The Great War affected Harold Innis personally during its first year, in the summer of 1915, when he was 19 years old and hadn't yet planned the career that would make him the most influential social scientist in Canada. He was living in Landonville, Alta., teaching summer school, when he received heart-stopping news.
A contemporary from Otterville, in southwestern Ontario, had died fighting in France. Barney Ryder wasn't a close friend, but they had lived parallel lives in the same farming community. That fact made the war part of Innis's private life as well as a faraway tragedy covered in the newspapers. He paid eloquent tribute: "Not only did Barney die for his country, but in a broader sense he died for civilization and the world."
Universalist idealism fuelled those words, an idealism widely popular at the time but less common today though by no means extinct. In 1915 many Canadians believed the struggle against Germany was a just war. Democracy was at stake, and Britain. Theologians discussed whether a war can ever be just or "good," as we say nowadays in book titles such as The Last Good War.
This weekend, during Remembrance Day ceremonies, many of us will be thinking about Canadians in Afghanistan, men and women our descendants will honour when they wear poppies. Is Afghanistan a just war? Are we right to be there? Today it's commonplace among historians to question the First World War's claim to be just. Was it worth 60,000 Canadian lives?
Innis, a Baptist on his way (he thought) to being a minister, decided a Christian could support the war. He enlisted and soon saw some of the worst of it. ("One of our airplanes came down. Awful crash; intestines all over the machine; head off the pilot.") A piece of shrapnel damaged Innis's hip and ended his war. He came home with a powerful sense of his good fortune and a determination to make the rest of his life a memorial to those who had died.
He would do his best to understand what had produced modern society and its calamitous war. The late Sandra Gwyn told his story superbly in Tapestry of War, published in 1992. Innis's son Donald said many years later his father identified with everyone who died or suffered in the war: "He had joined a fraternity that is unseen and unspoken but exists nevertheless." Eventually he became the greatest authority on Canadian economic history, then a pioneer of communications theory who explained the nature of empires by the ways they communicated. (Marshall McLuhan, in a rare moment of modesty, wrote that his own work was no more than a footnote to Innis.)
Reinhold Niebuhr, the most admired of American theologians, was a self-described pacifist who decided that sometimes war was justified. He applied his doctrine, Christian Realism, when Japan invaded China in 1932 and colonized Manchuria. Niebuhr urged the U.S. to bring a moral sense to this situation and yet "not sacrifice the possibility of achieving an ethical goal because we are afraid to use any but ethical means." He took the same view of fighting Hitler seven years later.
Desmond Morton, in the recently published fifth edition of A Military History of Canada, explains with admirable clarity the agonizing problems Canada faces in Afghanistan. Many NATO members, "and especially their voters," tend to see Afghanistan as hopeless and none of their business. Sometimes our troops must feel almost alone. Sometimes Canadian commanders have to negotiate like diplomats to get the promised help of other governments.
Worse, Afghanistan's own government tends to be unreliable when it is not corrupt, and now Pakistan, as an unabashed dictatorship, will provide fresh opportunities for its intelligence officers to exchange information with their friends among the Taliban. A collection of tyrants and their thuggish followers, the Taliban kill not only soldiers but also teachers, doctors and nurses. They think nothing of burning down hospitals. They use suicide bombers and turn every road into a war zone by planting roadside bombs.
It has fallen to Canada to help destroy the Taliban and make it possible for the people of Afghanistan to create a reasonable society. If that can be accomplished, it will be a blow struck for civilization, as Innis said of his friend's death. The Afghanistan war is clearly just. On this of all weekends we should remember the Canadians who are risking their lives to bring a decent life and at least the beginning of democracy to one wretched nation.