Sunday, January 14, 2007

patriotically correct (1)

Did you catch Paul Manson's opinion piece in the Globe and Mail last week? Manson is the former chief of the defence staff, and wrote in "A Poor Display of Canada's Military History" about the Canadian War Museum's interpretation of Allied bombing raids on Germany. The CWM text reads,
The value and morality of the strategic bombing offensive against Germany remains contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and the American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only a small reduction in German war production until late in the war.

The problem, of course, is if the raids didn't much help the Allied cause. Bombing cities is difficult enough to justify without the suggestion that doing so didn't contribute meaningfully to victory. The fact that Germany had bombed Britain cities can suddenly seem less a strategic precedent than grounds for revenge.

According to Manson, there has been "a firestorm of criticism across Canada", The Legion magazine has called for a boycott of the museum and withholding of donations, and the museum's "public image has been hurt by the bomber panel episode."

In a web-exclusive rejoinder, Randall Hansen argues that "Our War Museum got the bombing of Nazi Germany just right." I'll leave Manson v. Hansen to argue it out. My interest at the moment lies elsewhere. Consider what Manson opposes:
Not the Canadian War Museum's existence.
Not its mandate or its overall vision.
Not an exhibit.
Not even an entire panel.
Just a sentence on a panel, and not even the sentence's veracity. Manson states, "museum official claim every word is historically accurate. This may be true, but it is not a logical defence. The problem is not what is included, but rather what is missing."

To sum up, the Globe and Mail published an opinion piece above the fold on its principal commentary page about concerns that a single line of text at the Canadian War Museum didn't tell the entire story.

As director of a Public History program, I guess I should feel chuffed (as in pleased. I've just checked the OED and find it means both pleased and displeased; I'm chuffed). Canadian history is being discussed, interpreted, debated. But what gets me is how Manson seeks to quash debate. He says that the Museum is ignoring the alternative point of view "in favour of a position that smacks of political correctness at best, or historical revisionism at worst."

This would be ridiculous if it wasn't so dangerous. In Canada, military history is the most politically-correct history there is. In what other area do historians face censure if they offer an oppositional or even unconventional interpretation of the past, one that in any way calls into question the motives, methods, or qualities of the people they're writing about? Think of the controversy over Billy Bishop. Think of The Valour and the Horror, to which the present "firestorm" -- considering Dresden, Mr. Manson, a rather unfortunate choice of terms -- is a postscript. It's to the credit of so many military historians that they maintain their integrity knowing full well the trouble it can cause them to do so.

In Canada, patriotic correctness is much more prevalent than political correctness ever dreamed of being.

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