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What Army Recruitment Ads tell us About Ourselves

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This is the third of five excerpts from Noah Richler's new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Noah has personally chosen the excerpts and written a short introduction to each, exclusively for Huffpost readers. You can read the first excerpt here, and the second excerpt here. Tomorrow: The public relations opportunity of death.

When, a couple of weeks ago I suggested to a friend of mine (who teaches business at McGill University) that the circumstances of the modern age make some stronger, less piecemeal form of international governance inevitable, he would have none of it. But we are all tied, I said. Consider modern states' intertwined nature and the spread of economic shocks, computer viruses and biological ones, and issues of security, most of all. He shrugged. The only difference was velocity, he said, but even that doesn't count for much as the pace of our reckoning (of disaster, in particular) had accelerated along with these phenomena, so that the real difference even in our alarm is zero. To a degree my friend is right, of course, it being a symptom of all ages to believe one's present circumstance to be "new." We read history to discover otherwise -- that, as the renowned Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, has noted, Europe was operating at the beginning of the 20 century within a "global" economy every bit as dynamic as we consider ours to be now. Often, the enlightening way to approach the past is to ask now what is different, but how phenomena persist under the cloak of a different historical costume. Did Canadians, for instance, truly abandon their prior inclination towards international humanitarian operations when the so-called "warrior nation" was, over the course of the last decade, embraced? A survey of Canadian Forces recruitment advertisements suggests otherwise.

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IT IS A GAUGE of how seriously the war's proponents understood the task of unravelling the country's peacekeeping persona that the job of contending with it was undertaken on a variety of levels. With the Conservative prohibition in 2006 of the photographing or filming of the repatriated dead, and the accompanying decision not to lower flags for each new soldier's death, alongside other measures such as the government's endorsement of "Red Fridays," the way was being laid for there to be no confusion about the war that the nation was fighting and the likelihood that there would, after the acceptance of the role in Kandahar, be more losses.

This job of national transformation was also taken on in the recruitment advertisements that the DND was using in cinemas in 2006, when not just the war but also the battle to fight it on the propaganda front was at its peak. Russian advertisements from the period have the same production values and veneer as the Canadian ones but do not shy away from showing soldiers shooting at people. At the key point in the narrative, the eager Russian conscripts' discussion of good pay, vacation and benefits is interrupted by a ship's alarm. Off they run, enthusiastically, to battle. Australian advertisements make the link to Gallipoli, Vietnam and Iraq and, when it comes to the feel-good humanitarian work, show women, not men, doing it. British Royal Marines Commando ads uphold the yobbish excitement of a soldier's shoot-'em-up vocation as "something else," pitting the sheer excitement of being in the army against the indolent and purposeless life those staying behind lead, of too much fast food and sitting on the couch watching game shows and so on.

The Canadian advertisements , however, are markedly different. War does not feature. The recruitment ads show Canadian soldiers herding citizens toward a Red Cross truck that could but as easily not be in Afghanistan, rescuing the survivors of a winter plane crash, forest fires and flooding. They show them saving boat people from the Pacific and fishers off the coast of Nova Scotia and clearing a building seemingly demolished by an earthquake.

The titles across the final frames of the short videos read "FIGHT FEAR. FIGHT DISTRESS. FIGHT CHAOS" and, ultimately, "FIGHT WITH THE CANADIAN FORCES." But the tasks portrayed in these advertisements -- of soldiers, according to the thumping narration, "across Canada and around the world, making a difference" -- are ones that the 2006 viewing public would almost categorically have associated with peacekeeping or search-and-rescue work. The transition between the image of Canada that existed before 9/11 and the requirements of the country it was becoming was so smooth as to have constituted a deception. It cannot be forgotten, and certainly was not by the ad's designers, that the basic Canadian impulse has always been one of generosity, of the unambiguous wish to assist in the improvement of other people's lives. The film advertisement needed to acknowledge the habits and fundamental character of a majority of Canadians even as the government was seeking to alter these traits. It needed to be sly. It needed to deceive.