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A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars

By Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey A. Keshen

Review By Jonathan Weier

March 18, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 160-161

In the practice of military history, historians have tended to examine conflicts independently of each other, separating them out from other conflicts and from broader social currents and non-military events. Conflicts are often treated individually, clearly bookended by generally agreed on start and end dates.

With A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars, Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey Keshen ambitiously work to transcend and move beyond these practices. In writing a comparative history of Canada’s experience of war in both the world wars, they explicitly aim to compare the ways they were fought and their effects on Canadian society in a deep and meaningful way, as well as how “the First World War’s legacy shaped important Canadian decisions in the Second World War” (2).

They extend this comparative motivation into the structure of the book itself. Rather than treating the two wars individually, one after the other, each chapter focuses on one thematic area and addresses it across both conflicts. Chapter 1, “Politics and Recruitment,” Chapter 2, “Mobilizing for Total War,” and Chapter 6, “Society and Morality,” address issues not directly related to the battlefront. One of the most important points that the authors make in these chapters is how much more Canada’s entry into the Second World War was characterized by planning and intentionality, an explicit attempt to avoid the mistakes in mobilization, recruitment, and supply that so hindered Canada’s war effort in the First World War. And even more importantly, Canada’s Second World War government did all it could to avoid divisive political conflicts over conscription. The authors also note the similarities, most tellingly, in the systems of internment that the Canadian government created in both conflicts. While Canada’s government in the Second World War attempted to avoid conflicts with Quebec, they were just as willing as the First World War federal government to vilify and limit the rights of specific ethnically defined groups of Canadians.

Chapter 3, “Fighting the Wars on Land,” Chapter 4, “Life and Death at Sea,” and Chapter 5, “Battles in the Air,” deal more specifically with the various battlefields on which Canadians fought and how the experience of war was transformed between the two major twentieth century conflicts. Aside from the obvious differences in military technology and the specifics of individual military campaigns, Keshen and Iarocci forcefully make the point that Canada’s Second World War government made a concerted attempt to encourage increasing participation at sea and in the air in order to minimize Canadian casualties. Further, the Canadian government was much more willing to mobilize the physical and financial resources necessary to support Canada’s military forces than it had been in the First World War.

If this book is not completely successful, it might be attributed to a certain over-ambition. The authors’ coverage of the two World Wars is exhaustive and very little escapes their attention. As a result, there are times when the book is unable to cover all of the topics with the depth they probably deserve. Iarocci and Keshen do, however, largely succeed in offering us a new way of looking at Canada’s experience of the two world wars by treating them as a thirty-year historical period that can be addressed in its entirety.

A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars
Andrew Iarocci and Jeffrey A. Keshen
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 272 pp. $29.95 paper