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Richard Shimooka: We must learn the right lessons from Canada’s historical heroism

D-Day veteran Jack Commerford salutes during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the National Military Cemetery at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. Justin Tangg/The Canadian Press.

While June 6th commemorates the Allied assault on the beaches of Northern France, the landings themselves were only the start of the longer Battle of Normandy that stretched across the whole of the summer in 1944 and was part of a series of Allied offensives in Eastern Europe and Italy that sealed the fate of the Nazi regime.

As the 80th anniversary of this momentous campaign continues, the world has stopped to remember and analyze what lessons it can teach us today. As a defence analyst, it’s hard to escape Normandy’s significance in Canada. But it is not just an academic pursuit; I have also developed a personal connection to the invasion through my wife’s long-passed grandfather. This has greatly affected my views of the conflict.

He would fight in a series of highly consequential battles around Norrey-en-Bessin on the night of June 8th and 9th, 1944 that would hold back the 12th SS Panzer Division’s attack. Listening to recordings of him telling his personal story, and other veterans over the years, has frequently made me think about Normandy’s significance and the relationship between my grandfather-in laws’ account and historiography itself. Understanding how the battle has been interpreted over the past 80 years, has allowed me to contextualize my relations’ experiences in a number of ways.

Immediately after the war, accounts of the invasion mostly came from first-hand perspectives written by the people who were involved. As one would expect, many were highly one-sided, some as a way to manipulate history to present themselves in the most favourable light. But in many cases, the authors were still under wartime secrecy requirements. For example, the Allies’ extensive intelligence-gathering activities, headlined by the ULTRA code-breaking system remained classified until the early 1970s. Thus contemporary accounts, like Winston Churchill’s famous political memoir, completely exclude its influence. There was also a lack of conceptual models to analyze the war effectively: economics, positivism, and even the study of war were all extremely immature compared to today.

Furthermore, there was a deep bias towards the Western Allies and their struggle. The German-Soviet struggle was generally portrayed in a simplistic dichotomy, heavily influenced by defeated German generals who were interviewed after the war by victorious Allies to understand what occurred on the front they did not experience up close. They got a nearly fictitious account of the struggle that elided Soviet efforts, the classic example of which was Field Marshall Manstein’s 1958 memoir Lost Victories. They also helped to whitewash the German army’s role in the implementation of horrific atrocities during the conflict. Then, driven in part by the Cold War motivation of building up West Germany as a strong ally against their one-time allies the USSR, it became widespread to portray the victory on the Eastern Front coming down to the far technologically and doctrinally superior German forces being overwhelmed and beaten by poorly trained Asiatic hordes from the steppes.

Yet by the 1970s, the pendulum had swung back to become an overcorrection, with the histories vastly overstating the combat capability and prowess of Germany in the conflict. The exemplar was Max Hastings’ Overlord, which was timed for the 40th anniversary of the invasion. In it, he repeated questionable statistics like “on a man-to-man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops.” In retrospect, the work, and many like it, was a disservice to understanding the battle and the Allied soldiers who fought it.

In the late 1980s, Normandy’s significance faced greater challenges with the opening of Soviet and the former Warsaw Pact archives when the Iron Curtain fell. With it came a much greater appreciation of the scale of the war in the East. This further added to the dismissal of Allied efforts increasingly seen as an inconsequential sideshow to the main scene of the war. This was the prevailing orthodoxy I was brought up with during my early education and still influences my understanding of the conflict.

Yet over the past two decades, a new generation of academics has emerged who have vastly expanded the scope of the study of the Second World War, and Normandy as well. Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction is widely seen as a seminal work about the economic aspects of the conflict and has been followed by a diverse collection of works that explore different aspects of the war beyond the battlefield. One example is Phillips Payson on O’Brian’s How the War Was Won, which focuses heavily on the combination of economic activity and sea and airpower on the conduct of the war, making the point that simply counting the number of divisions on the ground completely misunderstood the resource allocation of the war, where airpower alone typically accounted for 50 percent or more of combatants’ war-fighting budgets. Broadening the understanding of the war provides a more fulsome appreciation of the Western Allies’ strategy for the war and how it influenced the final outcome.

A personal favourite of mine is Ben Kite’s Stout Hearts: the British and Canadians in Normandy  1944, which is a uniquely constructed examination of how the commonwealth armies operated at a granular level in total during the conflict. While not necessarily groundbreaking, its presentation of how the military operates provides deep insights into how decisions on strategy, tactics, arms, and even medical systems, affected the lives of individual soldiers. It also dispels the myth of German superiority in fighting. In sum, what these works have helped develop is a more diverse and balanced understanding of Normandy’s significance for the war.

All considered, we now have a far more nuanced understanding of the D-Day landing’s strategic, military, and technical accomplishment, and the subsequent four-month campaign that would effectively wipe out the German military on the Western Front.

The historiography of Canada’s contribution to D-Day and the larger Battle of Normandy has roughly followed these trends but with some significant differences. Major histories during the Cold War, like the official government study, downplayed Canada’s role for a variety of reasons. The contribution also suffered similar questions about its combat efficacy vis-a-vis German troops.

However, in the past three decades, a new generation of scholars, led by Terry Copp, Mark Zuehlke, and Marc Milner, has revolutionized the study of the battle and its importance. Many Consider Milner’s Stopping the Panzers one of the best works on D-Day, showing how they were given one of the most difficult assignments to defend the critical sector behind Juno Beach. In sum, these works have restored much of the positive reputation Canadian soldiers had earned during the war, which had for so long been undervalued.

This analysis illustrates why historiography is so important—it allows us to contextualize experiences and learn from them. In 1992 the CBC aired a three-part documentary, the Valour and the Horror that took a highly critical line toward various aspects of Canada’s Second World War effort, including strategic bombing and the D-Day landing. While it sparked deep outrage among veteran groups, the reality is that it hewed not too far from the revisionist thinking that was largely the orthodoxy at the time, exemplified in Hastings’ writings, concerning the relative quality of Allied soldiers.

It didn’t provide an accurate sense of the battle and Canada’s contribution, which is unfortunate as it contributed to a long line of works that downplayed the country’s important military contribution, especially during the longer Battle of Normandy. The prevailing narratives about Canada’s small, ineffective role were often politicized to suggest that defence spending writ large is a frivolous waste and should be minimized as much as possible. Yet works like those written by Copp, Milner and Kite display the immense skill and professionalism that Canadian soldiers possessed.

Even today Canadian soldiers are prized for these very same qualities by our allies. Their subsequent deployments in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and now Latvia have further solidified the very high reputation that was cultivated in Normandy.

The lesson that we should remember as we mark this ongoing anniversary is that we are an exceptionally capable country when called upon. Our resourcefulness and bravery have been tested in the past, and we have proven our worth when the stakes are highest.

Reiterating this national story is paramount. But even more important than the mere telling is translating these lessons into action and practical policy. We can make a difference on the world stage—we just need leaders to cultivate this patriotic persona and prioritize strengthening our capabilities. We have a military that can be admired and counted on when times get tough—we just need to provide them with the funding and support they need. These may seem like insurmountable challenges these days, but looking back at our history reminds us: we’ve already overcome worse.

Neil Seeman: This government wants the rich to pay their fair share. They should start with themselves

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance speaks in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, June 7, 2024. Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press.

‘Tis a melancholy sight to see the corridors of power overrun with MPs of all parties eyeing lavish pensions after just six years of service (plus or minus), while the good people of Canada find their pockets lightened by an abruptly rising capital gains burden. A burden celebrated on Sunday by the deputy prime minister herself, in a press conference so rife with talk of “fairness” that I felt compelled to expand upon this concept of fairness to include our esteemed parliamentarians.

So inspired am I by the federal government’s decision to boost the capital gains inclusion rate by 33.3 percent for unsuspecting entrepreneurs and investors across this great nation, that, in a (Jonathan) Swiftian sense, I today propose, in parallel spirit, that we slash all MP pensions by one-third and boost the qualifying years by this same margin.

I bear no ill will towards anyone who bets the full Monty on electoral ambition, only towards the immoral and gluttonous.

My modest plan would reduce the pension burden on taxpayers and inoculate our MPs against material temptations. And despite my proposal only denting the income of eight hundred sixty-four thousand, two hundred ninety-four ten-billionths of the Canadian population, it would empower all MPs, across party lines, to pay their fair share. Non-partisan and equitable!

Currently, an MP can receive up to $147,000 annually after 24 years of loafing about. Reducing this sum by one-third saves taxpayers $49,000 per pensioner each year. Despite the absurdity of my example of 24 years of service, it illustrates the grave threat to us all of industrious ne’er-do-wells.

MPs now qualify for pensions after a mere six years of performative public service. Increase this paltry requisite term by one-third to eight years, and over 100 MPs may be denied their payouts entirely should they fail to win re-election in 2025.

These reforms must remain unspecified until the 2025 election’s eve. Just as the Liberals have kept their capital gains heist details opaque, with the Loyal Opposition’s stance ambiguous, MPs should agonize over their pensions’ fates. They ought to focus on loftier, selfless matters.

Some may protest that reducing MP pensions could dissuade talented individuals from entering politics. Agreed. For far too long has Parliament been infested with a sprinkling of principled malcontents who, remarkably, believe in representing their constituents. What horror. Ensuring a steady stream of malleable dunces in Ottawa would reinforce our democracy as the obedient rubber stamp operation it was always intended to be. Let the intellectuals flee to the United States.

Think of the costs we could save by no longer compensating MPs for such archaic traditions as reading legislation or attending committees. We could slash the staffing budgets of our representatives still further. An MP pension of $12,000 per year is ample sustenance for a modest lifestyle. Our public servants could reside in cramped studios befitting their humble means.

To those who would protest that we are punishing MPs for their service, I respond: is not the honour of holding office itself the greatest reward? For this is surely analogous to what drives the mind of the entrepreneur: a fancy title. That’s why they deserve a shellacking on any capital gains. Similarly, our MPs must be reminded that theirs is a humble monastic existence, devoid of material temptation.

Indeed, I implore the government to go further and eliminate MP pensions entirely, replacing them with $1,000 debit cards strictly for purchasing Canadian products and services.

In this utopia, MPs celebrated for their frugality would appear on podcasts, join corporate boards at reduced compensation, and invest in businesses perfectly aligned with the national interest, and that national interest is to elect know-nothings. We need only reduce their remuneration to the barest sustenance, and then our more talented representatives will be inspired to pursue other callings outside the theatre of Parliament.

By reining in both their pensions and private sector windfalls, we shall ensure no MP becomes too comfortable in their station. A lifetime of austerity must be their noble burden, ever reminded of the humble existence our founders envisioned for public service. Only then can we extinguish any hint of self-interest from polluting our democracy.

So I say to you, good citizens: insist your MPs accept these modest proposals, even if the details remain opaque until just before the 2025 election. Urge your representatives to embrace personal sacrifice, whether through pension reductions, delayed vesting, or strictly capped post-political earnings. For is it not our sacred patriotic duty to ensure public service never becomes a cushy career path but remains the virtuous immolation our founders intended? The moral future of our nation depends upon their noble suffering.