Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Persistent Myths III: Pacifist Canada, Cowardly French, Invincible United States

The Canadians have never fought a war.

 World War One Canadian Army recruiting poster. The thought that an Allied loss would cause Canada to disappear from the earth seems dubious, but lots of Canadians signed up.

Here's a really weird, but very common, one.  There's a sense in the United States that Canada has never been in a war.  A few years back a junior high middle school teacher actually lectured a class my son was in to that effect.

Well, guess again.  Canada fought in the War of 1812, and in its view, probably correctly, it beat the stuffing out of the US in it.  Canadian militia pretty much wiped up on American troops in the War of 1812, to be followed by the British landing in the US itself and beating the tar out of us, which relates to another myth below.

Canada also fought some Indian campaigns, just not as many as we did. And it also occasionally had to repel Irish rebels who somehow thought that launching an invasion from the US into Canada would achieve something.

And Canada fought in the Boer War. And Canadians bled in vast numbers in World War One and World War Two. And Canada fought in the Korean War as well.

What Canada did not do is fight in the Vietnam War.  Because the Canadian government at the time was sympathetic, for some reason, with American draft evaders in that period the myth seems to have been created that Canada is a pacifist nation.  It isn't.  Indeed, Canada has been fighting with us in Afghanistan.

"Surrender" is a French word.

 This intrepid French aviator is not amused that people accuse France of surrendering easily.

This rumor is even nastier than the idea that Canada is a pacifist nation.  It's common in the US to accuse the French of being cowardly.

This rumor seems to have come out of the French defeat at the start of World War Two, but it oddly hasn't attached to any of the other nations that Germany ran over at the start of the war.  And it shouldn't even apply to France.  The French were defeated on the battlefield in 1940 and the government did surrender, but it was being overrun and simply being realistic. Even at that, however, French troops kept fighting where engaged in order to allow the British to evacuate the continent, a valiant act.  A sizable number of French troops never surrendered and effectively disobeyed a legitimate order of their country to keep on fighting.  When the opportunity came in 1943, the French armed forces were pretty quick to get back into the war against the Germans even though it was technically an act of rebellion.

At any rate, accusing the French of cowardice ignores the fact that the French nation bled itself white in the Napoleonic Wars.  I don't admire Napoleon, but like him or hate him, the French troops of that period, which made up in some ways one of the first modern armies, sure weren't cowards.  They died in such numbers that nearly the entire army died in Napoleon's service.

And the French fought hard, if to defeat, in the Franco-Prussian War.  They fought extremely hard in World War One. After World War Two they put up a real fight in Indo China and Algeria, and they've fought with us in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. They fought with the British and Israelis in the Suez incident.  And they've been involved in third world fights, mostly in their former colonies, to an extent we can hardly appreciate. The French have conducted over 200 combat air jumps since World War Two. We've conducted less than twenty.

The United States has never lost a war.

 American naval heroes of the war of 1812. The naval war was about the only thing that went well for us, at least at first, although a war in the Atlantic was highly irritating to New England's merchants who thought about succeeding form the nation and who didn't support the war.  On the ground, we were pretty much a universal flop.

This may be a matter of perception, but  I'll occasionally hear that the Untied States has never lost a war.

Arguably, we lost the War of 1812.  We may pretend otherwise, but basically the Canadian militia wiped up with us in Canada, and the British pasted us everywhere else.  The war basically ended when the British defeated the French in Europe, and then dictated to us what the peace would be. We were allowed to enter into the peace or suffer the consequences. We did.

The US also lost Red Cloud's War. This may be a minor matter in the overall scheme of things, but still, we lost. Red Cloud's Sioux won.

We also lost the Vietnam War and there's no reason to pretend otherwise.  This isn't a simple story, in my view, and it is true that militarily we won. We were not defeated on the battlefield, but the American populace grew tired of the war and in 1975 when the North invaded for the second time in the 1970s, we threw the South under the bus.

If viewed as a campaign in the Cold War, however, which is how I feel the war is more properly viewed (and I'll blog on that in future) the result is a bit different.

Related Threads:

Persistent Myths

Persistent Myths I. The Great Income Tax Bracket Myth

Persistent Myths II: The First Amendment Protects...


LeAnn28 said...

As a middle school social studies teacher, I have heard many of my students say some of these including the idea that Canada has never fought a way (umm, excuse me?) and the US has never lost a war (again, huh?). Where do these myths come from?

Pat and Marcus said...

Those two historical myths seem to be particularly common, together with the idea that the French won't fight. None of them are correct.

I think the myth about Canada is due to two factors. The first is that Americans formed their idea about Canadian pacifism during the Vietnam War. Whether were were right or wrong about Vietnam, the fact that we took criticism from some (but not all) of our allies about the war seems to have permanently formed out concept about those countries and war, even though the fact that we tired of the war and quit the country has not formed our concept of ourselves. So all the fighting that Canada did before Vietnam, or after (and that it actually contributed a hospital ship to the U.S. effort during the war) seems to be ignored. That's our fault as Americans.

But part of the blame is Canadian too. We hear a lot of grousing in the US about history not being taught to youth (I'm sure you hear that all the time) but the complaint is legitimate in regards to Canada. Post World War Two, probably for reasons that have to do with Canada no longer seeing the UK as a country it needed to come to aid every time she called, Canada has done a very poor job of educating its own populace on its military history. According to those who seem to know, the average Canadian is quite ignorant on the country's own military past, and therefore can't really be in a position to correct Americans on it.

Pat and Marcus said...

On the US never having lost a war, I think national pride has something to do with that.

I was in junior high in 1976 just after the Republic of Vietnam had fallen, and I can remember being in a class where a young, male, student teacher noted that the Vietnam War was the first war we'd lost (not correct really, but perhaps close to correct). You could hear the class gasp and the suggestion was not accepted. But here were were in school when the evidence of the loss of the war was only a year old. I myself had traced the North Vietnamese advance in 1975 on a National Geographic map I had on my wall, but I didn't regard that as a lost war either.

Now, of course, we were all young, but that's telling. That view was a cultural view. We had not lost the war, except at home my father, when I asked him that night, held the opposite view.

Combined with that, a lot of Americans are pretty amazingly ignorant on their own country's history, which is something you must confront daily. Teachers can't do it all. Most Americans seem to know of the big wars, such as the Revolution, the Civil War, and both World Wars, but others fade into obscurity, to our huge detriment. And at some level in later education, and by that I mean the college level, I do feel that we're witnessing an educational failure. If we have an uneducated college graduate set, we're really fighting having education at all.

By way of an example of that I once worked with a colleague who, like me, was a lawyer. She was a few years younger than me, which would have meant she graduated law school somewhere around 1995. The film Legends of the Fall was just out, and she raved about it. I hadn't seen it but noted that the Canadian army in World War One provided part of the background. She simply noted that it involved "some war." She honestly didn't know that it was World War One and she didn't know anything about the Great War. I expressed amazement, and she replied "I don't like war." Well, no educated person does, but that's the reason we study wars. My point here is that anybody who graduates from a university ought to at least know of every American war.

LeAnn28 said...

Boy do I agree with you on so many levels. I do confront these issues on a daily basis and the idea that "history is boring" as a friend of mine recently told me when I was criticizing the casting in the recent musical "Sound of Music" on TV. According to this friend, the directors or whomever had to make some changes because if they didn't then it would be a boring story. Oy vey! History is interesting and exciting and we often have to cut out many parts of the story in movies and TV because it would be too long to hold the interest of the public. Another example of the ignorance of the general American public is from several years ago when my husband and I visited Ft. McHenry (famous from the War of 1812), but on this day they were having "Civil War Days." There was a large banner at the entrance declaring this and we were watching a re-enactment of a court martial help at the fort. Ft. McHenry was used as a prison during the Civil War. Anyway, an adult male walked up to the park ranger and asked "What war is this?" I had to hold myself back! First of all, had he not read the large banner at the entrance of the fort that day??? Secondly, by the appearance of the uniforms, could he not tell which war it was?

LeAnn28 said...

Another of the issues I find in teaching middle school history is what the kids have learned in elementary school. I would venture to say that almost no elementary school teacher has a focus in history and therefore tend to perpetuate many of the myths of history such as "Columbus 'discovered' America." As a history teacher, I try to stay up to date on recent discoveries related to history (Richard's skeleton being found, etc.), new theories (Columbus' birthplace, for example), etc. so I can be sure to be teaching my students accurate information rather than simply relying on what I learned in high school or college or even in my graduate studies. Yet, people say stuff to me all the time about how easy it must be to teach history since it doesn't change (!!!).

Pat H said...

I'm always amazed when people claim history is boring. It can't be. History is human drama, everything people find interesting about people, and themselves, is found in history. If people like any kid of stories at all, they have to like history.

When people say that, I tend to think there's one of several reasons why. Laziness is one. Some people are so lazy that they can't muster up enough interest in anything outside their immediate world, which related to another item I'll mention below. That's fairly rarely the reason, however.

A more common reason I think is that at some point they've had a bad teacher. Bad teachers can turn a person off a topic surprisingly quickly. Usually people, if they have a natural interest, will get back t the topic, but a bad early exposure can be pretty damaging, no matter what the topic. This problem isn't limited to history by any means.

On that, while much more common at the university level, some teachers tend to treat a topic (again, any topic) as their own personal possession. I can't recall ever having experienced that or having witnessed it at the high school or junior high level, but it sure can exist in the university level. People who have that view jealously guard the topic as if they own the information personally and can only let it out through a secret process.

That's a shame as I've generally found in my education (BS Geology, with a fair amount of history as I like it, followed by a JD, and with even one agriculture class after that) that nearly any topic is interesting if the teacher is enthusiastic about it and wants to impart the knowledge. Even classes like Calculus and Physics were interesting to me when taught in that fashion, and I'm not a natural at them by any means.

Another factor is that some people are amazingly boring lecturers. Speaking in public is something only a minority of people do well, and engaging people directly is tough. Some folks have a knack for making any topic boring. That's an attribute of their personality, however. Some of the folks in upper level education, and in certain professions even, actually cultivate that style for some reason. Again, it need not be the case for any reason.

Finally, some people are so self centered that they don't find anything other than themselves interesting. That is something particularly common in youth, particularly mid-teens. If it isn't their own drama, they aren't interested. Usually, however, people grow out of that.

Anyhow, people who feel "history is boring" must feel life is boring, and that they are boring. The only difference between history and right now, is that it becomes history when its written down tomorrow.

Pat H said...

On history not changing, what a naive view that is.

Of course, history doesn't really change, but we know does. That must not occur to people, but that is very much the case.

Indeed, that's part of the reason that I started this blog. I was staring off on a historical novel, and it occurred to me how little I know about the details of the period I was trying to set it in. And that's quite common and really makes up a weakness in that genera.

Beyond that, however, it really makes up a weakness in our understanding on any one era or event, even recent ones. I've often thought that it's really not possible to write the history of an event accurately until about 40 or 50 years have passed since it occurred. Histories written earlier than that simply fail to put things in greater context, or assume too much. And details that are routine to a writer immediately after an event are often shocking to a reader decades later. Familiar events, however, tend not to get into print, as they're too familiar.

An example of that, while perhaps a minor one, is the story of the use of horses, by all armies, in World War Two. People just don't know that it happened. But it did, and its significant. Rick Atkinson, in his trilogy about World War Two in Europe, has done an excellent example of bringing that out. Why was it omitted earlier? I think in part because to people who lived in that era, this wasn't news worth noting. To later historians who only relied upon secondary sources, it just wasn't know.

Finally, I think it isn't appreciated by some the extent to which contemporary events, including ones that happened centuries ago, can be clouded by contemporary propaganda. Almost always, the original sources remain to correct it, but the propaganda can in some (certainly not all) instances get written in, and it can take a long time to correct it. Taking a relatively recent example, the history of the Russian Revolution has required re-writing, as stuff written before the collapse of the Soviet Union just isn't sufficiently accurate. Stuff all the way back to the Roman Empire, however, could be looked at that way in some instances.

LeAnn28 said...

Would you be offended if I did a similar post regarding the mythconceptions of history? (yes I'm aware I made up a word...) Wanted to check before I do a similar post on my blog. Thanks. I quite enjoy your posts, though I don't comment on each one.

Pat and Marcus said...

LeAnn, please do post an item like that! I'll be looking forward to reading it.

LeAnn28 said...

Thanks! :-)

LeAnn28 said...

So, yesterday a student literally said, "Has the US ever lost a war?" He was incredulous when I said yes. LOL! But he did know that Vietnam wasn't a declared war, but rather a "conflict." So, he would probably agree with your post about Vietnam being a campaign in the Cold War. ;-)