted by the United States. In effect, draft dodging equates to sexual non-conformity. McGill explores these depictions in three novels: Morton Redner's Getting Out, Mark Satin's Confessions of a Young Exile, and Timothy Findley's The Wars. Finally, chapter five remarks on the twenty-first century turn in Canadian literature by examining a slew of novels about US veterans and Vietnamese refugees in Canada and several that are set largely in Vietnam. McGill concludes about these novels that they aim simultaneously to imply Canada's new nationalism while also challenging it in the face of transnationalism. In this sense, McGill concludes, the American war in Vietnam still impacts Canada and will as long as the conflict remains unresolved in the United States.
McGill's argument is a compelling and crucial one, as it outlines in clearly written detail how war impacts a country and how those ideological traces...