Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Something Necessary with Tim Cook

A neighbourly visit prompted Tim Cook to go searching through his cavernous, overflowing library. "You're a historian right?" the neighbour quipped. "Do you have something that I could read on the Second World War?"


On a weekday evening fresh off the first week of school, Tim Cook launched his first volume of Canada's involvement in what has been oft-called The Necessary War. While Cook's namesake -- he of Apple Inc. -- likely garnered more attention with the new iPhone and smartwatch this week, the room at Carelton's gleaming Riverside building gathered a full-house. It seemed to confirm Cook's assertion that "Canadians want their history." Charlotte Gray, the host for the evening, pressed Cook to reveal what prompted him to write this book; do we really need another book on possibly one of the most examined historical events of recent times? Cook candidly admitted the implicit hubris of attempting such a large feat. In fact, affirming that the best scholarship takes both intrinsic drive and a fraternal collaboration, Cook reached out to scholars and academics across the country to seek their advice, and ascertain whether anyone else were planning on embarking the same trail before setting about his work.


History sprouts new branches with the passing of time -- definitive records may be refuted, and certainly complemented as new source material are unearthed, and fresher perspectives emerge from new approaches. Cook admitted that there had been single volume histories of the Second World War by eminent Canadian scholars, and yet in the past fifteen years, much of the personal narratives and stories from the soldiers had yet to be synthesized into a new, cohesive narrative. Notwithstanding the fortuitous timing (this week marks the 75th anniversary of Canada's entry into the War), and the obvious desire to supplement his already acclaimed two-volume history of the Great War, Cook confessed that his endeavour had more intimate underpinnings than the prompting of a neighbour's curiosity. Writing this history was Cook's way of anchoring his period of illness with purpose.


Since the writing of chronological narratives generally require fastidiousness than an overweening imagination, Cook expressed the solace he derived from a methodical approach to his craft. The writing process for him was straightforward, and he showed enormous fidelity to his pre-planned outlines. Rightly so, as they have resulted in excellent tomes. Yet, with this project, his original plan of a single volume got away from him as his desires widened, and only a two-volume project would do justice to what he now wished to convey. Cook is especially beholden to the songs, letters, and personal artifacts -- the spaces that allow for a certain humanity, even humour, of people better than their circumstances to shine through.


Having just completed my Canadian citizenship exam earlier in the day prior to the event, I appreciated the importance of "popular history," the sort of label any self-respecting scholar is supposed to flee. As Gray cheerfully hinted, it is indeed a better fate than being an "unpopular historian," which Cook would certainly rather not be. History need not be hagiography; Cook affirmed that war exemplified "courage, cowardice and everything in between." Understanding what went before, strips us of the hubris that what we face today is comprehensively unprecedented. Alluding to this, Cook answered askance a question from the audience on the current military action against the Mesopotamian jihadi group ISIS/ISIL. Wars to safeguard Civilization are not novel, and the two world wars were certainly seen, and still are regarded, as just due to its resolute opposition to barbarism. It is likely that the current engagement has more corollaries with the Vietnam conflict of the 1970s, mixed in with the elusive telos of these asymmetrical wars against apocalyptic foes.


Cook bemoaned that "Canadians are bad at telling their own stories" with a reference to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The jarring realism of the movie was so indelible, Cook continued, that it displaced the significant Canadian contribution to D-Day at Juno Beach. This again underlined the necessity of a civic seeping of events of great import in order to gain a literacy, which without a healthy self-regard buffeted by a critical outlook is not even possible. Popular history matters, as Cook's own work at the Canadian War Museum attests. And for this, history needs to be more popular, whilst avoiding popularization. The most moving part of the evening was in the care that Cook took to thank all those who had helped him with his work, and for the warm friendship he received during his period of battling with cancer. His work(s) deserve the widest audience possible.