Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

When We Talk About War

Noah Richler, who is the former Books Editor of the National Post was interviewed by Mark Medley, Books Editor of the National Post.  They discussed Mr. Richler’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About War .  I don’t know how much these two knew each other from before the interview, but they both conducted the interview with an obvious friendliness and respect for the other which led to a great event.

Richler's talk was not made of memorable talking points or simple slogans.  Noah was concerned with communicating complex ideas, examining how subtle changes in language can have large ramifications, and exploring how and why those changes in language occur. Just as the man himself is nuanced and hard to turn into a caricature, his talk is difficult to summarize precisely because its values lies in its nuance.

I had never met Mr. Richler, but from what I knew of him, I expected him to be more of a firebrand.  So, I was naturally a little disappointed to find that he was a reasonable and considered man.  To use his own words, he “love[s] the idea of doubt” because he sees doubt as the source of intelligent inquiry.  I would describe his tone regarding the language of war not as angry but as indignant.  He seemed to feel that the shift in language has been illegitimate and manipulative.  He also seems disgruntled that it had fallen on him to address this issues of language and to offer a different narrative. He felt that this represented a political failure: that the responsibility of the political opposition to provide an opposing narrative, has fallen short.


Mr. Richler’s focus was on the the language surrounding war, and not on the war itself.  The war in Afghanistan was always present, but it is our understanding and expression of that conflict here in Canada that Mr. Richler is concerned with. 


Mr. Richler felt that peacekeeping became associated with a wimpy kind of failure, and was presented as a failed vision.  Yet he pointed out that while this image if the Canadian Forces as a Peacekeeping force is still prevalent, it has rather been co-opted into recruitment ads with combat images.  This is a picky distinction.  Not that he is a fan of the Afghan mission, but that he thinks that the language has been shifting in ways that are dishonest.

I think that the source of Mr. Richler’s offence that generated this book would be the oversimplification of how the war has been presented.  Noah Richler is not a man who over-simplifies.  He felt that the war was presented in the media in the same way as sports; where it is assumed that we are all cheering for the home team.  Where every dead Canadian soldier is given full coverage in the media and added to the tally of lost soldiers.  The accompanying list of dead Afghanis is glossed over.  No tallies are kept.  Noah went so far as to invoke the Lord of the Rings.  Pointing out that no one morns the dead orcs, or sympathizes with their families.  While this analogy drew laughs, it was also a sobering moment for me, because this was the point where I decided that I agreed with him, and that we seem to have decided at some point which human beings are more valuable than other.  This is the language of war that Noah is repulsed by.  He prefers the language of peacekeeping, where the dignity of a shared humanity is far more inclusive.


Event Review by Benjamin Martin