We all “know” why Canada participates in international conflicts: To protect freedom from the forces of evil. Gwynne Dyer, military historian, challenges this widely accepted narrative in his book, Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014.

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To understand why countries go to war, he posits, you need to understand the “Great Power Game”. Since the 17th century, Europe has been ruled by powerful centralized governments vying for supremacy. Every fifty years or so, once the current peace treaty was no longer enforceable, there would be a new “world” war that involved all great powers joined in alliances. European borders eased back and forth but, in the grand scheme of things, little changed.

Then came the First World War, which was actually the fifth. It came a full century after the last, and so to many it seemed an aberration. But the powers in Europe saw it coming a long way off.

This European conflict posed no threat to Canada’s vital interests. So why did we get involved? The answer lies in trickery, emotional attachment and ambition.

Setting a Precedent through Fear In a clever ruse, Britain used the Boer War to set a precedent for the Commonwealth to come to its aid.  The world’s richest goldfields were discovered in the Boer republic of the Transvaal in South Africa and powerful British interests wanted control of it. French Canadians sympathized with the Boers who were trying to preserve their language and way of life, but English Canadians were keen to go and fight “for the homeland” (in actuality, it was for Rhodes, Beit and Co. and the speculators of the Rand). To get Canada’s support, Britain exploited Canadian fears of an American invasion. Also, we were in dispute with the US over the Alaska boundary. Fighting for Britain in the Boer War, we were told, would secure the backing of the empire. (Later Britain confessed that they would not interfere in an American attack, and they supported the US in the boundary dispute. They knew who their most powerful ally would be.)

Political Expediency French Canadians were passionate in their opposition to Canadian participation in the Boer War, as well as in the following world wars. But English Canadians were just as forceful in their support, and this latter group was the one that would get a candidate elected. Moreover, “instinctive British loyalty” was strong in the business and professional elite, and they would destroy any government that stayed out of Britain’s wars.

Opportunities for Social Advancement By supporting British interests, influential Canadian businessmen and politicians received rewards like British knighthoods, which were powerful tools for social advancement in Canada and introduction to British high society.

The First World War was unlike any other: “the great powers had acquired the vast resources and the technological and organizational capabilities of fully industrialized states.” The result was mass slaughter. Even civilians on both sides were legitimate military targets since “everyone was at least theoretically involved in the war effort.”

The outcome was a big shock to military strategists, who expected the war to be short and relatively painless. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Polish financier, Jan Bloch, anticipated it all: the long, drawn-out trench warfare, the scale of slaughter and the massive mobilization of industrial resources. His famous book, Is War Now Impossible?, was inspiration for a peace conference at The Hague in 1899, “but military officers dismissed it as the ravings of an amateur.”

The Great War changed everything. The psychological effects of such massive slaughter “elevated the war to the status of a moral crusade or a struggle for sheer national survival.” Canada was never under direct threat, yet it too used this justification for its contribution of a quarter million dead and wounded.

The 1918 Treaty of Versailles was especially harsh (one might even say unfair) to Germany. The League of Nations was the world’s attempt to halt further hostilities in its tracks. For many countries like Germany, this meant “the indefinite perpetuation of injustice”.

The League’s “collective security” (all nations joining to repel an aggressor) proved too onerous for the US, which refused to join, and for Canada, which found a way to back out of participating against Turkish and Italian aggressions, leading to other nations following suit. Without one great alliance to repel an aggressor, the stage was set for world war. Two decades later, World War II began.

The extreme right-wing Nazi regime that grew out of the Treaty of Versailles was profoundly evil. There is no denying that fact. But did Britain, or Canada for that matter, have to fight Germany again? Neither country was threatened. “Hitler’s expressed goals were recovery of German-populated territories in the east. “ In the longer term, Germany would have also attacked the Soviet Union for what it saw as “the Jewish-controlled plot against civilization.”

The real reason that Britain and its allies went to war against the Nazis was not to stamp out evil but to prevent Germany from becoming the strongest power in Europe. It was yet another cycle in the Great Power Game.

It seems to me, that if we want a chance at peace, we the public need to ask more questions. Does war repel or foster evil? Might terrorism be exacerbated by the War on Terrorism? The creation of nuclear weapons ended World War II, but has it put the world in greater peril?

Who benefits from war? Banks manipulate the balance of power in ways that keep nations borrowing money to prepare for and fight wars (a.k.a. the Rothschild Formula). Military organizations use war to justify their existence and expand their influence. Corporations win lucrative contracts and access to resources. And for elites, war can be an effective means of realizing ambitions.

I have more questions than answers. I would argue, though, that war unleashes the monster in all of us, and must not be entered without full consideration of all the facts we can gather. An informed, open minded and skeptical public just might be what is needed to resist unnecessary wars and build a better world for all.